First it was President Trump using Israel as a wedge issue to demonstrate that Republican support for Israel is greater than that of Democrats. Now, House Republicans are using the same tactic.
On the heels of an overwhelming (398-17) House approval of a resolution condemning the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement against Israel, House Republicans are now saying that action was not enough because it was only a non-binding “sense of the House resolution.” They want the House to pass a “bill with teeth,” in the words of Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Suffolk County).
The bill they are touting, known as H.R. 336, is sponsored by Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) and was introduced in January. Republicans point out that a companion, largely identical bill known as S.1 that was hurriedly introduced in January as the first order of business in the Republican-controlled Senate and was adopted by a vote of 77-23. Several Senate Democrats who are running for president — Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders and Cory Booker — were among the Democrats voting against it.
But observers say the chances are very slim H.R. 336 will ever come to the floor of the House for a vote. It has 65 co-sponsors, all Republicans, and Democrats are split on the BDS issue as written in this bill.
The BDS movement is designed to end the Israeli occupation of the occupied territories and, according to Israel, to eventually compel the destruction of the State of Israel. The bill is aimed at boycotts against both businesses in Israel proper and in the occupied territories. Even some Jewish groups that oppose BDS support boycotts of businesses in the occupied territories. And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) does not wish to highlight those divisions within her ranks.
When asked, Democrats explain that this legislation is superfluous because the overwhelming majority of House Democrats are already on record as opposing the BDS movement. In addition, they note that other provisions of the bill have either been voted upon already or are being addressed in other legislation.
Some Democrats are citing a variety of other reasons for their refusal to support the bill. Some say the legislation would violate free speech, others question its constitutionality. And then there are Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), who actually co-sponsored a bill affirming the “right to participate in boycotts in pursuit of civil and human rights at home and abroad.” The bill does not specifically mention Israel or BDS. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) co-sponsored it, explaining that he supports the right to boycott as an expression of “the fundamental First Amendment right to protest through non-violent actions,” but he notes that he opposes the BDS movement against Israel.
All of these moves have upset some Jewish leaders and organizations.
“The move by President Trump and his right-wing allies to drag Israel and American Jews into unrelated issues is cynical and dangerous,” said Debra Shushan, director of policy and government relations at Americans for Peace Now.
“It could be an attempt to paint themselves as philo-Semites to inoculate against racist diatribes and policies that harm minorities in the minds of many Americans, or a more targeted effort to appeal to Trump’s evangelical Christian base and prolific Jewish donors like Sheldon Adelson,” she told The Jewish Week in an email. “Either way, this much is clear: the vast majority of American Jews see through and reject this new tactic. It’s dishonest, contemptible and bad for the Jews.”
Others worry that the Republican pursuit of such a strategy might ultimately “imperil” Israel.
“The genius of Israel is that over the decades it understood” the importance of bipartisan congressional support for Israel,” said David Makovsky, director of the Project on Arab-Israel Relations at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The Democrats and Republicans might not agree if the sun is shining outside, but they do agree about the need for bipartisan support for Israel. I worry that could end. I’m worried what still looks strong could easily unravel — and sooner, rather than later.”
He cited the U.S.-Saudi relationship as an example.
“The Saudis used to believe that as long as they had the support of one party, that was enough,” Makovsky recalled. “During the Clinton administration in the ’90s, the Saudi ambassador to the United States lived in Switzerland.”
But the events of the last few days involving American arms sales to the Saudis are a “cautionary tale for U.S.-Israel relations,” Makovsky said.
He was referring to Trump’s veto of three resolutions that Congress recently adopted that would have stopped several arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Both the House and Senate had voted to block the arms deals — worth more than $8 billion — but not by veto-proof majorities.
Shushan noted that her organization opposes H.R. 336 because it opposes “any bill that encourages state and local governments to adopt legislation which penalizes citizens who boycott Israel and/or Israeli settlements. The legislation is objectionable both because it endorses laws that unconstitutionally restrict freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment, and due to its conflation between Israel and settlements in the occupied West Bank.”
Julie Rayman, director of political outreach for the American Jewish Committee, pointed out that there used to be three topics on which there had been bipartisan support in Congress: Israel, Iran and anti-Semitism. But unfortunately, she said, that is no longer the case.
“BDS has now become a litmus test,” she said. “Why does it have to be a wedge issue?”
Rayman noted that the AJC supported H.R. 336’s companion Senate bill “and I think we would like to see these issues addressed and voted on in the most bipartisan way possible. If H.R. 336 passes, we would applaud it. But we are ultimately deeply concerned about the political rhetoric and polarization around Israel and the BDS issue specifically. It has become a pawn, and a lot of people feel that if we enter into this conversation through advocacy, we are allowing the furtherance of it as a wedge issue. … We want to discuss this issue sensibly.”
Asked what the AJC’s reaction would be if H.R. 336 is never voted on, Rayman said simply, “It will come up again. There will be other avenues to address the threat posed by BDS. This bill is not a silver bullet. It deals with states reacting to BDS but it does not deal with academic BDS or other issues related to BDS. … There will be other bites of the apple and everyone in the Jewish community is well aware of that.”
H.R. 336 is designed to give states cover if they adopt laws that bar their state from doing business with a company that boycotts Israel and the occupied territories. Some 27 states have already passed such a law. In New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2016 signed the first-in-the-nation executive order directing state agencies to stop doing business with any institution or company that supports the BDS movement.
“If you boycott against Israel, New York will boycott you,” he vowed.
Dan Pollak, director of government relations for the Zionist Organization of America, noted that H.R. 336 “explicitly says it is not infringing on free speech” and that “any part of the law that was in conflict with the First Amendment would be unconstitutional.”
He said his group supports the bill but opposed last week’s House resolution because it contained a section calling for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Morton Klein, the ZOA’s president, said his group believes that “a Palestinian state would be a greater danger to Israel than BDS.”
Eric Alterman, a professor of English at Brooklyn College, noted in an op-ed in The New York Times that “recent studies have demonstrated that the BDS movement has had no discernible impact on Israel’s economy. And while stories continue to pop up of troublesome student protests and faculty members who refuse to write recommendations for study in Israel, hardly any significant American institution — government, corporate or academic — has actually signed onto the boycott. Were I a bookie, I would offer better odds on the folks waging the War on Christmas.”