Senate passes bill boosting local anti-boycott efforts

Several members voted against the measure, fearing that it violates the spirit of First Amendment protections to freedom of speech and boycott

February 6, 2019 01:42
2 minute read.
Senate passes bill boosting local anti-boycott efforts

The US Senate Session Chamber. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)


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WASHINGTON – A bipartisan majority in the US Senate passed a bill on Tuesday that supports state and local efforts to combat the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement targeting Israel.

The bill split the Democratic caucus. Several members voted against the measure, fearing it violates the spirit of First Amendment protections to freedom of speech and boycott. But Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York led a slim majority of Democratic senators in favor.

The Strengthening America’s Security in the Middle East Act was the first bill introduced in the new congress – which among other provisions such as sanctioning the Bashar Assad regime in Syria and reaffirming long-term defense aid agreements with Jordan and Israel – reaffirms that states retain the right not to contract with businesses engaging in the BDS movement.

While the American Civil Liberties Movement opposed the bill, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee supported it, and praised its passage through the Senate.

The legislation “clearly establishes that efforts by state and local governments to divest from, or bar contracting with, entities engaged in commercial – or investment-related boycotts of Israel, do not conflict with federal law,” AIPAC said in a statement on the vote. “This legislation mirrors a provision in current federal law that protects states directing divestment from companies invested in Iran’s energy sector.

“The legislation has no impact on the right of Americans to personally boycott Israel or oppose Israeli policies,” the group added.

The final vote was 77 to 23. The bill now goes to the House of Representatives, where Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, will have to decide whether support for the legislation is robust enough within her caucus to bring it to a vote.

At least two members of that caucus – Reps. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota – personally support the BDS movement and oppose Israel’s existence as a Jewish state.

Eugene Kontorovich, professor of American constitutional law at George Mason University, is credited by many as helping craft the bill.

On Tuesday, he denied that the legislation curbs free speech, stating it merely gives US states the right to “refuse to do business with people in a discriminatory way.” He argued that removing anti-discrimination protections could affect the gay and lesbian community too, and charged opponents of the bill of being “ready to throw the LGBT community under the bus, just to facilitate boycotts of Israel.”

Ben Bresky contributed to this article.

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