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Why are progressive Democrats backing an anti-BDS bill that was introduced at an AIPAC conference?

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Michael Arria on

On July 17, the House Foreign Affairs Committee will begin to mark up a number of measures including a resolution that condemns the Global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement (BDS Movement). Despite concerns about the bill being unconstitutional, it’s currently supported by 70% of the Democratic Caucus.

House Resolution 246 (HRes246) is a nonbinding piece of legislation that identifies the BDS movement as an impediment to a two-state solution. “Whereas the Global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement (BDS Movement) targeting Israel is a campaign that does not favor a two-state solution and that seeks to exclude the State of Israel and the Israeli people from the economic, cultural, and academic life of the rest of the world,” its text reads. Unlike other anti-BDS bills currently being pushed, HRes246 doesn’t actually aim to penalize individuals or companies that participate in the boycott. In this sense HRes246 has emerged as something of a compromise, somewhere between supporting BDS and criminalizing it.

As a result HRes246 has received vast support from Democrats in the House, many of whom are considered to be progressives. The resolution currently has 339 cosponsors; 171 Democrats and 168 Republicans. The Dems include Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, Georgia Rep. John Lewis, New York Rep. Carolyn Maloney, and even California Rep. Ro Khanna, who has helped lead the charge against the U.S.-backed Saudi attack in Yemen and the Trump administration’s push for war against Iran.

On July 11, the House Foreign Affairs Committee (which is chaired by New York Rep. Eliot Engel, a staunchly pro-Israel Democrat) tweeted out a fact-sheet on the resolution. The sheet distinguishes HRes246 from more aggressive anti-BDS bills and touts its liberal support. “There’s a lot [of] confusion about what#HRes246 does and doesn’t do,” reads the tweet, “Before we mark it up next week we wanted to set the record straight.”

House Foreign Affairs Committee
@HouseForeign

There’s a lot on confusion about what #HRes246 does and doesn’t do. Before we mark it up next week we wanted to set the record straight.
Here are the facts:

View image on Twitter

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The fact-sheet declares that HRes246 does nothing to limit free-speech. “Any individuals who want to express themselves in any way—by criticizing a government or country, or by choosing to purchase or not purchase a product—are absolutely guaranteed that right under the First Amendment,” it says. It also cites the fact that the resolution has support from 70% of the Democratic Caucus, 9 of 11 ViceChairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and backing from organizations like J Street, Ameinu, National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), Partners for Progressive Israel (PPI) and Reconstructing Judaism. “H. Res. 246 rejects the false choice between the right to criticize—our sacred right to free speech—and support for a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians,” it explains, “The overwhelming majority of Congress believes in both, and this resolution is a testament to that fact.”

A joint organizational letter in support of the bill was sent to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer in April and signed by J Street, Ameinu, NCJW, PPI, and Reconstructing Judaism. “This resolution is an opportunity for Congress to make clear its opposition to the goals of the BDS movement and its commitment to a sustainable two-state solution,” it reads, “We urge Members of Congress to join together in a demonstration of broad bipartisan opposition to the BDS Movement.”

The fact-sheet also mentions that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) supports the resolution, but it doesn’t point out that it was actually introduced at an AIPAC conference in March as part of its lobbying agenda. In fact, HRes246 is identified as a top priority on the group’s website. “Israel has long been targeted with economic warfare, as have American companies doing business with the Jewish state,” it says, “Most recently, these attacks have taken the form of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS). Congress has a proud history of defending Israel and American companies from such attacks. Please urge your representative to cosponsor H.Res. 246—a bipartisan anti-BDS resolution..”

So why is Israel’s biggest lobbying organization strongly backing a resolution that doesn’t penalize BDS supporters and is seemingly weak enough to generate support from liberal lawmakers, after years of supporting anti-BDS measures which are much more aggressive?

Much of their reasoning can presumably be found in a recent Twitter thread on the bill from Foundation for Middle East Peace President Lara Friedman. She notes that the resolution was developed after Senate Democrats blocked a Middle East policy bill that was proposed by Florida Senator Marco Rubio in January. That bill contained a provision that would have given states the legal right to punish companies if they boycotted Israel. At the Christians United for Israel (CUFI) Summit earlier this month, Rubio blamed the death of his bill on Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar and other freshman congresswoman:

Last year I filed a bill and all the bill said is, if you are a U.S. state or city and you pass a law that says, “We, the government (of the city, the county or the state) are not going to any business with you (a company) if you are part of the BDS movement”, which is nothing but an effort to destroy Israel economically. That’s what it is. It’s antisemitism dressed up as foreign policy, dressed up as economic policy. That’s what it is. And this was a bipartisan bill and if we had voted on that bill in November, October of last year it would have passed overwhelmingly, of course, signed by the president.

And then the election happened in 2016 and a handful of new people came in and all of a sudden these people begin to oppose the BDS legislation and, in fact, go further in some of their sayings…one of them claimed that the reason we care about Israel is because of “The Benjamins”, meaning the money; an old antisemitic smear that’s been used in the past. And for whatever reason it was the first bill we took up this year in the Senate and all of a sudden it was controversial. All of a sudden, I had numerous colleagues of mine on the Democratic side come to me and beg me, “Can you take the BDS stuff out of the bill? We love the other stuff that’s in it, just take the BDS stuff out” and I’m like, “what are you talking about? We were all for this just three months ago, what happened? And what happened is that there’s a growing strain in American politics that supports the BDS movement. Now they’ll tell you, “No we don’t, it’s about free speech.” That’s a farce. It’s a farce. 

Friedman points out that, while H.Res. 246 doesn’t penalize companies (or individuals) for supporting BDS, people who support more severe anti-BDS legislation will be able to wield this vote against Democrats in the future.

“Folks who support it are going to be called hypocrites if they subsequently vote against legislation trying to fight what they have in effect labeled an evil scourge,” Friedman wrote, “This resolution will fuel arguments that anyone (including members of Congress & candidates) who supports, tolerates, or even brushes up against BDS is anti-Israel & anti-Semitic — and the argument that those who back this Resolution who don’t denounces them as such are hypocrites.” In fact, Rubio has already done this. After the resolution was introduced in March he tweeted, “House Dems offer resolution rebuking #BDSbut won’t pass bill protecting states & local govts who decide not to contract with firms that boycott #Israel. They hide behind 1st amend concerns yet promote boycotts of advertisers on conservative media.”

In addition to providing future fodder for pro-Israel lawmakers and groups like AIPAC, H.Res. 246 also effectively tags BDS supporters as antisemitic. While the legislation doesn’t come out and say this directly, it claims that the “BDS Movement targets not only the Israeli government but also Israeli academic, cultural, and civil society institutions, as well as individual Israeli citizens of all political persuasions, religions, and ethnicities, and in some cases even Jews of other nationalities who support Israel” and goes on to assert that “many of its supporters explicitly deny, the right of the Jewish people to national self-determination.” The text also states that “a founder of the BDS Movement has denied the right of the Jewish people in their homeland, saying, ‘We oppose a Jewish state in any part of Palestine. No Palestinian, rational Palestinian, not a sell-out Palestinian, will ever accept a Jewish state in Palestine.’”

That is a genuine quote from BDS co-founder Omar Barghouti, but the beginning of his statement is omitted from the bill. The first part is, “A Jewish state cannot but contravene the basic rights of the land’s indigenous Palestinian population and perpetuate a system of racial discrimination that ought to be opposed categorically, as we would opposed a Muslim state or a Christian state or any kind of exclusionary state…”

As for the assertion that BDS is purposely standing in the way of a two-state solution, the campaign actually responds to this issue directly on the FAQ section of its website where the movement makes clear:

The BDS movement does not advocate for a particular solution to the conflict and does not call for either a “one state solution” or a “two state solution”. Instead, BDS focuses on the realization of basic rights and the implementation of international law.

Notably the resolution has not received support from Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, or Rashida Tlaib, who all found themselves targets of a racist Twitter tirade from President Trump last Sunday. Trump mentioned Israel six times while attacking the congresswomen and said they should apologize to the people of the country.

Tlaib recently blasted the resolution as unconstitutional and, according to Al-Monitor, Omar might be introducing her own resolution to possibly counter this one. “We are introducing a resolution..to really speak about the American values that support and believe in our ability to exercise our first amendment rights in regard to boycotting,” she told site, “And it is an opportunity for us to explain why it is we support a nonviolent movement, which is the BDS movement.”

The Senate companion to HRes246 is S.Res.120. That resolution currently has sixty-five cosponsors, twenty-eight of them are Democrats, and three of them are presidential hopefuls: Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ.)

“It seems some progressives think that, on balance, this resolution is still a good middle ground that will neutralize BDS as a political weapon against them,” Lara Friedman’s aforementioned Twitter thread concludes, “They are deluding themselves.

Michael Arria

Michael Arria is the U.S. correspondent for Mondoweiss