On March 31 of this year, an ugly blot was spread across the United States Constitution. Or so it would appear.
The intent of the act is to make criminal boycotts carried out in the U.S. by international governmental organizations against Israel. And the penalties for violating the act are severe.
The law focuses in part on the United Nations Human Rights Council which, according to a purported finding of Congress, “…has long targeted Israel with systematic, politically motivated, assaults on its legitimacy designed to stigmatize and isolate Israel internationally.”
The proposal also targets organizations which are members or supporters of the BDS movement. This effort advocates boycotts and divestment in regard to Israel and sanctions against that country based upon its dealings with Palestine.
Among the signatories to the act are 14 Democratic senators, notably its initiating sponsor Benjamin Cardin of Maryland and including co-sponsors Michael Bennet and Cory Gardener of Colorado, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, and Chuck Schumer of New York. Thirty Republican senators have signed on as co-sponsors.
The other New York Senator, Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand, endorsed the act on May 9 but withdrew her name on August 8—in response to strong objections from many of her constituents.
In the House, a similar measure gained, at last count, 63 Democratic and 174 Republican co-sponsors. A number of generally forward-thinking House members, including Adam Schiff (D-CA), and second-ranking House Democrat, Steny Hoyer (D-MD), have signed on to the House version.
Potential penalties for persons or organizations found to be in violation of S.720 derive from the Import Administration Act of 1970. These penalties can range from a civil penalty ranging from $250,000 to $1,000,000 and criminal penalties netting up to 20 years in prison.
Since the bill was introduced in March numerous entities—individuals, organizations, and print media—have weighed in with a wide range of interpretations and positions.
In what would become a catalyst to the publication of numerous other opinions, the ACLU on July 17 issued a letter very critical of the proposal and urging senators to abandon their support of it.
The letter, authored by National Political Director Faiz Shakir, said the bill “would impose civil and criminal punishment on individuals solely because of their political beliefs about Israel and its policies.” Seeing the issue as a First Amendment concern, ACLU said it was not taking a position, for or against, the effort to boycott Israel or any other country.
The fuse had been lit.
On the heels of the ACLU letter, The Intercept, on July 19 stated “The criminalization of political speech and activism has become one of the gravest threats to free speech in the West.”
On July 25 another Intercept article said some signatories to S.720 were open to re-drafting the wording of the proposed legislation. To date, there have been no amendments to the original proposal.
The Jewish Telegraphic Agency has been reporting on news and events of concern to Jewish citizens for the past 100 years. On July 29, the Agency declared that S.720 “poses a significant danger to free speech”. The JTA also stated that the bill “was drafted with the assistance of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. (AIPAC).” AIPAC lobbies U.S. lawmakers and generally espouses center-right Israel policies.
Not everyone agreed with the ACLU.
The Daily Beast, on July 21, stated, “The “ACLU misread the law…”
On August 17, The New York Times ran an editorial headline suggesting that the ACLU needed to “rethink free speech”. In the opinion piece, by attorney K-Sue Park, it was noted that the ACLU has defended First Amendment issues on the far left and far right. Park took issue with the notion that all free speech issues need to be defended with equal vigor. She criticized the ACLU for successfully suing Charlottesville, VA “on behalf of a white supremacist rally organizer.”
Although there has been little apparent television consideration of the issue, Amy Goodman has covered it on a Democracy Now broadcast. In an interview with Rabbi Joseph Berman of Jewish Voice for Peace, the rabbi said that while AIPAC, “might have a lot of influence…they’re not representative of American Jews.”
So, where do we go from here?
It feels imminently predictable that, short of a loud public outcry, S.720 and its henchman legislation in the House are destined to become law. If there is to be public input, there first needs to be more public awareness. Rachael Maddow and Joe Scarborough need to talk about it, a lot, on MSNBC; Jake Tapper and Anderson Cooper can cover it on CNN. Forget Fox News.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the storm-battered city of Dickinson, Texas, recently tried to tie hurricane relief funds to a promise that recipients will not boycott Israel, a requirement the ACLU labeled as unconstitutional. On October 24, the city council voted to remove the requirement.