A BDS Bill Too Far
OpinionEditor's Notebook

A BDS Bill Too Far

The legislation in Congress isn't the horror show critics portray, but it's still not worth the trouble.

Michael Jacobs

Atlanta Jewish Times Editor Michael Jacobs is on his second stint leading the AJT's editorial operations. He previously served as managing editor from 2005 to 2008.

Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md., left) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) are the lead sponsors of the proposed Israel Anti-Boycott Act.
Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md., left) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) are the lead sponsors of the proposed Israel Anti-Boycott Act.

Knowing your news sources so you can apply proper skepticism is both easy and crucial these days, especially when it comes to issues surrounding Israel.

The best recent example was not the false-equivalence coverage of the chaos related to Israel’s efforts to secure the Temple Mount, the bloody slaughter of three Jewish family members at Shabbat dinner in Halamish or the attack inside the Israeli Embassy in Amman, Jordan.

Instead, it was news about a well-meaning but ill-conceived piece of federal legislation, S.720, the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, which would amend a law dating to the Carter administration that bans people or businesses from boycotting a U.S. ally at the request of a foreign nation.

S.720 specifies Israel — already covered as a U.S. ally — and expands the ban to apply to boycotts organized by international governmental organizations such as the United Nations and the European Union.

The American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter to senators July 17 to decry the bipartisan bill, incorrectly claiming that it would criminalize actions as small as requesting information about a boycott of Israel, with penalties as great as $1 million and 20 years in prison. Despite being wrong about the details, the ACLU was right to raise free-speech concerns, even though the existing law has passed constitutional muster.

The Intercept and its co-founding editor, Glenn Greenwald, then took the ACLU’s overheated First Amendment concerns about congressional legislation and fired up a scorching assault on Israel under the headline “U.S. Lawmakers Seek to Criminally Outlaw Support for Boycott Campaign Against Israel” on July 19.

Its laughable opening — “The criminalization of political speech and activism against Israel has become one of the gravest threats to free speech in the West” — quickly led to the false claim that S.720 “would make it a felony for Americans to support the international boycott against Israel.”

Greenwald is a nonpartisan reporter, in that he has no ties to any political party, but he is not impartial and doesn’t pretend to be. He’s an ideologue.

When his principles lead him to expose and oppose the rise of the surveillance state or to be skeptical of anything any government tells us, he does work worth paying attention to.

But Greenwald is also anti-Zionist. He wants Israel to cease to exist, and he comes unhinged in his passion to persuade the world to join him in viewing Israel as a colonialist, racist mistake that must be blotted out.

So when members of Congress try to lend Israel a hand against the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, which also seeks Israel’s destruction, Greenwald doesn’t allow facts, let alone balance, to cool his fervor.

Trying to make sense of the U.S. Code and proposed amendments is difficult for mere mortals without law degrees and lots of time. But a common-sense reading shows that S.720 is not a new approach to the problem of anti-Israel boycotts, and the sponsors deny that the bill would limit free speech or punish political opinions.

The purpose of the bill is simply to extend the ban to boycotts imposed by the EU, the United Nations or their agencies. Unfortunately, some loose language — the use of “support” without modification and a discussion of “requests” — clears the way for Greenwald’s hyperbole and potentially raises First Amendment concerns, according to a thorough analysis by University of California law instructor David Schraub.

J Street opposes the bill, part of AIPAC’s agenda, largely because it doesn’t differentiate between the two sides of the Green Line, but Straub raises a better criticism: What’s the point? Israel faces U.N. and EU criticism but no threats of boycotts from either.

Georgia and other states have enacted laws that essentially tell businesses boycotting Israel they aren’t welcome as government contractors. Those laws have value because they put a price on anti-Israel actions without banning them.

S.720, however, wouldn’t accomplish anything, except possibly ostracizing Israel even more by giving the likes of The Intercept extra ammunition to undermine Israel’s image.

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