In this piece for the Institute of Palestine Studies’ blog, Palestine Square, USCPR Policy Director Josh Ruebner traces the origins of the Israel Anti-Boycott Act to a plank in the GOP platform added by the Trump campaign to “thwart” boycott, divestment, and sanctions, and asks why Democrats like Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) colluding with Trump to imprison BDS supporters and further stoke Trump’s despotism.
Armed militia members girded for war and torch-wielding white supremacists proudly waving Confederate and Nazi flags overran the progressive college town of Charlottesville, Virginia, nestled in the heart of the Old Dominion, earlier this month.
Ostensibly organized to protest the city’s planned removal of a Confederate statute from a park, the event culminated in tragedy when a white supremacist allegedly plowed his car into a group of counter-protesters, killing Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others.
Donald Trump insisted there were “very fine people” among the protestors, refusing to clearly condemn neo-Nazis and Klansmen. At the same time, his Attorney General sought the IP addresses of 1.3 million visitors to a website that coordinated protests during Trump’s inauguration, a request since scaled back following widespread outrage.
Rather than take responsibility for his words and actions, Trump has attempted to shift the blame to members of the media. At a rally in Phoenix this week, he accused them of being “dishonest people” who are “fomenting divisions in the country” and “trying to take away our history and heritage.” “I really think they don’t like our country,” Trump bellowed.
These are just a few of many indicators that reveal a troubling trend of Trump identifying with racist political movements, seeking to stifle political dissent, and demonizing the press, all prototypical signs of fascistic tendencies.
As Democratic Representatives push a resolution to censure Trump for his embrace of white supremacy in the wake of Charlottesville, constituents should reasonably expect Democrats to also oppose other Trump-inspired legislations to quash political dissent and impose draconian penalties against those advocating for policies at odds with the White House.
Instead, in the case of the Israel Anti-Boycott Act (S.720 and H.R.1697), which would fine US persons up to $1 million and imprison them for up to 20 years for boycotting Israel or its illegal settlements, 80 Democrats, including some self-styled leaders of the resistance to Trump such as Sen. Charles Schumer (NY), Sen. Ron Wyden (OR), Rep. Ted Lieu (CA) and Rep. Adam Schiff (CA), have joined Republicans in this blatantly unconstitutional attempt to repress the movement for Palestinian rights.
This legislation draws its inspiration from the GOP platform, which at the Trump campaign’s insistence, falsely defined the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign for Palestinian rights as “anti-Semitic in nature” and claimed that it seeks “to destroy Israel.” The platform also called “for effective legislation to thwart” BDS and thereby impinge upon Americans’ First Amendment protected right to advocate for and organize boycotts.
According to Foreign Policy, the GOP platform language on Israel, which also dropped Republican support for Palestinian statehood in favor of a formulation permitting Israel to dictate terms of surrender to Palestinians, “was drafted with not only the blessing but the intimate involvement of two of Trump’s closest aides, Jason Greenblatt and David Friedman.”
Days before the election, Friedman and Greenblatt issued a list of initiatives Trump promised to undertake as president to safeguard Israel’s oppression of Palestinians. Included was a reiteration of Trump’s determination to quash the BDS movement through legislation. Greenblatt and Friedman also maligned BDS as “just another attempt by the Palestinians to avoid having to commit to a peaceful co-existence with Israel,” railing that the “false notion that Israel is an occupier should be rejected.”
Perhaps even more ominously, the duo pledged that “the Trump administration will ask the Justice Department to investigate coordinated attempts on college campuses to intimidate students who support Israel.” This threat was undoubtedly prompted by successful, broad-based organizing on dozens of college campuses, led by chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine, to lobby their student governments to pass resolutions calling on their universities to divest from corporations complicit in Israel’s human rights abuses of Palestinians.
These two Trump advisers co-chaired the campaign’s Israel Advisory Committee and subsequently took up critical posts in the Trump administration. Trump appointed Greenblatt to be Special Representative for International Negotiations, with the Israeli-Palestinian file at the top of his agenda. Friedman eked out confirmation in a largely partisan vote in the Senate to become US Ambassador to Israel.
Many Democratic Senators expressed grave misgivings about Friedman’s suitability for the sensitive diplomatic posting in Tel Aviv given his history of fundraising for Israeli settlements and violent rhetoric against those opposed to his ‘Greater Israel’ ideology. For example, Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) cited Friedman’s “divisive, inflammatory, and offensive statements” as reasons why he would vote against his confirmation.
However, Cardin’s criticism of Friedman has not prevented him from working hand-in-glove with the Trump White House to fulfill its pledge to crack down on the BDS movement. After all, Cardin is the lead sponsor of the Senate version of the bill.
In July, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) decried the bill as a “direct violation of the First Amendment,” reminding legislators that “the government cannot… punish U.S. persons based solely on their expressed political beliefs.”
The ACLU’s opposition to the bill ignited a firestorm of controversy, thrusting the heretofore largely unknown bill into the limelight. After hearing repeatedly from constituents at town hall meetings angered by her support for the bill, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (NY) formally withdrew her co-sponsorship. And Rep. Adam Smith (WA) has pledged do so as well after receiving similar pushback. Other Democrats have committed to reviewing their support.
With a president who revels in support from racist political movements, who desired to use his Department of Justice to seek out the identity of political opponents, and who excoriates a free press, it would be the pinnacle of irresponsibility for Congress to empower the Trump administration with such a draconian new measure as the Israel Anti-Boycott Act.
To effectively resist Trump, Democrats must not only withdraw their support from the Israel Anti-Boycott Act but also reassert Americans’ fundamental constitutional right to freedom of expression, lest the passage of this bill launch us down a slippery slope on the descent into despotism.