This article is about a bill introduced in both the U.S. Senate (S.720) and the House of Representatives (H.R.1697). These identical bills are both very complex and very dangerous to our civil liberties.
They would outlaw “requests to impose restrictive trade practices or boycotts by any foreign country…against a country friendly to the United States or against any U.S. person” (2i). They also outlaw “requests to impose restrictive trade practices or boycotts by any international governmental organization against Israel” (2ii). Note the word “requests.” This means advocacy, i.e,, speech.
This is not a stand-alone bill. It is actually an amendment to the 1979 Export Administration Act. That act placed rules and regulations upon businesses or corporations that are involved in international trade. It was mainly concerned with corporations or individuals selling technology that could be useful to a foreign country’s military or intelligence abilities. A corporation or business that did not follow the rules would be liable to a fine of not more than five times the exports involved, or one million dollars, whichever is greater. But an individual who breaks the rules would be fined up to $250,000 and/or up to a five-year prison term. What the new proposed bill does is take its anti-Israel boycott provisions, and apply them to the criminal penalties of the 1979 bill that dealt more generally with export restrictions. If one only reads the new S.720, one would never realize that that there are such harsh criminal penalties attached to advocacy.
Indeed, Glenn Greenwald and Ryan Grim contacted some of the bill’s congressional co-sponsors and they had no idea that the bill contained such restrictions on free speech (https://theintercept.com/2017/07/19/u-s-lawmakerss-seek-to-criminally-outlaw-support-for-boucott-campaign-against-israel).
A second historical touchstone was the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions (BDS) movement that began in 2005. This was initiated by Palestinians and became world-wide. It urged governments, businesses, and the U.N. to boycott Israel and its settlements in the occupied territories. It advocated for an economic boycott, but also included the arts and education. Israel and its U.S. supporters have become especially concerned about the support it has gotten on U.S. college campuses, where students have pressured their institutions to divest themselves of Israeli investments. The Illinois legislature has prohibited such divestiture by our state universities.
The third historical touchstone has been two recent actions by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). These are specifically referenced in the bill. The bill states that “on March 24, 2016 [the UNHCR] targeted Israel with a commercial boycott, calling for the establishment of a database, such as a ‘blacklist,’ of companies that operate, or have business relations with entities that operate, beyond Israel’s 1949 Armistice lines, including East Jerusalem (Sec 2(3)).” The bill further asserts that “at its 32nd session in March 2017, the UNHCR is considering a resolution pursuant to agenda item 7 to withhold assistance from and prevent trade with territories occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights, stating that businesses that engage in economic activity in those areas could face civil or criminal action.”
Who Is Behind This Act?
The main inspiration for this act came from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). It came together with Senator Ben Cardin, a Democrat from Maryland. Cardin has been very close to AIPAC. He and Lindsay Graham (Republican from South Carolina) kicked off the first session of the annual AIPAC policy conference in March 2015. Of all of the groups that lobby Congress on behalf of a foreign government, AIPAC is undoubtedly the most successful. It gives uncritical support to Israeli policy. In terms of influence AIPAC is the foreign policy equivalent of the domestic National Rifle Association (NRA) gun lobby. It hangs like the sword of Damocles over American elected officials. Offending AIPAC and the Israeli government carries with it the threats of loss of contributions and electoral defeat. It also carries the threat of being branded as anti-Semitic. AIPAC now shows itself willing to sacrifice freedom of speech and association of Americans in its support of Israel. In helping to draft and giving support to these two bills, AIPAC shows itself willing to sacrifice the fundamental right of Americans to freedom of speech. For this reason, on July 17, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sent a letter to U.S. Senators asking them to oppose S.720.
Those of us living in Illinois should take note that the House version of the bill (H.R.1697) was sponsored by Congressman Peter Roskam from Illinois’s 6th congressional district in the Chicago suburbs. A co-sponsor of the bill is Congressman Rodney Davis of our own 13th Congressional district. The support for the bills in both houses has been bi-partisan.
But, as we said before, it is doubtful that many of the supporters actually know what is in the bill. It suffices that the bill is pro-Israel. When I called into Congressman Davis’s phonathon and stated the name of the bill that I wanted to discuss, the staffer who filters the call for him immediately asked me, in a hopeful voice, “Are you pro-Israel?” I said, “why are you asking me that? That’s not the issue. I am pro-free speech and association.” He then replied “Of course, of course.” Unfortunately, I could not stay on the phone long enough to talk to Representative Davis, if indeed I would have passed the filtering process at all. That’s perhaps a clue as to why Rep. Davis prefers phonathons to actual town hall meetings. I also subsequently received a letter from Congressman Davis assuring me that he was staunchly pro-Israel. No wonder that he refuses to hold town hall meetings!
What We Can Do About It
We in Champaign-Urbana are not strangers to the power of those who would stifle free speech that is critical of Israel and its policies. We have lived through the disgraceful firing of Professor Steven Salaita, a Palestinian-American whose angry tweets concerning the use of force against Palestinians not only resulted in his firing from the U of I, but also an international boycott that forced him out of academia entirely. (C/U News-Gazette, 25 July 2017, pp. A1-6.) If he used a swear word in his angry denunciation of bombs raining down on Gaza, it paled beside the gratuitous vulgarity of our present President and his associates in the White House. Given our own local experience with such uncritical pro-Israel lobbying and deprivation of the rights of free speech, it is especially incumbent upon us to let Congressmen Rodney Davis and Peter Roskam, and Senators Ben Cardin, Dick Durbin, and Tammy Duckworth that we will not tolerate the violation of basic rights that are in House Bill 1697 and Senate Bill 7.