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Criminalizing Critics of Israel: Congress Considers Sweeping Bills to Fine & Jail Backers of BDS

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U.S. lawmakers are seeking to criminally outlaw support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel. If a proposed bipartisan law is passed, backers of BDS could face up to 20 years in prison and a million-dollar fine. We speak to Rabbi Joseph Berman of Jewish Voice for Peace and Ryan Grim of The Intercept. His latest article is titled "U.S. Lawmakers Seek to Criminally Outlaw Support for Boycott Campaign Against Israel."

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Civil rights groups are warning a pair of bipartisan bills targeting boycotts of Israel and Israeli settlements would criminalize free speech and peaceful protest. The Israel Anti-Boycott Act would make it a felony for U.S. citizens to support boycotts of Israel and Israeli settlements, punishable by at least a $250,000 fine, with a maximum penalty of a fine of $1 million and 20 years in prison. So far, 46 senators—31 Republican, 15 Democrat—and 234 congressmembers, from both sides of the aisle, support the legislation. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, known as AIPAC, reportedly helped craft the bill and has made its passage one of the group’s top lobbying priorities for the year.

In a letter Monday, the American Civil Liberties Union, or ACLU, urged senators to oppose the bill’s passage. The ACLU wrote, quote, "We take no position for or against the effort to boycott Israel or any foreign country, for that matter. However, we do assert that the government cannot, consistent with the First Amendment, punish U.S. persons based solely on their expressed political beliefs," unquote.

The bill has received backing from many prominent senators on both sides of the aisle. Democrats backing the bill include Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, both of New York, as well as Ron Wyden of Oregon, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Maria Cantwell of Washington. Republican backers include Ted Cruz of Texas, Ben Sasse of Nebraska, Marco Rubio of Florida.

The BDS movement was born in 2005, when a coalition of Palestinian civil society groups called for people all over the world to engage in a nonviolent campaign to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel until it complies with international law. Their call was inspired by the international boycott and divestment initiatives applied to South Africa in the struggle to abolish apartheid.

The attempt to criminalize the BDS movement comes amidst a deepening humanitarian crisis in Gaza, where Israeli-imposed restrictions continue to limit electricity to between two and four hours a day for Gaza’s more than 2 million residents. Gaza has been under Israeli siege for more than a decade. In 2012, the World Health Organization warned Gaza would be uninhabitable by 2020, but now the U.N. says the living conditions in Gaza have deteriorated faster than expected, and the U.N. says the area has already become "unlivable."

For more, we go to Washington, D.C., where we’re joined by Rabbi Joseph Berman, the government affairs manager for Jewish Voice for Peace. We’re also joined by Ryan Grim, the Washington, D.C., bureau chief for The Intercept. His latest story, "U.S. Lawmakers Seek to Criminally Outlaw Support for Boycott Campaign Against Israel."

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Ryan Grim, why don’t we begin with you? Talk about the origins of this bill, who is supporting it and where it is in Congress right now.

RYAN GRIM: Right. Well, as you said, it’s a huge priority of AIPAC, according to lawmakers I’ve spoken to, that this has been something that they’ve been working on hard over the last several months. It was introduced in March and has bipartisan support. On the Democratic side, one of the things that I picked up is that Democrats seem to—they took a lot of heat back at home when they—for the Democrats who did end up supporting the Iran deal, back under President Obama. And so, this, to a lot of them, seemed like a bit of a small wake-up call. I think the—I mean, a makeup call.

You know, the way that it was presented in the lobbying effort didn’t talk about the criminal penalties that were associated with violating this statute. And so, when our story came out and when the ACLU letter circulated this week, a lot of the people who had sponsored it were a bit surprised that they had actually backed something like this. They thought it was a rather simple kind of extension of a policy that had been in place for decades, merely extending it to the EU and the U.N. But, in fact, it comes with these—according to the ACLU, these draconian penalties. And so, I think you’re seeing a lot of them revisit it at this moment, now that there’s so much more public attention on it.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to audio of The Intercept's interview with the Maryland Democratic senator, Ben Cardin, the bill's primary sponsor. You asked him about the ACLU’s concerns about the bill.

SEN. BEN CARDIN: We are very sensitive to maintain freedom of speech and expression. Nothing in our bill goes—hurts that.

RYAN GRIM: The ACLU says that kind of the way that it’s written would lend itself towards felony penalties for people if they participated in these kind of —

SEN. BEN CARDIN: I didn’t think we had criminal—if we had criminal sanctions in it, we’d go to Judiciary. I don’t think we have—I don’t think—

RYAN GRIM: OK.

SEN. BEN CARDIN: I just don’t think that’s in our bill. You know, you’re catching me without—

RYAN GRIM: Sure, sure.

SEN. BEN CARDIN: I think I know the bill fairly well. I don’t believe we have criminalized. I think our issue is U.S. participation in international organizations—

RYAN GRIM: Right.

SEN. BEN CARDIN: —speaking out against the U.N. actions. I think that’s the bill.

AMY GOODMAN: So that is Maryland Democratic Senator Ben Cardin, the bill’s primary sponsor. Ryan Grim, talk about the significance of what he said.

RYAN GRIM: Yeah, and then, after that, I said, "Well, so it sounds like you don’t actually support criminal penalties, you know, associated with supporting a boycott." And he said, "No, of course I don’t." So, that’s not an exact quote, but it was something to that effect. So now that, you know, the ACLU letter has been made public and senators have had a chance to review it, I presume that a number of them are going to dial back their support for it. Ben Cardin is the author of the legislation.

And the way that it’s written, you know, if you read the bill itself, the penalties aren’t mentioned. You have to reference an underlying statute that it amends, and then, once you get to the underlying statute, then you see the million-dollar fine and the 20-year prison sentence, which the ACLU says, because you’ve brought that underlying statute into play, that that criminal statute could be brought in by a judge or a prosecutor.

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you talk about, if they are not exactly sure what this bill is, why so many have supported it? I want to turn to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer at the American Jewish—at the American—at the AIPAC meeting [sic].

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER: But sometimes anti-Semitism is cloaked, hidden by certain movements that profess no bias but suspiciously hold Israel—and, by extension, the Jewish people—to a different standard than others. There is no greater example than this insidious effort to harm the Jewish state than through the boycotts, divestment and sanctions. The global BDS movement is a deeply biased campaign aimed at delegitimizing the Jewish state and its supporters, sometimes wittingly, sometimes unwittingly, but all of them practice a modern form of anti-Semitism. And we have to call them out for that.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Chuck Schumer speaking at the American Jewish Committee’s Global Forum in June. Ryan Grim?

RYAN GRIM: Right. One reason this bill may not have been read as closely as it would have otherwise is that it has become kind of a proxy for your opposition to BDS. You know, if you’re not on this bill, then you can be accused by AIPAC supporters of supporting BDS: If you’re not with us, you’re against us. The irony here is that it doesn’t criminalize all boycotts of Israel. So if you are a neo-Nazi group and you are driven by explicit anti-Semitism and you call for a boycott of Israel, you would not fall under this statute. Only if you’re supporting BDS through the EU or through the U.N. from a pro-Palestinian perspective would the precise same action then be criminalized. And for the ACLU, that is the definition of a First Amendment violation, because the same act becomes criminalized only based on your political motivation for carrying out that act.

AMY GOODMAN: Even some prominent critics of BDS have come out against the bill. In a letter to lawmakers, Dylan Williams of J Street wrote, quote, "This bill could give Attorney General Jeff Sessions the power to prosecute any American who chooses not to buy settlement products for a felony offense. That kind of authority should not be given to any administration, let alone one that has engaged in extreme rhetoric against political opponents, including threats to 'lock [them] up.'" Let’s turn right now to Rabbi Joseph Berman of Jewish Voice for Peace. Rabbi Berman, J Street and Jewish Voice for Peace take different positions on BDS. But on this, you share a position.

RABBI JOSEPH BERMAN: Thank you for having me, Amy. Good morning.

This legislation is seeking to make it illegal for businesses to comply with a boycott of Israel or Israeli settlements that is supported by an international government—governmental organization like the United Nations. And I think it’s trying to preempt what we’re supposed to see in the coming months—a database from the United Nations that lists companies that are engaged in commerce in settlements, in illegal settlements, in the West Bank. And we recently had a call from Amnesty International that said that third-party states, like the United States or the EU, should ban settlement products from coming into the country. And so it’s trying to preempt actions like this. And so, instead of trying to oppose the illegal and harmful settlements—right?—these settlements, which are incredibly destructive for Palestinians, that steal their land and force them from their homes, this legislation is instead trying to shift decades of U.S. policy and understanding that settlements are illegal, according to international law and according to the United States.

I want to be very clear also about what this legislation is not. It would not make it illegal for activists to support the Palestinian-led call for boycott and divestment, or for activists to decide, "I’m not going to buy this product from Israel or the settlements because it is connected to injustice." This legislation, as I understand it, is focused on businesses or those engaged in commerce who might comply with a boycott that comes from the United Nations or from the EU, an international governmental organization. I don’t want activists out there to think, "Oh, if this passes, I’m going to go to jail," because there’s already a chilling effect that people are scared to speak out for Palestinian human rights, and we need to continue to speak out for Palestinian human rights.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about where this goes from here? And talk, Rabbi Joseph Berman, about why you differ so much with AIPAC on this issue and why this—they have made this a central campaign this year. The significance of AIPAC?

RABBI JOSEPH BERMAN: AIPAC is a very effective lobby. And I think, in many ways, they’re not that different from something like the National Rifle Association, which keeps Congress from passing much-needed, incredibly reasonable gun control in this country. They enter into what is a very broken system, and they do a very good job at playing that system. They have immense resources. And they’re very good at what they do. And so they’re able to move legislation like this.

I think it’s important, when we talk about AIPAC, to say a couple of things. First of all, they don’t speak for the Jewish community. Sometimes they might claim to, but they don’t. The Jewish community, Jews in the United States are incredibly diverse, and in many ways, and especially when it comes to relationships to and views on Israel, on Israel-Palestine. And so, they’re not representative of American Jews, even though they might have a lot of influence. And at the same time, they are able to move this forward. I think that it’s incumbent on us to have to provide a counterweight. We need to change the calculus for members of Congress so that they’re not going to support legislation like this. And so, if you haven’t already, call the Capitol switchboard. Call your member of Congress in the House of Representatives, in the Senate. Tell them to oppose the legislation if it comes to a vote, to not co-sponsor. If they’re co-sponsoring, tell them they need to take their names off of—

AMY GOODMAN: I want to—

RABBI JOSEPH BERMAN: —off of the legislation.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Vice President Mike Pence speaking this week at the Christians United for Israel summit in Washington, D.C.

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: With the support and prayers of men and women gathered in this room, I’m proud to say, in my last year as governor, it was my great privilege to sign one of the strongest anti-BDS laws in America, to ensure that our state never does business with those who seek to inflict financial damage on Israel, because boycott, divestment and sanctions have no place in my home state and no place in America.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Mike Pence addressing the Christians United for Israel summit in Washington, D.C. Ryan Grim, can you talk about this group and what Vice President Pence just said?

RYAN GRIM: Right. It’s an organization that is kind of pushing for boycotts of the boycotters. New York state has—you know, has pushed in a similar direction, trying to say that, "OK, if you—you know, if you agree to participate in the BDS movement, then we’re not going to—that we’re not going to buy products from you, so that, you know, you must purchase products from the Occupied Territories if you want to, you know, do business here in the state of Indiana. Or, you don’t necessarily have to, but you just have to be quiet about it."

And that’s one of the things that the ACLU was also deeply concerned about, that nobody, of course, is forced to do business with Israeli companies in the Occupied Territories, but if you say that you’re not doing business there because you object to the political circumstances, then, all of a sudden, you’re getting caught up in the statute here, or you’d get caught up in this Indiana law, whereas if you were just quiet about it and kept your opinions to yourself, then—you know, then you’re not in any legal or commercial trouble. And that is kind of the definition of a freedom of speech issue.

AMY GOODMAN: In April, Democracy Now! spoke with Palestinian human rights defender Omar Barghouti, co-founder of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions National Committee. He talked about Israel’s efforts, at home and abroad, to target the BDS movement.

OMAR BARGHOUTI: Since 2014, Israel decided that its former policy, former strategy for fighting BDS, the propaganda or "Brand Israel" strategy, was failing, so they adopted a new strategy that is based on using their intelligence services to spy on BDS activists and try to tarnish our reputations; based on legal warfare, trying to pass anti-BDS legislation, as is happening in many state legislatures in this country, as well as in the U.S. Congress and in countries like France, Britain and so on. So they’ve gone from a propaganda war to a full-fledged legal and intelligence war on the movement.

What you mentioned is absolutely important. Recently, Israel passed an anti-BDS ban. It wouldn’t allow any supporter of BDS or even supporters of partial boycotts against Israel’s illegal settlements in the Occupied Territories from entering the country. They are establishing, indeed, a blacklist of Israelis who support any form of boycott against Israeli institutions to bring about justice and to bring about Palestinian rights. So this McCarthyism is no longer just a metaphor. It’s really, truly happening, as Israel descends into the abyss and as people in the mainstream, as Ehud Barak, for example, are warning that there are signs of fascism taking over in Israel.

AMY GOODMAN: So that’s Omar Barghouti, co-founder of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions National Committee, speaking when he was in New York. Rabbi Joseph Berman, your final comment on this?

RABBI JOSEPH BERMAN: Yeah, you know, I’m concerned about this legislation. We need to fight it and oppose it. And what I’m really concerned about is something that you mentioned earlier, Amy, and that is what’s happening with the people in Gaza right now, who only have a few, maybe four, hours of electricity a day. There is an incredible shortage of drinkable water. There’s a very, very high level of food insecurity and just immense, immense suffering that is happening right now in Gaza. And that is because of the siege, that is led by Israel, with the support of Egypt. And so there needs to be an end to that siege.

And, you know, what we need to see is we need to see equality and human rights and dignity for Palestinians and Israelis. I personally care, care deeply, for the freedom and liberation of Palestinians, and that’s what—that’s what we’re struggling for and need to continue to struggle for, and care deeply, love my fellow Jewish sisters and brothers and want them also to be safe. And so I want to see that safety for Palestinians and Israelis, and the conditions, having equality and human rights and dignity, that can lead us to a just and lasting peace.

AMY GOODMAN: Rabbi Joseph Berman, I want to thank you for being with us, of Jewish Voice for Peace. Ryan Grim, please stay with us, D.C. bureau chief for The Intercept. Coming up, special counsel Robert Mueller is expanding his probe to look at President Trump’s business activities, as well as those of his associates, including his son-in-law Jared Kushner. You’ve done a piece on how Jared Kushner tried and failed to get a half-billion-dollar bailout from Qatar. Could that failed deal be influencing how Trump said he was responsible for helping to isolate Qatar from the other Gulf nations? Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: "I Ain’t Got No Home" by Billy Bragg, singing here at our Democracy Now! studios in 2011. You can check it all out at democracynow.org. I am Amy Goodman. This is Democracy Now!

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