Congressional Bill Would Criminalize Americans’ Support for Israel Boycott

Scott Harris interviews USCPR Policy Director Josh Ruebner for Between the Lines on the Israel Anti-Boycott Act.

Forty-three U.S. senators – 29 Republicans and 14 Democrats – have co-sponsored a proposed bill that would make it a felony crime for Americans to support the international boycott against Israel for that nations’ decades-long illegal occupation of Palestinian lands. The penalties attached to the legislation, called the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, S-720 in the U.S. Senate and HR1697 in the House, would impose a minimum civil fine of $250,000 – and a maximum criminal penalty of $1 million and 20 years in prison.The American Civil Liberties Union condemned the bill, stating, “The impacts of the legislation would be antithetical to free speech protections enshrined in the First Amendment.” The ACLU also urged legislators to oppose the measure in the absence of significant revisions.

The two primary sponsors of the bill, Sens. Ben Cardin, D-Maryland, and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, initially rejected the ACLU’s criticism, but Cardin later said he was open to amending the legislation to address the group’s concerns. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Josh Ruebner, policy director with the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights, who discusses growing opposition to the Israel Anti-Boycott Act and what opponents are doing to advocate the bill’s defeat. [Rush transcript]

JOSH RUEBNER: What the bill does is it extends and greatly expands the scope of a 1970s-era law that prohibits U.S. companies from complying with the Arab League boycott of Israel. And what it does is it extends the same civil and criminal penalties to corporations that adhere to this boycott of Israel by the Arab League to U.S. persons whose actions have the affect of furthering a boycott of Israel or Israeli settlements called for by an international governmental organization. So what this law would do, if it became a law, what this bill would do, it would basically have the potential to throw an individual in jail for up to 20 years, for doing something according to the ACLU, for posting on Facebook, that “I support the U.N. Human Rights Council compiling a database of Israeli settlements, products, that I’m not going do any personal business with these Israeli settlements because I don’t agree with Israeli settlements.” That’s the draconian nature of this bill and its authors have been caught trying to imprison U.S. persons for expressing a fundamentally First Amendment-protected right to freedom of speech has caused them to obfuscate the issue a lot and claim that it doesn’t pertain to individuals but the fact that a plain reading of the underlying law would suggest that individuals would be caught up in this dragnet.

BETWEEN THE LINES: The primary sponsors of this legislation – Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland and Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio have pushed back against charges by ACLU that these civil and criminal penalties violate the First Amendment of free speech here in the United States. What can you tell us about their rationale – Cardin’s and Portman’s – for disputing the notion that this is a violation of free speech.

JOSH RUEBNER: Well, I think Sen. Cardin from Maryland, who’s really the lead sponsor of this bill is quite embarrassed because he fancies himself as part of this Democratic resistance to Trump’s authoritarianism, and he’s been caught red-handed by the ACLU, the premier First Amendment organization in this country, trying to put forward a bill that penalize and severely criminalize the act of boycotting Israel. And he’s trying to make all kinds of obfuscations and legal arguments that the ACLU doesn’t know what it’s talking about. But I would much take their interpretation of the bill over Sen. Cardin, who, by the way, wrote this bill in conjunction with the American Israel public affairs committee and unveiled it at their annual policy conference this spring. So this bill is being put forward at the behest of Israel and its supporters in the United States, who are attempting, through various heavy-handed legislative efforts both in Congress and at the state level, to try to quash this growing and successful global civil society movement for campaigns that boycott, divestment and sanction. Sen. Cardin has just clearly overreached and he’s clearly embarrassed by the fact that he’s been called out by the ACLU on his very anti-First Amendment bill.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Josh, review for us the coalition that has been organized to oppose this anti-boycott act in the U.S. Congress. What kinds of groups have gathered together to unite to oppose this legislation?

JOSH RUEBNER: Well, certainly, this is is something that our organization has viewed as a top priority since it was first introduced in March and to be honest, it didn’t get a whole lot of traction until the ACLU came out very, very forcefully several weeks ago saying that the bill was in direct violation of the First Amendment. And so, since the ACLU came out with that letter, a whole host of organizations have jumped on the bandwagon in opposition to it. Moveon, Credo, lots of different First Amendment rights organizations, J-Street, and other organizations as well.

The importance of activists attending these town hall meetings, impressing their members of Congress is that when they do so, they’re finding that the crowds are with them, totally. And this is having a huge demonstration effect on members of Congress who have never necessarily seen such opposition from their constituents to their policies of supporting Israel’s policies of oppression toward the Palestinians.