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'Let's Get Our Priorities Right': Outrage as Bipartisan Group of Senators Pushes Bill to Punish Boycotts of Israel Amid Shutdown

"It's absurd that the first bill during the shutdown is legislation which punishes Americans who exercise their constitutional right to engage in political activity," declared Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) listens to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) during a news conference on immigration reform on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

After The Intercept reported over the weekend that a bipartisan group of senators is pushing, as its first legislative priority, a bill that would hand states more power to punish boycotts of Israel—even as the prolonged and deeply harmful government shutdown continues into its third week—Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on Sunday condemned the legislation itself and urged Democrats to block any bills that are not related to reopening the government.

"It's absurd that the first bill during the shutdown is legislation which punishes Americans who exercise their constitutional right to engage in political activity. Democrats must block consideration of any bills that don't reopen the government," Sanders wrote on Twitter. "Let's get our priorities right."

Sponsored by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the legislation would give states and localities more legal authority to punish companies that participate in the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Kathleen Ruane, senior legislative counsel with the ACLU, condemned the measure as an attack on Americans' First Amendment rights that must be voted down.

"The legislation, like the unconstitutional state anti-boycott laws it condones, sends a message to Americans that they will be penalized if they dare to disagree with their government."
—Kathleen Ruane, ACLU

"In the midst of a partial government shutdown, Democratic and Republican senators have decided that one of their first orders of business... should be to sneak through a bill that would weaken Americans' First Amendment protections," Ruane declared.

"The bill, Combatting BDS Act, encourages states to adopt the very same anti-boycott laws that two federal courts blocked on First Amendment grounds," she continued. "The legislation, like the unconstitutional state anti-boycott laws it condones, sends a message to Americans that they will be penalized if they dare to disagree with their government. We therefore urge senators to vote no on the Combatting BDS Act."

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According to The Intercept's Ryan Grim and Glenn Greenwald, "26 states now have enacted some version of a law to punish or otherwise sanction entities which participate in or support the boycott of Israel, while similar laws are pending in at least 13 additional states. Rubio's bill is designed to strengthen the legal basis to defend those Israel-protecting laws from constitutional challenge."

"Punishment aimed at companies which choose to boycott Israel can also sweep up individual American citizens in its punitive net, because individual contractors often work for state or local governments under the auspices of a sole proprietorship or some other business entity," Grim and Greenwald noted. "That was the case with Texas elementary school speech pathologist Bahia Amawi, who lost her job working with autistic and speech-impaired children in Austin because she refused to promise not to boycott goods produced in Israel and/or illegal Israeli settlements."

In the last Congress, Rubio's bill was co-sponsored by six received the backing of at least six Democrats who are still in the Senate: Bob Menendez (N.J.); Joe Manchin (W.Va.); Ben Cardin (Md.); Ron Wyden (Ore.); Gary Peters (Mich.); and Debbie Stabenow (Mich.).

As The Intercept reported, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) "plans to support the Rubio bill, rather than whip votes against it." If all seven Democrats back Rubio's bill, it will have enough votes to pass the Senate.

Waleed Shahid, communications director for Justice Democrats, expressed outrage at Rubio's legislation, and Schumer's support for it, on Twitter.

"It's horrifying that Sen. Schumer and the Democratic leadership's first Senate bill ('S. 1') allows state and local governments to boycott U.S. companies which boycott Israel," Shahid wrote. "How is this the first priority?"

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