The controversy over laws punishing Israel boycotts, explained

Israel boycotts

S 1, the very first bill the new US Senate considered in 2019, had nothing to do with ending the partial shutdown and reopening the government. It was instead a grab bag of different proposals related to the Middle East, and a controversial one at that. Most of the debate centered on Title 4 of the bill, a provision that would give states a legal blessing to punish companies that choose not to do business with Israel or Israeli-owned enterprises, a key demand of the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Twenty-six states have adopted laws that punish companies that choose to boycott Israel. Defenders of the law see them as necessary to protect an ally from hostile activists, while critics argue that the laws are unconstitutional infringements on free speech. So far, the only two federal courts to consider such bills have sided with the critics; Title 4 is designed to provide more legal cover for state BDS laws in future hearings.

Historically, pro-Israel bills have sailed through the Senate (and the House). But this time, there was a twist: The bill, written by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), lost a vote on the Senate floor on Tuesday night. Forty-three Democrats banded together to filibuster it, enough to block the bill from moving forward for the time being.

The immediate reason for the bill’s defeat was the shutdown: Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer is refusing to pass anything until the government is reopened. But the controversy that surrounded it also speaks to the larger concerns about how state-level anti-BDS laws, which can apply to individuals working as independent contractors, have been used to repress free speech rights.

Israel boycotts

Even more broadly, the fact that this bill was controversial at all reveals how the politics surrounding Israel is changing. Support for Israel, so long a bipartisan issue, is becoming polarized, with Republicans willing to back Israel virtually unconditionally while Democrats are more willing to question Israeli policy and US support for it.

The two parties’ approaches to Israel are changing, and faster than some may have anticipated. The fight over the anti-BDS bills shows how.

What anti-BDS bills do

BDS, a loose movement that dates back to roughly 2005, aims to force Israel to change its approach to the Palestinians through external pressure. BDS activists want companies to stop doing business in Israel, consumers to stop buying Israeli products, and academics and cultural figures to stop collaborating with Israeli colleagues. The movement’s supporters bill it as the spiritual heirs of the boycotts targeting apartheid South Africa in the 1980s; its opponents bill it as an anti-Semitic campaign aimed at the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state.

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