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Criminalizing support for Palestinian human rights

Progressive American senators are having a hard time explaining their support for a law that would criminalize support for the Palestinian boycott movement, BDS.

By James J. Zogby

The U.S. Capitol Building (Upendra Kanda, CC)

The U.S. Capitol Building (Upendra Kanda, CC)

It is fascinating to watch some U.S. senators tripping over themselves as they attempt to defend their support for or opposition to proposed legislation that would make it a federal crime to support the international campaign to Boycott, Divest, or Sanction (BDS) Israel for its continued occupation of Palestinian lands. What ties these officials up in knots are their efforts to square the circle of their “love of Israel,” their opposition to BDS, their support for a “two-state solution,” and their commitment to free speech.

The bill in question, S720, was introduced on March 23, 2017 by Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD). S720 opposes calls by the United Nations to boycott or “blacklist” companies that support Israeli activities in the territories occupied in the 1967 war. The bill further prohibits any U.S. person from supporting this UN call to boycott and establishes stiff fines and/or imprisonment for Americans who violate this prohibition.

There are a number of problems with the legislation. In the first place, supporters of S720 grossly mischaracterize the intent of the UN approach as “anti-Israel.” In fact, as S720, itself, acknowledges, the UN Human Rights Council specifically targets only businesses that engage in activities in “territories occupied [by Israel] since 1967.” The UN target is not Israel, but Israeli actions that serve to consolidate its hold over the occupied territories.

Then there is the concern that by making illegal either the act of boycotting Israel, or advocating for such a boycott, S720 is criminalizing free speech and stifling legitimate peaceful protest.

Finally, the legislation continues to build on earlier Congressional legislation using slight of hand language in an attempt to erase the distinction in U.S. law between Israel and illegal Israeli settlements in occupied territories. While earlier legislation accomplished this by referring to “Israel and areas under Israel’s control,” S720 notes that its boycott prohibition applies to “commercial relations…with citizens or residents of Israel, entities organized under the laws of Israel, or the Government of Israel.”

Protesters hold signs calling for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) during a Washington, D.C., protest against Israel's offensive on Gaza, August 2, 2014. (photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Activestills.org)

Protesters hold signs calling for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) during a Washington, D.C., protest against Israel’s offensive on Gaza, August 2, 2014. (photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Activestills.org)

Since S720 quickly gained 48 co-sponsors (35 Republicans and 13 Democrats) and has been supported by AIPAC and the Anti-Defamation League, one might have expected it to sail effortlessly through the Congress and be put on the President’s desk for his signature. That, however, has not been the case due to the efforts of many, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other progressive organizations led by MoveOn.

While the ACLU has based its opposition on the concern that the legislation violates the free speech rights of American citizens, MoveOn has taken a more expansive approach addressing both the concern with free speech and the fact that S720 “erases the distinction in U.S. law between Israel and Israeli settlements.”

Given the capacity of both organizations to influence and organize liberal opinion, some Democratic senators have felt compelled to either justify their support for the bill or to distance themselves from it. In too many instances, these efforts have been awkward.

Two sponsors, Senators Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) have gone to great, but unconvincing, lengths to explain that S720 does not violate an individual’s right to free speech. They argue that the bill is only directed at businesses or individuals who boycott Israel in response to international entities (like the UN or the European Union). But what they cannot explain is how punishing an American citizen who advocates for a UN boycott would not violate that citizen’s right to free speech.

Cardin, Wyden, and other Democrats who support S720 also go to great lengths to pledge their support for a “two-state solution.” But their pledges are hollow since they fail to acknowledge that the provision of S720 that protects Israel’s settlement enterprise (“entities organized under the laws of Israel”) makes realization of a “two-state solution” impossible — given the location, size, and continued expansion of these illegal settlements.

Even those who have come out against S720 have had some difficulty explaining themselves. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand‪ (D-NY), for example, was one of the bill’s early endorsers. She courageously removed her name as a sponsor after learning of the free speech concerns of constitutional lawyers, saying “…I cannot support the bill in its current form if it can be interpreted as stifling or chilling free speech…So I took my name off the bill.”

Gillibrand, nevertheless, felt the need to balance her free speech concern with her support for Israel and her opposition to BDS adding ‪“I cannot state this more clearly: I vehemently oppose the BDS movement.”

It’s this last point that requires closer examination. While Israel and its supporters make a brave show of shrugging off the threat of BDS, they clearly feel threatened — otherwise, why the hyper-activity to punish BDS? S720 isn’t the first such effort in Congress, and nearly half of the 50 states have been pressed to pass their own versions of anti-BDS resolutions.

In order to build support for their effort, advocates for Israel have tried to portray BDS in the harshest of terms. They have made Israel the victim and while portraying advocates of BDS as “virulently anti-Semetic” aggressors. All of this has been done to obfuscate the reality that BDS is nothing more than a “strategic Palestinian-led form of nonviolent resistance to the occupation and denial of human rights.”

After 50 years of occupation, Palestinians have taken it upon themselves to challenge the world community to act. They have had enough of seeing their homes demolished and lands confiscated to make way for Jewish-only roads and settlement colonies in their midst. They want an end to the daily humiliation of being a captive people denied basic freedoms and justice. Instead of submitting to the occupier, they have decided to boycott and have urged those who support their human rights to join them in their call for an end to the occupation. Their action is as legitimate as was the call of African Americans in the Deep South in the 50s, and that of Nelson Mandela in South Africa in the 80s.

For the Senate to oppose or to punish those who support this Palestinian call to individuals, businesses, and governments to boycott, divest, or sanction Israel for its oppressive occupation would put the Senate in the position of saying that: they support Israeli practices; they don’t want Palestinians to use nonviolent means to protest their treatment; and/or they simply don’t believe that Palestinians are equal humans who deserve to have their rights protected.

And so the messages we should send to senators are clear. To those who support S720: “Shame on you.” To those who oppose S720: “Thank you for your opposition, but think again about whether the problem is BDS or the occupation that gave birth to it.”  And to all senators: “Stop hiding behind your hollow profession of support for ‘two states.’ If you are serious about peace, justice, and equality, stop enabling the occupation that makes the realization of those goals impossible.”

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    1. Lewis from Afula

      The entire BDS argument will soon become irrelevant. The $60 Trillion of US debt is growing exponentially. Within a few years, the US economy will implode into a very severe 1930s-style depression. At that point, defense spending for the US military and its allies will be cut back. Israel will lose most of its $3.8 Billion aid. Of course, this is just a tiny fraction (1%) of Israel’s economy so will have negligible impact. In the ensuing worldwide chaos, the BDS arguments will lose relevancy.

      Reply to Comment
      • David

        “Within a few years, the US economy will implode into a very severe 1930s-style
        depression….Israel will lose most of its $3.8 Billion aid. Of course, this is just a tiny fraction (1%) of Israel’s economy so will have negligible impact.”

        Strange comment. If the loss of $3.8 billion in annual aid from U.S. taxpayers would have a “negligible impact,” why doesn’t Israel have the guts and morality to tell the U.S. TODAY that it doesn’t need the aid instead of hustling politicians for even more money.

        And what does America get for all this aid? NOTHING other than enmity from Israel’s

        In its 2004 report, the U.S. Senate 9/11 Commission declared that “mastermind of the 9/11 attacks,” Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s “animus toward the United States stemmed not from his experiences there as a student, but rather from his violent disagreement with U.S. foreign policy favoring Israel.”

        Also, in its analysis of terrorism, the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board of the U.S. Defense Department concluded that “Muslims do not hate our freedom,…they hate our policies. The overwhelming majority object to what they see as one-sided support in favour of Israel and against Palestinian rights….”

        Israel is America’s number one geopolitical liability, an increasingly heavy millstone around its neck, a useless “ally”

        Haaretz, January 13, 2012:
        “‘Israel is supposed to be working with us, not against us,’ ” Foreign Policy quoted an [American] intelligence officer as saying. ‘If they want to shed blood, it would help a lot if it was their blood and not ours. You know, they’re supposed to be a strategic asset. Well, guess what? There are a lot of people now, important people, who just don’t think that’s true.’”

        Haaretz, July 28, 2012
        “Former U.S. officials say CIA considers Israel to be Mideast’s biggest spy threat”

        “Opinion: Increasingly, Supporting Israel No Longer Serves America’s Interests”
        “Obama’s UN abstention was only the most recent manifestation of ongoing strategic changes that Trump too won’t want or be able to reverse.”
        Professor Brent Sasley, Jan 07, 2017, Harretz.

        Reply to Comment
        • Fred Skolnik

          Picking up random quotes in Haaretz from 1 American Intelligence officer and 1 former official and 1 professor, or even five of each who give you what you want, is not a very intelligent way to understand Israeli-American relations. And by the way it was Obama who gave Israel the biggest aid package in U.S. history.

          Israel with its military might is a rallying point for all the moderate Arab states in the area (Egypt, Jordan, etc.) with whom they cooperate very closely in security matters. Certainly the United States sees these countries as a brake against the spread of radical Islam as well as against the spread of Russia’s influence in the Middle East. Or maybe you’re not familiar with American thinking, flawed or not. And of course there is also a natural affinity between the two countries and a natural response to the Arab threat to destroy Israel and massacre its population, which has been regularly pronounced for 70 years now.

          Reply to Comment
          • David

            Referring to them as “random quotes” in no way challenges their validity or relevancy.

            “Certainly the United States sees these countries as a brake against the spread of radical Islam as well as against the spread of Russia’s influence in the Middle East.”

            Au contraire, as anyone familiar with the subject knows full well, Israel’s belligerent, illegal and brutal occupation of Palestinian and other Arab lands is a prime cause of “radical Islam” and Israel did nothing whatsoever of consequence to curtail Russia’s influence in the Region, e.g., Syria.

            “…a natural response [by Israel and the U.S.] to the Arab threat to destroy Israel and massacre its population, which has been regularly pronounced for 70 years now.”

            Patent nonsense.
            In 1988, the PLO recognized Israel as a sovereign state within the borders of the 1947 recommendatory only UNGA Partition Plan, Res. 181

            By signing the 1993 Oslo Accords, the PLO accepted UNSC Res. 242 and thereby agreed to recognize a sovereign Israel within the 1949 armistice lines, i.e., as of 4 June 1967 – 78% of mandate Palestine.

            The PLO also agreed to the US/EU/UN supported 2002 Arab League Beirut Summit Peace Initiative, which offers Israel full recognition as a sovereign state (per UNSC Res. 242), exchange of ambassadors, trade, tourism, etc., if Israel complies with international law and its previous commitments. Fully aware of Israel’s demographic concerns, the Beirut initiative does not demand the return of all Palestinian refugees. In accordance with Israel’s pledge given to the UNGA in 1949 and by signing the 1949 Lausanne Peace Conference Protocol to abide by UNGA Res. 194 regarding the then 800,000 Palestinian refugees as a precondition for admittance to the UN (after being rejected twice), the Arab League’s Initiative “calls upon Israel to affirm” that it agrees to help pursue the “achievement of a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem…”

            Along with all Arab states and the PLO, Hezbollah and Iran have also accepted the Arab League’s 2002 Beirut Summit Peace Initiative. (In its revised Charter, April, 2017, Hamas agreed to a Palestinian state based on the 4 June 1967 borders.)

            Regrettably, then Israeli PM Ariel Sharon summarily dismissed the Arab League’s peace overture, as did Israel in 2008 and thereafter.

            BTW, As for the much touted 2000 Camp David Summit, working in tandem, Barak and Clinton tried to shove a very bad deal down Arafat’s throat. It could only be rejected. Suffice to quote Shlomo Ben-Ami, then Israel’s foreign minister and lead negotiator at Camp David: “Camp David was not the missed opportunity for the Palestinians, and if I were a Palestinian I would have rejected Camp David, as well.” (National Public Radio, 14 February 2006.)

            The “offer” made in 2008 by then Israeli PM Ehud Olmert was never seen as serious because it lacked cabinet approval, he was under indictment with only a few weeks left in office, had a 6% favorable rating, and, therefore, couldn’t have closed the deal, even if the Palestinians had accepted it. (Olmert was imprisoned.)

            Reply to Comment
          • Fred Skolnik

            The prime cause of radical Islam is the Koran. Radical Islam has existed for 1400 years. But even haters like yourself place the blame on the U.S. and Saddam’s fall.

            Readings of the Middle East based on second- and third-hand English-language sources are next to meaningless. What Hamas’s intentions are, Israel can figure out for itself.

            BTW, Camp David was an excellent deal that would have given the Palestinians a state based on a land swap. Of course it would not have permitted millions of descendants of the original refugees to swamp Israel and take over the country. As long as that remains the Big Dream, Palestinian misery is assured for the next 100 years.

            BTW, there is nothing illegal about a military occupation after a war. If there was, all occupations would be illegal, including the Allied occupation of Germany after World War II. The oppressiveness of the occupation is a dirct function of Arab terrorism. You should be happy that Israel’s security measures have almost completely eliminated the suicide attacks, because, as Abu Mazen understands, Israel’s anti-terror measures become more severe every time an attack succeeds and the Palestinians suffer too. But I doubt very much if you really care about the Palestinians as victims. What seems to interest you is Israel as a culprit.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            David, nice summation of 1988, 1993, 2002 and 2008. Skolnik here is peddling tired old myths. They have been debunked. Here we go again.

            Gershon Baskin:

            ‘”Israel has offered the Palestinians everything but they have turned down every offer and walked away.” Those making this statement go on to say that at Camp David prime minister Ehud Barak offered Yasser Arafat the whole shop, but Arafat was not interested in making peace. Arafat refused to give up the right of return and was not interested in a Palestinian state. The truth is that at Camp David Barak offered Arafat 89 percent of the West Bank with full Israeli control of Palestine’s external borders – the Palestinians called it a sovereign cage. Barak’s proposal included two east-west corridors under full Israeli control, cutting the West Bank into three cantons. Barak did not offer the Palestinians a capital in east Jerusalem, but in Abu Dis, which is outside of Jerusalem, and perhaps some control of the outlying Palestinian neighborhoods. Israel would continue to control all of the main Palestinian neighborhoods in east Jerusalem and the Old City. Barak demanded a place for Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount, which is what led directly to the failure of Camp David. On the issue of refugees, a total of six hours of talks took place in two weeks, during which time Arafat said that there had to be a solution for the refugees and that he could not give up the right of return on behalf of the refugees. This was the essence of Barak’s “take it or leave it proposal.” There isn’t a Palestinian alive who could accept it.’

            Reply to Comment
          • Fred Skolnik

            This was a reasonable offer that was open to negotiation. Obviously Israel is going to put in place security arrangemnts to forestall Arab terrorism and obviously it is not going to allow millions of descendants of the original refugees to flood the country. As for territory, what was proposed was a land swap.

            And if you boycotted the wines and cheeses and then bought them? You are a fake, Ben. The BDS movement that you support calls for a boycott of the Israeli academic institutes where the technologies are developed and the medical research is carried out. That’s your wine and cheese and that is what you are stuffing yourself with.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Honestly, this is not worth replying to. One thing I’ve learned in this forum is that when someone’s response is too insistently dumb and too confused, and when what they write invariably further obscures rather than illuminates things, it’s not worth the effort to sort it out and try to disentangle things. I have to invoke Brandolini’s Law here, the bullshit asymmetry principle, publicly formulated for the first time on January 10, 2013 by Alberto Brandolini:

            Reply to Comment
    2. Fred Skolnik

      Anyone advocating a boycott of Israel and continuing to enjoy the benefits of Israeli technology and medical research is a shameless hypocrite and fraud, with the integrity of a flea. These include your computer, mobile phone, voice mail, email, ebooks, Facebook, antiviruses, the Internet and medications and treatments for almost every major disease. You are like someone boycotting a drugstore and then sneaking around to the back after hours to stock up on medical supplies. If it is indeed ignorance in addition to malice that is guiding you, here is a link to a partial list of what you should be avoiding:


      As for the conflict, the occupation has lasted this long because the Arabs have refused to negotiate a settlement. The occupation is oppressive because the Arabs have engaged in terrorist acts.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        OMG, the absolutely ridiculous “the world would grind to a screeching halt without Israeli tech” argument. LoL. This is a serious publication, Fred!

        It’s like the anti-Semitic “Jews control the world” canard in reverse. “Careful, we control the world so you better not exercise free speech by boycotting our nice little occupation.” Wow.

        Reply to Comment
        • David


          Reply to Comment
        • Fred Skolnik

          Dear Ben. You are pretending to misunderstand what I wrote. I am not writing. “Careful …” I am writing about the moral vacuum which people like yourself inhabit. Still boycotting Israel and still using your computer, email, the Internet, etc? Anyone who does is a hypoctite and a fraud.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Moral vacuum? Who do you think you’re kidding? You who excuse the daily savage brutalities of a totally unnecessary 50-year occupation in the service of an illegal land grab and a de facto apartheid state want to lecture me on moral vacuums? You can’t have any idea what you are talking about is the kindest thing I can say.

            What you say about computers and the internet makes absolutely no sense. You get to commit crimes against humanity and violate international law on a daily basis because you have a tech industry married to a global economy? And the computer I am typing on I owe to Israel? Seriously?? And because something inside my computer might have been made in Israel I can’t oppose it’s occupation without being a hypocrite? Seriously?? We all can’t buy computers and use them unless we join the Likud Party? Or is it Habayit Hayehudi I’ve got to join before I get a user’s integrity certificate? Fred, what on earth are you talking about?

            Reply to Comment
          • Fred Skolnik

            That you are not even capable of seeing the contradiction between boycotting a country and enjoying the benefits of its products says more about what you are than about Israel. And all of this has nothing to do with criticizing Israel, which is certainly legitimate and which can be done without being a hypocrite like yourself. I am talking about your complete lack of integrity. At least have the courage of your convictions.

            As for the rest, you are just throwing dirty words around. Israel’s actions to defend its population against terrorist attacks and rocket assaults from Gaza is entirely legitimate, as was the occupation of the West Bank after Jordan’s unprovoked attack in 1967 and as was the continuation of the occupation after the Khartoum Declaration of “no peace, no recognition, no negotiations.”

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Skolnik, you throw around ridiculous terms like “complete lack of integrity” and “courage of your convictions.” Excuse me? Underlying this is the ridiculous, incoherent premise that my entire life is undergirded, lucky me, by miracles of technology Israel generously and uniquely bestows on the world and I would have to go back to living in a cave and breaking rocks for tools if I were to “consistently” and “with integrity” and “courage” boycott Israel. So if France descended into fascism and I wanted to strategically boycott French wines and cheeses to pressure them economically and send a message, that means that I’d have to search through my closet for any clothes made in France and throw them out and I’d have to stop driving my Peugot and my wife stop wearing any French perfumes because otherwise I am a “hypocrite.” It’s a ridiculous premise.

            Reply to Comment
          • Fred Skolnik

            You’re not going to cover up your hypocrisy and lack of integrity with double-talk. You called for a boycott of wine and cheese and then you snuck around to the back of the shop after hours to stuff your face with it. That’s what it means to call for a boycott of Israel’s academic institutions where the technology and medical research is developed and then enjoy its benefits. Not clothes and not perfumes but precisely and explicitly what you “wanted to strategically boycott” in your own words.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            As for the rest of what you say, in your second paragraph, it’s a collection of stale old right wing talking points, clichés that are not credible.

            Reply to Comment
          • Fred Skolnik

            Are you saying then that there was no Khartoum Declaration, that Jordan didn’t bombard Jewish Jerusalem, that Hamas didn’t fire rockets at Israeli population centers? When you play the fool you give Israel hatred a bad name.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Again, I invoke Brandolini’s Law. See above.

            Reply to Comment
      • duh

        Hypocritical though it might be to boycott Israeli products and still use computers (and even that I’m not conceding on a factual level, since I suspect Israel boosters tend to exaggerate the importance of Israeli industries compared to other countries), it’s an even bigger hypocrisy to pretend Zionism isn’t a segregationist political movement.

        Had the ruling party of South Africa created their own bantustan for Afrikaners called “Afrikanerland” and given a token minority of black South Africans political rights, they could have completely sold apartheid to the same yahoos that believe Israel is a liberal democracy.

        Reply to Comment
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