Pro-Palestine advocates blasted the first piece of legislation filed in the 116th U.S. Senate, while critics chided its author, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., for promoting legislation that would protect Israel’s economic interests instead of a focusing on ending the partial government shutdown.
The boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement attempts to cause economic and political damage to Israel by boycotting companies that do business with the Middle East nation and urging the companies to end those relationships.
“They forgot what country they represent,” said freshman Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., in a Jan. 6 tweet criticizing Rubio’s bill. Tlaib is a Palestinian-American who grew up in Detroit and supports the BDS movement. An election night photo showed her embracing a supporter who wrapped a Palestinian flag around her. (Tlaib found herself in the news recently when she referred to President Donald Trump using an obscenity.)
Twenty-six states have pro-Israel laws that prohibit government contracts with companies that participate in the BDS movement. One portion of Rubio’s four-part Strengthening America’s Security in the Middle East Act of 2019 would provide a legal defense for those laws.
The American Civil Liberties Union claims the pro-Israel, anti-BDS laws stifle free speech. In 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled participants in nonviolent boycotts in segregated Claiborne County, Miss., lawfully exercised their First Amendment rights of speech, assembly, and petition. Last year, the ACLU successfully sued Arizona and Kansas to keep those states from firing contractors that boycott Israel. A defendant in the Kansas case was a Mennonite teacher who follows her church’s guidance to “avoid economic support for the military occupation of Palestinian territories” but lost an opportunity to become a math curriculum coach because of her anti-Israel views. In December, the ACLU filed a lawsuit challenging a similar law that Texas enacted in 2017.
“Whatever you may think about boycotts of Israel, the bottom line is that political boycotts are a legitimate form of nonviolent protest,” ACLU attorney Edgar Saldivar said in a statement about the Texas lawsuit. “The state cannot use the contracting process as an ideological litmus test or to tell people what kind of causes they may or may not support.”
Opponents of the BDS movement decry it as discriminatory—even anti-Semitic—and an attempt to undermine the economic stability of a U.S. ally.
Texas state Rep. Phil King, a Republican who co-authored the state’s pro-Israel law, said it only narrowly regulates discriminatory commercial activity. “Texas’ anti-BDS law does not infringe on any individual or company’s right to express anti-Israel views or to boycott Israel,” he told me. “However, that doesn’t mean our taxpayer dollars will be allowed to subsidize discrimination by companies that boycott Israel.”
In his remarks from the U.S. Senate floor last week, Rubio pushed back against the charge that the pro-Israel laws prohibit legal boycotts. “All it says is that if you do, your clients, in the form of state or local governments, can boycott or divest from you in return,” he said. “Free speech is a two-way street.”
During a time of partisan political rancor, the laws against the boycotting of Israel enjoy bipartisan support. Only four state senators in Texas opposed the bill, and it passed the Texas House 141-0. In the U.S. Senate last year, Rubio and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., co-authored the Combatting BDS Act of 2017. It earned 48 Senate co-sponsors: 15 Democrats and 33 Republicans. A House version had 141 co-sponsors, including 34 Democrats.