US Lawmaker Who Co-Sponsored Israel Boycott Bill No Longer Supports It

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are ready to make it a felony for people to become involved in anti-Israel or illegal settlements campaigns.

Protesters shouting while holding Palestinian flags.

UPDATE: After several lawmakers responded to pressure regarding the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, saying they would revise the bill and amend it so it wouldn't infringe upon Americans' right to free speech, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat from New York, said she is not backing the piece of legislation “in its current form.”

Gillibrand's change of heart matters because she was one of the senators who co-sponsored the bill.

After the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) wrote a letter to lawmakers urging them to oppose the bill by making the case that, as written, it would criminalize political views that contradict Israel's, lawmakers agreed to review the piece of proposed legislation.

Gillibrand's adviser, Glen Caplin, eventually said that Gillibrand had a “different read of the specific bill language.” But promptly after seeing the ACLU letter, Caplin said Gillibrand had invited the ACLU to meet so the organization could discuss their concerns.

During a town hall yesterday afternoon, Gillibrand reassured her constituents she would never back a bill that “chills free speech.”

“I would never be for something that you stated the bill says. It’s not something I would support. I met with the ACLU and we sat down…and why they believe it says it chills free speech, which leaves the bill as ambiguous. So I am going to urge the authors of the bill to change the bill and I will not support it in its current form.”

After critics suggested that the Israel Anti-Boycott Act targeted people supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement seeking to bring about peace and freedom to the Palestinian people, Gillibrand said that while she does not support BDS she believes anyone who supports it “should feel very comfortable speaking at any stage anywhere in America.”

After all, she added, “that’s what free speech is about and I fully support it.”

UPDATE: After the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sent lawmakers a letter urging them to reconsider a proposed legislation that targets supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, legislators behind the bill promised they would review it, The Intercept reports.

Now, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Maryland) is saying that despite having great respect for the ACLU, they “misinterpreted” his legislation.

“A lot of the co-sponsors are pretty strongly committed to the freedom of speech,” Cardin said. “We’re certainly sensitive to the issues they raise. If we have to make it clearer, we’ll make it clearer.”

However, the ACLU stood by its interpretation, saying that violations contained in Cardin's bill would “be punishable by civil and criminal penalties of up to $1 million and 20 years in prison.”

Still, Cardin told The Intercept, he was under the impression his bill “dealt with civil penalties, not criminal penalties.” But as he promised to amend the bill to make his intentions clear, The Intercept pointed out that even if criminal penalties were not to be applied, violators would still face a $250,000 civil fine.

Despite the fine, Cardin insists that the bill would not target individual citizens backing a boycott of Israel. But in the text of the proposed legislation, lawmakers declare that actions “which have the effect of furthering or supporting restrictive trade practices or boycotts fostered or imposed by any international governmental organization against Israel or requests to impose restrictive trade practices or boycotts by any international governmental organization against Israel” would be banned.

Due to how the bill is worded, both The Intercept and ACLU say it's easy to see how the law would have the effect of criminalizing speech.

Thanks to the points brought up by the ACLU, co-sponsors, such as Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D-Massachusetts) and Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York), Maria Cantwell (D-Washington), Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri), and Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) have promised to review the bill.

“They have some legitimate concerns and I want to sit down with them,” Blumenthal said. “The bill may need to be amended.”

But even if amended, the bill would still impose restrictions on organizations that support BDS. So expect to see more clashes between free speech advocates and lawmakers behind this effort.

The freedom to boycott businesses with which you do not agree is part of living in a free society. However, United States lawmakers are attempting to make it a felony for Americans to support the international boycott against Israel.

A group of 43 U.S. senators, which include 29 Republicans and 14 Democrats, is moving to push a piece of legislation that would require anyone who's found guilty of supporting the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement to face a minimum civil penalty of $250,000 and a maximum criminal penalty of $1 million. Under the maximum penalty, the guilty party would also have to spend 20 years in prison.

If this sounds insane and absolutely disproportionate, it's because it is.

This group of lawmakers is led by Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Maryland) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio), and the bill they have sponsored, known as the Israel Anti-Boycott Act (S. 720), was introduced on March 23.

According to The Intercept, lawmakers behind this bill counted on the help of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Israel's strongest lobbying force in Washington.

At the same time the bill was introduced in the Senate, a similar bill was also introduced in the House by one Democrat and two Republicans. In no time, however, the similar House measure has already amassed 234 co-sponsors, 174 Republicans and 63 Democrats, The Intercept reports.

The Intercept has pointed out that among the Democrats who are co-sponsoring this bill are at least three dedicated progressives who have postured themselves as staunch opponents of President Donald Trump and who have long claimed to be against authoritarianism. Still, they decided that outlawing support for a boycott movement was a good idea. They include Reps. Ted Lieu, Adam Schiff, and Eric Swalwell, all Democrats from California.

After both bills were announced, the American Civil Liberties Union  published a letter the organization had sent all members of the Senate urging them to oppose S. 720. The document stated that since the bill effectively outlaws support for any campaigns carried out by the Palestine solidarity movement that seek to pressure corporations to cut ties to either the Israeli government or illegal Israeli settlements, the bill would represent a major violation of the First Amendment to the Constitution.

The group asked senators to keep in mind that the bill “would punish individuals for no reason other than their political beliefs” without stating any support for either party. Instead, the ACLU simply warned lawmakers that the bill is what it is: a punishment for people exercising their constitutional rights.

While it's terrifying to think that even those who claim to be the most staunch defenders of freedom of expression are behind this effort to stifle the speech of those who disagree with a foreign government, it's important that stories like this are shared far and wide so that lawmakers are pressured to answer for their actions accordingly.

Banner/thumbnail credit: Reuters/Carlo Allegri

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