U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) on Wednesday urged congressional leaderships not to include in a must-pass spending bill a measure that would suppress free speech rights by criminalizing boycotts of Israel.
"While we do not support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, we remain resolved to our constitutional oath to defend the right of every American to express their views peacefully without fear of or actual punishment by the government," the senators wrote (pdf) to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).
The measure is the Israel Anti-Boycott Act (S. 720), a revised version of which is being pushed by Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.).
Kate Ruane, senior legislative counsel at the ACLU, wrote last week that while the new iteration leaves out possible jail time as punishment "for American companies to participate in political boycotts aimed at Israel and its settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories when those boycotts were called for by international governmental organizations like the United Nations," the legislation still represents "a full-scale attack on Americans' First Amendment freedoms," as violators could still face criminal financial penalties of up to $1 million.
"Even as amended," adds Omar Shakir, Israel and Palestine director for Human Rights Watch, "the bill would impose fines on American companies, nonprofits, and their representatives for refusing on human rights grounds to do business in settlements." He continues:
Yet firms operating in Israeli settlements both benefit from and contribute to serious violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law, and the bill would mean those acting to end complicity in serious abuses—the only way they can meet their responsibilities under the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights—could find themselves guilty of a crime.
In their letter to Senate leadership, Sanders and Feinstein note that the measure would extend "U.S. legal protection to the very settlements the United States has opposed as illegitimate and harmful to the cause of Israeli-Palestinian peace for more than 50 years."
"At a time when the [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu government is pursuing policies clearly aimed at foreclosing the two-state solution, it is deeply disappointing that Congress would consider choosing to penalize criticism of those policies," they continue.
Responding to reporting about the new letter on Twitter, U.S.-based anti-occupation group IfNotNow urged Schumer to see the call to reject "this horrific bill" as "what leadership looks like."
"Will u advocate for free speech or bend to the will of Jewish establishments?" the group asked.
2 of the most powerful Jewish politicians are speaking out against this horrific bill, while @AIPAC— IfNotNow (@IfNotNowOrg) December 19, 2018
and @ADL_National support it@SenSchumer this is what leadership looks like. Will u advocate for free speech or bend to the will of Jewish establishments?https://t.co/hFd0XDTeF6