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Striking down the First Amendment: Israel lobby attacks BDS

Ramzy Baroud

Published: Updated:

The US Congress, cheered on by the powerful Israeli lobby in Washington, is waging a war on Palestinians and their supporters. In the process, they are attempting to demolish the very core of American values – the First Amendment.

The build-up to this war began when the Israel lobby group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) declared in its 2017 Lobbying Agenda that criminalizing the boycott of Israel is a top priority.

The Congress, which has historically proven subservient to the Israeli government and its lobbies, enthusiastically embraced AIPAC’s efforts. This resulted in a Senate Bill (S.720) – also known as the “Anti-Israel Boycott Act” – which aims to ban the boycott of Israel and its illegal Jewish settlements in the Occupied Palestinian West Bank.

The Bill has the support of 43 Senators and 234 House members and was drafted mostly by AIPAC itself. Although the Congress has habitually backed Israel and condemned Palestinians - and any politician or organization that dared recognize Palestinian rights, this time it is going too far, jeopardizing the very basic rights of its own constituencies.

Punishment of those who violate the proposed law ranges from $250,000 to $1 million, and 20 years in prison.Anti-Palestinian measures in the US are nothing new. In fact, ardent support for Israel and the complete disregard for Palestinians is the only aspect, which Democrats and Republicans have in common.

In fact, only recently US Senate committee approved a bill that would reduce US annual funding to the Palestinian Authority by $300 million. Considering how quisling and pro-US Mahmoud Abbas already is, it is hard to imagine what else the ageing Palestinian leader could do to gain more favor.

The Bill has already had chilling effects on many groups in the country, especially African American activists, fighting institutionalized racism

Ramzy Baroud

A different story

But S.720 marks a completely different story. It is part of a massive campaign that would, once and for all, make it illegal for even ordinary Americans to be critical of Israel. Initiated in 2014, this process has been gathering steam without much challenge from either major political parties, government or mainstream media.

Since then, 11 US states have passed and enacted legislation to criminalize boycott efforts, spearheaded by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement which aims to put pressure on Israel to end its occupation of Palestine. Anti-BDS legislations of individual states have culminated in centralized efforts by the government itself.

Washington is now leading the fight, thereby legitimizing the anti-democratic behavior of individual states. If the efforts of the US government are successful, an already struggling US democracy will take yet another step back, and many good people could potentially be punished for behaving in accordance with their political and moral values, or for supporting an oppressed nation.

The issue now exceeds that of Palestine and Israel, and touches the very soul of US democracy. The First Amendment to the US Constitution has been the pillar in defense of the people’s right to free speech, freedom of the press, “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

This right has, however, often been curtailed when it applies to Israel. The Center for Constitutional Rights refers to this fact as “The Palestine Exception.”

Committing a ‘felony’

S.720, however, if it passes, will cement the new US status, that of “flawed democracy” as opposed to a full democratic nation that legislates and applies all laws fairly and equally to all of its citizens. Thus, Americans who support a boycott of Israel would be committing a ‘felony’.

The Bill has already had chilling effects on many groups in the country, especially among African American activists, who are fighting institutionalized racism. Hence, if it becomes law, the precedent will become the norm, and dissidents will find themselves standing trial for merely voicing their opinions.

Indeed, the new laws go beyond the traditional blind allegiance to Israel - to a whole new level of acquiescence, where the government punishes people and organizations for the choices they make, the values they hold dear or the mere inquiry of information about an issue which they may find compelling.

On July 17, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) issued a letter calling on lawmakers who signed the Senate version of the Bill to reconsider their decision. “The Bill would punish businesses and individuals, based solely on their point of view.” ACLU said. “Such a penalty is in direct violation of the First Amendment”.

Only one person, thus far, has reportedly reconsidered her support of the Bill – junior Democratic Senator from New York, Kirsten Gillibrand, requesting that her name be removed from the list of co-signatories.

AIPAC’s reaction was immediate, calling on its army of supporters to pressure the Senator to reinstate her name on the list and to “reaffirm her commitment to fighting the international de-legitimization of Israel.”

Dire as it may seem, there is something positive in this. For many years, it has been wrongly perceived that Israel’s solicitation of American support against Palestinians and Arabs is, by no means, a foreign country meddling or interfering in the US political system or undermining US democracy.

The “Israel Anti-Boycott Act”, however, is the most egregious of such interventions, for it strikes down the First Amendment, the very foundation of American democracy, by using America’s own lawmakers to be its executors.

This Bill exposes Israel, as well as its hordes of supporters in Congress. Moreover, it presents human rights defenders with the opportunity to champion BDS, hence, the rights of the Palestinian people and also the rights of all Americans. It would be the first time in many years that the battle for Palestinian rights can be openly discussed and contextualized in a way that most Americans find relevant to their everyday life.

De-legitimization of the occupation

This was one of the aims of BDS from the very beginning. While the boycott and de-legitimization of the Israeli military occupation of the Palestinians is at the core of the civil society-backed movement, BDS also aims at generating an urgent discussion on Israel and Palestine.

Although inadvertently, the Congress is now making this very much possible. The Bill, and the larger legislative efforts across the US – and Europe – are also a source of hope in that it is recreating the very events that preceded the demise of the Apartheid regime in South Africa.

The US and British governments, in particular, opposed the South African liberation movement, condemned the international boycott against the country, and backed the racist authoritarian role of P. W. Botha to the very end. Former President, Ronald Reagan, perceived Nelson Mandela as a terrorist. In fact, Mandela was not removed from the US terror list till 2008.

It is quite telling, and not surprising, that the US, UK and Israel were the most ardent supporters of South Africa’s Apartheid.

Now, it seems history is repeating itself. The Israeli version of Apartheid is fighting for legitimacy and refuses to concede. It aims to colonize all of Palestine, mistreat and oppress its people, and violate international law without any form of censure from either individuals or organizations.

Although the new chapter of the anti-Apartheid struggle refers to Palestine, the US and its western backers continue to repeat the same costly policies they committed against the South African people.

As for true champions of human rights, regardless of their race, religion or citizenship, this is their moment as no meaningful change ever occurs without people being united in struggle and sacrifice.

In one of his speeches, an American abolitionist and former slave, Frederick Douglass said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

The US Congress, with the help of AIPAC, is criminalizing this very demand of justice. As a nation, Americans should not stand for this; if not for the sake of Palestinians, then for their own sake.
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Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, media consultant, author and editor of Palestine Chronicle. His forthcoming book is ’The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story’ (Pluto Press, London). Baroud has a Ph.D. in Palestine Studies from the University of Exeter and is a Non-Resident Scholar at Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies, University of California Santa Barbara. His website is www.ramzybaroud.net.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.