Republicans Introduces Israel Anti-Boycott Bill, Seek to Divide Democratic Party

In the aftermath of the month-long government shutdown, both chambers of Congress have returned to legislating. On January 28, Senators voted to advance a package of bills on Middle East Security. This bipartisan package, known as S1: Strengthening America’s Security in the Middle East Act, provides assistance to both Israel and Jordan in strengthening their security. The bills also authorize additional sanctions on individuals supporting the Syrian government, which has been embroiled in a civil war that has killed over 500,000 people.

While this bills package largely enjoys bipartisan support, a portion of it has proven to be divisive within the Democratic Party. A provision introduced by Republican Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) would require local and state governments to refuse business with contractors who support the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The Palestinian-led BDS movement seeks to impose economic pressure until Israel halts what the organizers call “settler colonialism, apartheid and occupation” of Palestinian lands.

Although both parties in the United States have traditionally been strongly pro-Israel, several newly-elected representatives have taken a different view. Among them, the most vocal are Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Ilhan Omar (D-MN), a Somali refugee, and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), the first Palestinian-American woman to serve in the House. Republicans see their vocal support for Palestinian rights as an opportunity to paint the Democratic Party as anti-Israel. The National Republican Congressional Committee has recently labeled the three Representatives as anti-semitic and demanded that Speaker Pelosi and the Party denounce their anti-semitism.

Senator Kevin Cramer (R-ND), a co-sponsor of the bill, called Democratic opposition to the anti-BDS provision a “thinly-veiled attempt to hide the rising anti-Semitism in their own party.” Others such as Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) have dismissed it as a “political stunt.” According to the New York Times, no Senate Democrat publicly supports the BDS movement, and several Democrats have pointed to the bipartisan Israel Anti-Boycott Act, which was introduced last year in the House but never voted on, as an alternate solution.

Twenty-six states have adopted similar anti-BDS measures, and although federal courts in Kansas and Arkansas have suspended their implementation, ruling that it would infringe on First Amendment rights, a new ruling on January 24, 2019, upheld the law in Arkansas, further complicating the issue. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has taken an active role in challenging these laws, citing a violation of free speech. Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) has similarly opposed the law on First Amendment grounds.

On a motion to move the package to a full Senate vote, 76 Senators voted in favor, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. The bill is expected to pass by February 1, but the inclusion of the anti-BDS provision will likely mean defeat in the House. Most likely, House Democrats will pass the non-controversial bills separately from the BDS provision. The other components, especially the security assistance to Israel and Jordan, are expected to pass easily.