The state of Israel maintains a military occupation of territories that were assigned to Palestinians by international law. Palestinian residents of the occupied West Bank are subjected to the discriminatory rule of a foreign army, while their Israeli neighbors enjoy the full rights of citizenship — a situation that many former Israeli officials have likened to South African apartheid.
The United Nations has repeatedly held that Israel’s maintenance — and expansion — of settlements in the occupied West Bank constitutes a violation of international law. Nevertheless, the occupation persists, as it has for half a century. At present, there is no discernible, diplomatic path for bringing it to an end.
In light of these facts, some American citizens and businesses have decided to avoid purchasing goods that are produced by Israeli companies in the West Bank, in the hope that such a boycott might nudge the Jewish state into compliance with international law. Others avoid conducting business with entities located anywhere in Israel for similar reasons.
Reasonable people can object to this tactic. They may deride it as counterproductive, or disproportionate; or defend the occupation, itself, as a tragic necessity that safeguards the Middle East’s only advanced democracy.
Alternatively, if such people are U.S. senators, they can try to make avoiding the purchase of Israeli goods for political reasons a federal crime punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
Forty-three senators, including Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, have decided to take the latter route. As the Intercept reports:
But now, a group of 43 Senators – 29 Republicans and 14 Democrats – want to implement a law that would make it a felony for Americans to support the international boycott against Israel, which was launched in protest of that country’s decades-old occupation of Palestine. The two primary sponsors of the bill are Democrat Ben Cardin of Maryland and Republican Rob Portman of Ohio. Perhaps the most shocking aspect is the punishment: anyone guilty of violating its prohibitions will face a minimum civil penalty of $250,000, and a maximum criminal penalty of $1 million and 20 years in prison.
The proposed measure, called the Israel Anti-Boycott Act (S. 720), was introduced by Cardin on March 23. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reports that the bill “was drafted with the assistance of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee [AIPAC]” … The bill’s co-sponsors include the senior Democrat in Washington, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, his New York colleague Kirsten Gillibrand, and several of the Senate’s more liberal members, such as Ron Wyden of Oregon, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Maria Cantwell of Washington. Illustrating the bipartisanship that AIPAC typically summons, it also includes several of the most right-wing Senators such as Ted Cruz of Texas, Ben Sasse of Nebraska, and Marco Rubio of Florida.
A similar bill has already attracted 234 co-sponsors in the House.
The ACLU is not amused. In an official statement denouncing the bill, the civil-liberties group noted that businesses and individuals who do no business with Israel for purely pragmatic reasons would not be subject to criminal punishment — only those who do so on the basis of their political beliefs. Which is to say, “the bill would punish businesses and individuals based solely on their point of view. Such a penalty is in direct violation of the First Amendment.”
In the Intercept’s account, the lawmakers supporting this bill aren’t necessarily comfortable with putting people in prison for the crime of allowing their beliefs about Israeli policy to dictate their consumption habits. Rather, many appear to have simply signed their names to a piece of legislation because AIPAC put it in front of them.
[S]ome co-sponsors seemed not to have any idea what they co-sponsored – almost as though they reflexively sign whatever comes from AIPAC without having any idea what’s in it. Democratic Senator Gary Peters of Michigan, for instance, seemed genuinely bewildered when told of the ACLU’s letter, saying “what’s the Act? You’ll have to get back to me on that.”
… Perhaps most stunning is our interview with the primary sponsor of the bill, Democratic Senator Benjamin Cardin, who seemed to have no idea what was in his bill, particularly insisting that it contains no criminal penalties.
It’s understandable that our senators don’t have time to read every bill they sponsor. These people have a lot on their plates. For example, on Tuesday, the Senate held hearings on the threat that campus protests pose to First Amendment rights in the United States.
Correction: An earlier version of this article suggested that senator Bob Menendez had told The Intercept that he had not read the anti-BDS bill. His office says that this quote was misrepresented, and that Menendez was referring to the ACLU’s critique of the bill, not the legislation itself.