Yesterday, the US senate passed its first bill S.1 of the new congress by a margin of 77-23. It was an impressive display of bipartisanship in a body that has been described as being in gridlock. So what was in this bill that it was elevated to symbolic importance by being the first to be considered and garnered such support? It should come as no surprise that it was a bill strongly promoted by the Israel lobby led by AIPAC that seeks encourage economic punishments on those who support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.
The ACLU had earlier, at a time when its passage was stalled because of the government shutdown, blasted the Combating BDS Act as a violation of free speech rights.
ACLU Senior Legislative Counsel Kathleen Ruane issued the following comment in response:
“In the midst of a partial government shutdown, Democratic and Republican senators have decided that one of their first orders of business should be to sneak through a bill that would weaken Americans’ First Amendment protections. The bill, Combatting BDS Act, encourages states to adopt the very same anti-boycott laws that two federal courts blocked on First Amendment grounds. The legislation, like the unconstitutional state anti-boycott laws it condones, sends a message to Americans that they will be penalized if they dare to disagree with their government. We therefore urge senators to vote no on the Combatting BDS Act next week.”
After the vote, the ACLU tweeted:
We thank each senator who defended the First Amendment and voted against the Combating BDS Act.
Senators who voted for the bill: we encourage you to read the Constitution, which protects against the McCarthy-era tactics this bill endorses.https://t.co/OiMKYQd28N
— ACLU (@ACLU) February 5, 2019
Philip Weiss has a round up of other reactions to the bill. Glenn Greenwald also has a series of tweets on the issue. Rebecca Vilkomerson, Executive Director of Jewish Voice for Peace, said that “It’s disappointing that the Senate has voted to undermine the free speech rights of advocates for Palestinian freedom.”
But there are signs that this vote is not an unqualified victory for the Israel lobby and that it exposes future problems. It has long been a goal of the lobby to make strong unqualified support of Israel a bipartisan issue so that whatever party controlled the White House or Congress did not matter. They are used to almost unanimous votes so this split is a worrying sign.
Furthermore, every Democratic candidate running for the party’s 2020 nomination, whether announced or considering, voted against this measure and we know that that these people are the most sensitive to the issues the party’s base cares about. Weiss lists all who voted and: Tammy Baldwin, Cory Booker, Sherrod Brown, Tom Carper, Dick Durbin, Dianne Feinstein, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Martin Heinrich, Mazie Hirono, Tim Kaine, Patrick Leahy, Ed Markey, Jeff Merkley, Chris Murphy, Rand Paul, Jack Reed, Bernie Sanders, Brian Schatz, Jeanne Shaheen, Tom Udall, Chris Van Hollen, Elizabeth Warren.
Even Sherrod Brown and Cory Booker, who have long been PEPs (Progressive Except for Palestine), voted against the bill, a telling sign of the shifting zeitgeist
There are signs that even speaker Nancy Pelosi, who is an AIPAC loyalist and faithfully attends its annual meetings every year to pledge support to it, is feeling pressure to not bring up the bill in the House of Representatives and if she does, the ACLU is urging its defeat there.
Meanwhile federal courts are striking down punitive measures taken against BDS supporters.
It is also a reflection of the political times that, in a long-overdue defeat for the Louis D. Brandeis Center, on February 4, a day before the Senate vote on S.1, a federal judge struck down the three-year old lawsuit against faculty members of the American Studies Association (ASA), which had voted overwhelmingly in favor of an academic boycott of Israel at its 2013 annual meeting.
As Mairav Zonstein and Alex Kane write, Israel is becoming a wedge issue for the Democratic party, something that the Israel lobby has long tried to avoid because once it becomes a partisan issue, then it becomes a contested issue that is debated publicly.
For much of the past 50 years, Democrats and Republicans have appeared to be in lockstep in their support for Israel. But in supporting BDS, the stars of the Democratic freshman class of 2019 have broken the unspoken rule that criticism of Israel should be kept quiet. The movement is now the target of Republican-led legislation in the Senate designed to highlight emerging fault lines in the Democratic Party.
“The Democratic Party is caught between a base ready to move forward on Palestinian rights and an establishment weary of what that means for donors who are more conservative,” said Yousef Munayyer, the executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights
The Democratic Party’s more critical view of Israel is being pushed by a base that’s younger and populated by people of color and women, constituencies more likely to show sympathy for Palestinians. A 2018 Economist/YouGov poll found that 46 percent of men believe Israel is an ally, compared to only 29 percent of women. The poll also found that white people and older people were far more likely to see Israel as an ally than youth and black and Hispanic Americans.
In addition, American Jews, who voted for Democrats in the 2018 midterm elections by a 76-19 percent margin, are growing increasingly alienated from Israel’s right-wing leadership.
There has been tremendous evolution of Israel politics in the Democratic Party over the last several years, tremendous movement away from pro-Bibi, Israel-is-always-right positioning, the mainstay of American politics on a whole until four or five years ago,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, executive director of J Street, a liberal Israel advocacy group.
The Israeli government’s apartheid-style policies and its strong support of Donald Trump has not endeared it to the Democratic party base.
Instead of seeing Israel as a democracy in a sea of Middle Eastern tyranny, as establishment Democrats and Republicans do, a growing bloc of Democratic members of Congress are willing to criticize Israel’s human rights violations despite the risk of being deemed anti-Semitic.
“The right-wing, extremist government of Benjamin Netanyahu and its apartheid-like policies are at the core of what is alienating Democrats and a growing number of Americans,” said Congresswoman Betty McCollum, a Democrat from Minnesota who authored a bill during the last session of Congress to prevent U.S. military aid to Israel from subsidizing the abuse of Palestinian children. “What has changed is that there are now members of Congress who are not willing to ignore the Israeli government’s destructive actions because they are afraid of losing an election.”
I said recently that the stances taken by the large number of Democrats vying for the party’s 2020 nomination for president provides a good window into where they think the party supporters’ sympathies lie. The fact that they all embrace Medicare for All is one sign. So the anti-BDS bill that the Senate passed that all of them opposed should be a source of concern for the Israel lobby. Let’s see what happens when it goes to the House of Representatives.