POSTED BY MARTIN KICH
Writing for the Intercept, Glen Greenwald reports:
The criminalization of political speech and activism against Israel has become one of the gravest threats to free speech in the West. In France, activists have been arrested and prosecuted for wearing T-shirts advocating a boycott of Israel. The U.K. has enacted a series of measures designed to outlaw such activism. In the U.S., governors compete with one another over who can implement the most extreme regulations to bar businesses from participating in any boycotts aimed even at Israeli settlements, which the world regards as illegal. On U.S. campuses, punishment of pro-Palestinian students for expressing criticisms of Israel is so commonplace that the Center for Constitutional Rights refers to it as “the Palestine Exception” to free speech.
But now, a group of 43 senators — 29 Republicans and 14 Democrats — wants 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 the prohibitions will face a minimum civil penalty of $250,000 and a maximum criminal penalty of $1 million and 20 years in prison.
Greenwald highlights some of the many ironies in the almost singular bi-partisan support for this bill:
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 measure was introduced in the House on the same date by two Republicans and one Democrat. It has already amassed 234 co-sponsors: 63 Democrats and 174 Republicans. As in the Senate, AIPAC has assembled an impressive ideological diversity among supporters, predictably including many of the most right-wing House members—Jason Chaffetz, Liz Cheney, Peter King—along with the second-ranking Democrat in the House, Steny Hoyer.
Among the co-sponsors of the bill are several of the politicians who have become political celebrities by positioning themselves as media leaders of the anti-Trump #Resistance, including three California House members who have become heroes to Democrats and staples of the cable news circuit: Ted Lieu, Adam Schiff, and Eric Swalwell. These politicians, who have built a wide public following by posturing as opponents of authoritarianism, are sponsoring one of the most oppressive and authoritarian bills that has pended before Congress in quite some time.
I don’t think that you have to be an admirer of Greenwald or to share his sometimes obvious political views to be alarmed by what he is reporting.
Although I have generally been a supporter of Israel, I will admit that the continued development of the West Bank settlements has never made sense to me because they are, very literally, an increasingly substantial obstacle to any sort of peaceful settlement of the issue of Palestinian statehood. That said, although I have not contributed to pro-Israeli groups, I have also not supported the BDS movement in any substantive way.
So, as a somewhat neutral observer—or, at least, as an observer as neutral as anyone in the U.S. is likely to be on these issues—I am willing to say unequivocally that this law seems to me to be a major and unjustifiable attack on free political expression.
Indeed, in the current political context, in which hyper-partisanship and the most demagogic presidential administration in U.S. history have led to a broad erosion of public confidence in the media, the judiciary, and many other established, democratic institutions—never mind public confidence in simple facts–any attack on free expression must be viewed as risky, if not reckless.
Moreover, in my view—and although I don’t wish to speak for anyone but myself, I do think that I am reasonably informed and politically aware–there does not seem to be much practical point to this bill. I have seen no more evidence of a rising wave of pro-Palestinian fervor among Americans than evidence of the subversion of American legal traditions to some subversive demand for Sharia law.
In short, I think that Israel has as much to fear from the BDS movement in the U.S. as the Red states of the Great Plains are threatened by the Sharia law that they have made a great point of legislatively outlawing. In both cases, the response to the ostensible threat seems to be to be more demonstrative of a expedient exercise of political power than a necessary response to a proportionate political threat.
To carry the analogy one step further, since the Far Right has raised millions of dollars to fight the wholly imaginary threat of Sharia law within the U.S., I would not be much surprised if pro-Israeli groups have raised more funds to fight the BDS movement than the BDS movement has actually cost Israel.
In any case, if the pro-Israeli sentiment in the U.S. is being seriously challenged, that threat is not reflected in the broad sponsorship of this legislation that includes lawmakers from across the whole ideological spectrum. Yet, the penalties that this bill imposes make it much more than some sort of symbolic demonstration of unequivocal support for Israel. We have not imposed these sorts of severe constraints on political expression since the two World Wars and the early years of the Cold War.
So, if this law passes, this post may very well be my last on this matter because I am not sure that my professional liability insurance will cover the enormous fines and if I have another 20 years left, I don’t want to spend them in a federal prison.
And if you think that the preceding remarks seem extremely glib, then you should also be wondering, as I am, whether the sponsors of this law have themselves considered the real-world implications of the severe penalties that it imposes on U.S. citizens simply for supporting a boycott of a foreign nation. Someone convicted under this statute could end up serving a sentence as lengthy as, or lengthier than, the sentences served by many murderers. In the murderers’ cases, their victims remain forever dead. There is simply no equivalent crime in choosing personally to support any kind of boycott.
Perhaps, over the next two decades, the seemingly impossible will occur and there will be some lasting and mutually satisfactory resolution of the protracted conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Will anyone then remember or care if some BDS supporters are still serving sentences? Some of those who were imprisoned for questioning the purpose and morality of the U.S. entry into the First World War, the centennial of which we are marking this year, were still serving out their sentences when Fascism and Nazism were already seriously challenging the “lasting peace” ostensibly guaranteed by “the war to end all wars.”
It does seem very possible that this law will end up being decidedly counterproductive–doing more to undermine than to shore up American support for Israel.
Greenwald’s complete article can be found at: https://theintercept.com/2017/07/19/u-s-lawmakers-seek-to-criminally-outlaw-support-for-boycott-campaign-against-israel/.