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The Senate's First Bill of 2019 Shows Just How Beholden It Is to Israel

(cater87 / Flickr Creative Commons)

The partial federal government shutdown is entering its third week. Government workers, furloughed or working without pay, are making stressful decisions. “For me, it’s do I consider a car payment or do I pay the gas bill or the phone bill?” Tomas Kaselionis, who works for FEMA, told the New York Times last week.

Against this backdrop, the Senate, which remains open, has announced its first bill of the session. However, as Ryan Grim and Glenn Greenwald write in The Intercept, S.1 is “not a bill to open the government.”

It also does not address immigration, the economy or any other of the critical issues affecting Americans’ lives. Instead, Grim and Greenwald continue, “S.1 will be a compendium containing a handful of foreign policy-related measures, the main one of which is a provision — with Florida’s GOP Sen. Marco Rubio as a lead sponsor — to defend the Israeli government.” The bill gives state and local governments broad authority to boycott companies that are participating in the Palestinian-led Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which targets Israeli products and services.

In the U.S., 26 states already have laws that punish various entities for participating in boycotts, and 13 states have similar bills pending. Rubio’s bill, The Intercept writes, “is designed to strengthen the legal basis to defend those Israel-protecting laws from constitutional challenge.”

While S.1 was ostensibly written with companies and governments in mind, Grim and Greenwald point out that anti-BDS bills can still, intentionally or not, target individuals:

[This is] because individual contractors often work for state or local governments under the auspices of a sole proprietorship or some other business entity. 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.

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This is not the first time the Senate has tried to attach anti-BDS language into a larger bill.  At the end of the last Congress, The Hill wrote, Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., and other leaders were “scrambling at the eleventh hour to include controversial language in a year-end spending bill prohibiting U.S. companies from joining boycotts of Israel launched by the United Nations or similar groups.” It would have, according to The Intercept, criminalized BDS participation.

Defenders of that bill, The Hill explained, said it would only “expand an existing prohibition on companies participating in anti-Israel boycotts led by foreign governments to those orchestrated by international governmental organizations (IGOs).” A Cardin spokesperson told The Hill, “We don’t want our companies to be forced into implementing other countries’ decisions to boycott U.S. allies.”

The ACLU disagreed, writing a letter to the Senate saying, “The impacts of the legislation would be antithetical to free speech protections enshrined in the First Amendment.” Following the letter and pressure from additional advocates, prominent sponsors dropped their support and the bill stalled.

Rubio’s bill has Democratic supporters, including Cardin, Bob Menendez of New Jersey, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Ron Wyden of Oregon, and Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow, both of Michigan. Sources tell The Intercept that Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., also supports the bill, though Schumer’s office declined to comment on those reports.

The ACLU is again challenging such a bill. “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,” ACLU senior legislative counsel Kathleen Ruane said in a statement to The Intercept. She continued, “We therefore urge senators to vote no on the Combatting BDS Act.”

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