Outrage after US Senate passes 'unconstitutional pro-Israel' bill criminalising BDS

Outrage after US Senate passes 'unconstitutional pro-Israel' bill criminalising BDS
The US Senate approved the Middle East Security bill on Tuesday, despite the fact rights groups say it violates the First Amendment by attempting to ban the protest movement BDS.
4 min read
06 February, 2019
Americans protest the anti-BDS law in New York City [Getty]

Civil rights advocates across a broad spectrum have vented their outrage after the US Senate on Tuesday passed a measure that would criminalise politically motivated boycotts of Israel across the US, saying that such a law violates the constitution.

The Middle East security bill, which among other things aims to combat the global BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement that denounces Israel's occupation of Palestinian territories and pressures companies that do business with the Jewish state, passed in the senate by 77 votes to 23.

Republican Senator Marco Rubio, the measure's sponsor, said he is pushing back against what he described as a "campaign of discriminatory economic warfare against Israel".

The law would allow a state or local government "to divest from entities that engage in" BDS activities targeting Israel or persons or companies doing business in Israel.

Read more: 'Vague and fabricated': BDS movement slams Israeli accusations of 'terror links'

However the constitution's First Amendment stipulates that Congress should not make any law that would prohibit free speech or the right to petition the government for change.

The anti-BDS bill, known also as S-1, also authorises arms transfers to Israel, expands military cooperation with Jordan and slaps new sanctions on Syria.

All but one Republican voted in favour of the bill. The Democrats were split, 25 for and 22 against, highlighting an internal party divide on the issue.

Notably however, all but one of the Senate's likely Democratic presidential contenders - Cory Booker, Sherrod Brown, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren - voted against the legislation.

The bill will now go to the House of Representatives, where it is less likely to pass due to the new Democratic majority, several of whom have expressed fierce opposition, warning it could suppress constitutionally protected free speech.

They include the first two Muslim women to serve in the House, Palestinian-American Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, a former Somali refugee. Both were elected in November and are part of an ascendant wing of progressives shaking up the Democratic old guard.

Despite the fact that many Democratic stalwarts are allies of Israel and object to BDS, they have vehemently opposed the resolution.

Former presidential hopeful Senator Bernie Sanders tweeted: "While I do not support the BDS movement, we must defend every American’s constitutional right to peacefully engage in political activity. It is clear to me that S.1 would violate Americans’ First Amendment rights."

The American Civil Liberties Union, who supports the right to boycott, also came out against the measure: "The Senate just passed a bill that would encourage states to adopt unconstitutional laws aimed at suppressing boycotts of Israel", it tweeted, "It's a sad day when the Senate chooses politics over the Constitution and tramples on the First Amendment rights of all Americans."

Dr Hilary Aked, whose PhD examined Israel and the Zionist movement's response to the BDS movement, told The New Arab: "The BDS movement emerged precisely because the US government and others have long granted Israel impunity to violate international law and Palestinians' fundamental rights, so this comes as no surprise. Western governments also sought to protect apartheid South Africa from a transnational boycott movement and now they are doing the same for apartheid Israel."

"While this is clearly an attempt to repress the movement, it's also a sign of just how much it has grown and how effective it is. Many Democratic senators opposed this bill, showing that Palestine is becoming a partisan issue, and for the first time ever, the House contains openly pro-BDS representatives, so this bill may yet be scuppered," they added.

On a positive note, even if the bill passes, it would be difficult to enforce, according to Dr. Aked.

"Top-down coercive measures will only achieve so much against a grassroots, bottom-up movement whose fundamental power lies in its moral authority in supporting freedom, justice and equality."