Rubio, Nelson, Wasserman Schultz Want to Make It a Felony to Boycott Israel

Rubio, Nelson, Wasserman Schultz Want to Make It a Felony to Boycott Israel
Gage Skidmore / Flickr
Good news! We've finally found a bipartisan issue that has united Democrats and Republicans across the state of Florida! Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen have signed on to support a bill alongside Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson and Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Ted Deutch, Alcee Hastings, Frederica Wilson, and other Florida Democrats.

Unfortunately, they've all rallied around violating the First Amendment by making it a felony for people or companies to support a United Nations-led call to boycott certain businesses within the state of Israel. People caught supporting similar Israeli boycotts could face anywhere from a $250,000 fine to 20 years in jail. The bill was reportedly drafted by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), one of the most powerful lobbying groups in Washington.

The American Civil Liberties Union is now begging Congress not to pass the law by explaining that Americans have a basic First Amendment right to criticize Israel.

The bill "aims to punish people who support international boycotts that are meant to protest Israeli government policies, while leaving those who agree with Israeli government policies free from the threat of sanctions for engaging in the exact same behavior," the ACLU warns. "Whatever their merits, such boycotts rightly enjoy First Amendment protection. By penalizing those who support international boycotts of Israel, S.720 seeks only to punish the exercise of constitutional rights."

The bill's text says the measure was written in response to the UN Human Rights Council's call to boycott Israeli companies that operate in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Rather than agreeing with the UN and the multitude of nongovernmental watchdogs that claim Israeli forces subject Palestinians to mass human-rights violations, Florida's political class instead wants to literally outlaw agreeing with the United Nations.

"The United Nations Human Rights Council (in this section referred to as the “UNHRC”) has long targeted Israel with systematic, politically motivated, assaults on its legitimacy designed to stigmatize and isolate Israel internationally," the bill reads.
The bill also specifically says agreeing with any boycott proposed by the European Union would also become a felony. And, even if a person or business doesn't specifically announce they are complying with a specific boycott, analysts warn that people could still be prosecuted if their actions are perceived to "have the effect of furthering or supporting" a boycott.

While the bill might seem like a blatant constitutional violation — regardless of how you feel about Israel, the First Amendment gives you a right to boycott any country you want — the plan has still achieved huge, bipartisan support in both chambers of Congress. So far, 43 Senators – 29 Republicans and 14 Democrats — have signed on to a version of the bill, while 234 cosponsors — 174 Republicans and 63 Democrats — have attached their names to a House version of the measure. Both bills were proposed on March 23.

As the Intercept noted yesterday, many of the Democrats who have signed on to the bill — including Florida's Nelson and Wasserman Schultz — have pitched themselves as the so-called #Resistance to Trump's creeping right-wing nationalism. But they've apparently got no issue with cracking down on free speech when it suits their own interests.

The same goes for Rubio, who has embarked on a months-long quest to crack down on Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro's repressive regime, but apparently sees no ideological conflict in (literally) policing political speech in his own nation.

Oddly, the only South Florida representatives who haven't signed on to the bill yet are Carlos Curbelo and Mario Diaz-Balart, who belong to the staunchly pro-Israel Republican Party.

The ACLU says it takes no position on the merits of boycotting Israel — the group simply says the First Amendment clearly gives people the right to speak freely about any government they choose. The bill would amend the Export Administration Act of 1979 and the Export-Import Bank Act of 1945, which already make it illegal to comply with boycotts of U.S. allies orchestrated by "international governmental organizations." (The bill was largely drafted to outlaw American companies' support for the Arab League's own Israeli boycott, which has existed since 1945.) The U.S. Department of Commerce currently maintains an entire Office of Antiboycott Compliance, which very specifically says it works to prevent companies from complying with the Arab League boycott.

The new bill would expand those laws to prohibit supporting any international boycotts against Israel. The ACLU warns the law would also criminalize "simply requesting information about such boycotts."

"In short, the bill would punish businesses and individuals based solely on their point of view," the ACLU warns. "Such a penalty is in direct violation of the First Amendment."

The bill comes amid growing international support for the Israeli "Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions" (BDS) movement, which protests the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and the Israeli military's documented mistreatment of Palestinian people. BDS supporters argue that Israeli forces have created an apartheid state. Nongovernmental human-rights organizations including Amnesty International say that "torture and other ill-treatment of detainees remained rife and was committed with impunity" in the Occupied Territories.

It's important to note that there's significant criticism of these actions within Israel: The left-leaning Haaretz, the oldest news organization in Israel, has repeatedly called its own nation an "apartheid" state and called for an end to the Palestinian occupation. The BDS movement has grown in recent years, especially as current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's administration has pushed further to the political right and pushed to build the first new settlements in the West Bank in 25 years.

There is, of course, legitimate criticism of the BDS movement itself — some on the left argue it's counterproductive and only hurts perfectly legitimate Israeli businesses, while in other parts of the world it has become an excuse for anti-Semitic nationalists to rally around. The Anti-Defamation League claims the BDS movement is aimed at delegitimizing Israel as a nation and not finding a two-state solution to the problem.

But the issue with the new bill in Washington isn't whether BDS is a good movement or not — it's whether criminalizing the basic act of joining the boycott is OK. South Florida's entire political class is apparently cool with making it illegal to criticize Netanyahu, the U.S.'s biggest ally in the Middle East. AIPAC and pro-Israeli supporters in Congress have couched the bill as a way to crack down on "discrimination" against Jewish people, but the ACLU and free-speech advocates say the bill is actually just a way to criminalize speech that's critical of a nation-state's human-rights record.
It's neither a new nor surprising phenomenon that South Florida's alleged #Resistance in government is wholly willing to cooperate with the GOP on this issue. In fact, when it comes to Middle Eastern military aggression, Nelson, Wasserman Schultz, and Deutch have seemed giddy to hop on to support the Trump Administration's bombing raids: When Trump launched cruise missiles at Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's airfields in April, all three Democrats — who have spent the last two years calling Trump a fascist lunatic — announced their support for the campaign in less than 24 hours.

When it comes to Israel, Deutch, who represents portions of Broward and Palm Beach Counties, sits farther right than any other Democrat in South Florida. He has called for moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, a plan pushed by the Israeli hard-right that international observers warn could provoke violence and possibly destabilize multiple nearby nations. That plan is so controversial that even Donald Trump has so far backed off from implementing it. But that hasn't stopped Deutch from continuing to call for the move:
 In March 2016, the Florida legislature passed its own anti-BDS crackdown, which withheld certain state funds to companies that publicly support Israeli boycotts. The measure passed with overwhelming bipartisan support.
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.