Editorial: Anti-boycott bill threatens free speech

  • Congressman Richard Neal, shown here speaking in Springfield.  GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Published: 8/8/2017 11:33:36 AM

The American Civil Liberties Union considers the proposed Israeli Anti-Boycott Act, which is working its way through Congress, a “serious threat to free speech.” We agree.

The act targets an international effort to boycott businesses in Israel and occupied Palestinian territories to pressure Israel to comply with international law and to stop the further construction of settlements on occupied Palestinian lands.

The bill would threaten large fines and prison time for businesses and individuals who don’t buy from Israeli companies operating in occupied Palestinian territories, and who make statements, including social media posts, saying that they are doing so in order to boycott.

The bill would make it a felony to support the international boycott. Those found in violation would be subject to a minimum civil penalty of $250,000, a maximum criminal penalty of $1 million and 20 years in prison, according to the ACLU’s analysis.

The global “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions” movement, or BDS, began after Palestinian civil society organizations in 2005 called for a boycott to pressure Israel over its treatment of Palestinians. Among the movement’s goals: ending the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and Golan Heights; equality under Israeli law for Arab citizens; and stopping the expansion of almost exclusively Jewish settlements in Israeli-occupied territories, which the United Nations says is a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

Detractors say that BDS unfairly targets Israel, with the Anti-Defamation League going so far as to say it is “the most prominent effort to undermine Israel’s existence.” Supporters, however, say it’s a nonviolent movement inspired in part by similar actions taken against the apartheid regime in South Africa in the 1980s.

In Massachusetts, U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, is one of 237 members of the House to co-sponsor the bill.

Neal explained his sponsorship recently by saying, “I am opposed to international efforts that attempt to isolate, boycott and delegitimize the State of Israel. If peace in the Middle East is to be achieved, it will only come about through direct negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians … I take the views of the ACLU seriously, but remain deeply concerned about a movement that demonizes our close ally and rejects a two-state solution.”

While we support Israel’s right to exist and our country’s historic alliance with Israel against its enemies, we should not let that trump the right of our citizens to express their political views through boycott without fear of retribution from a government that disagrees with their political stance. Today Israel, tomorrow… what?

The ACLU is right to dig in on this. It’s the edge of the proverbial slippery slope.

If members of Congress want to lend their support to Israel, then let them lend their voices, but not try to stifle the voices of their fellow citizens.

Other countries including France and Britain have enacted similar anti-boycott measures, but that doesn’t make it right or mean we should follow suit. For more than 200 years America has seen itself as the champion of personal freedom and democracy, and we shouldn’t now abandon that leadership role in the world.

As the ACLU has argued, “individuals, not the government, should have the right to decide whether to support boycotts against practices they oppose.”

The civil liberties organization has pointed to the 1982 Supreme Court case National Association for the Advancement of Colored People v. Claiborne Hardware Co., in which the court ruled that nonviolent advocacy of politically motivated boycotts is protected as free speech.

Meanwhile, a somewhat similar bill is moving through the state Legislature and would prevent those who have contracts with the state from refusing, failing or ceasing to do business with anybody based on their “race, color, creed, religion, sex, national origin, gender identity or sexual orientation.” But some of the bill’s backers have explicitly stated that the goal is to target the anti-Israel boycott as a movement.

Joseph Levine, a philosophy professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a member of Western Mass. Jewish Voice for Peace, testified against the state bill recently for the same reason he thinks the federal proposal is bad policy.

“As a Jewish American growing up in the generation right after the Holocaust, I am well aware of the frightening consequences that attend social toleration for racism in all its forms, particularly anti-Semitism,” Levine said in his testimony. “But I strongly oppose this act because I believe it actually fosters, rather than combats, discrimination.”

“I think the bill is horrible. It is a clear violation of people’s right to express their opinion … It represents a frightening kind of authoritarianism that would be absolutely horrible and a terrible precedent if it passed.”

The anti-boycott act is a rare bipartisan effort in 2017, with 31 Republican and 14 Democrat co-sponsors, and a similar House bill has 117 Republican and 63 Democrat co-sponsors.

Normally, we would applaud such bipartisanship, that would see the likes of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, joining the likes of Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio to cosponsor the bill. But as the ACLU presses its arguments, some are having second thoughts.

Gillibrand’s office said she had a different understanding of the bill than the ACLU, but she expressed a desire to change it.

We were relieved to hear that after the ACLU raised the alarm some federal legislators were reviewing their support of the bill and hope that Congressman Neal will do the same.

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