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Opinion How Democrats are helping the right stifle debate on Israel

President Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

As Congress tries to push through a budget to keep the government open, some members are concerned that the gravest threat facing the country, one that simply must be addressed immediately, is that some Americans might choose not to buy Israeli products.

In the process, the perfectly legitimate idea of “support for Israel” is getting twisted into something ugly and anti-democratic. Sadly, while we’ve come to expect that kind of thing from Republicans, even some Democrats are joining in.

What’s at issue is a bill called the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, which would prohibit American companies from participating in boycotts of Israel organized by international organizations such as the United Nations or the European Union. Sponsored by Democratic Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (Md.) and supported by members of both parties (more by Republicans, but by many Democrats as well), it’s part of a broad national effort to fight against the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions movement (BDS), which opposes the Israeli government’s occupation of Palestinian territories and treatment of Palestinians.

I’m not going to bother trying to adjudicate the issue of BDS’s merits. But when you step back and think about it, it’s utterly bizarre that this relatively small movement has been met with such a fierce response from both the federal government and state governments, to the point where some are eager to silence and punish people for being too critical of a foreign government’s policies.

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Cardin is advocating a revised version of his bill, after the first one — which seemed to allow Americans to be prosecuted, fined and even jailed for advocating a boycott of Israeli products — was toned down. But groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union still oppose it, arguing that it "leaves intact key provisions which would impose civil and criminal penalties on companies, small business owners, nonprofits, and even people acting on their behalf who engage in or otherwise support certain political boycotts.”

The response of those who support this bill is to argue that it’s essentially toothless (here’s an example). They say that it merely extends an existing law passed in the 1970s to protect American companies from being coerced into supporting an Arab League boycott of Israel, to include future boycotts that might emerge from places such as the United Nations. And it’s not like the government is going to start locking people up if they decide not to buy a SodaStream, right?

No, probably not. But there’s a broader question here, because this bill can’t be seen in isolation. It’s part of a national effort — once again, driven by the right but supported by many Democrats — to silence opposition to Israeli policy toward the Palestinians. In recent years, two dozen states have passed laws targeting boycotts of Israel, and the inevitable outcome is stories like this one:

Bahia Amawi, a speech pathologist who has worked as a contractor in a Texas school district for nine years, received a new contract agreement to sign in September for the upcoming school year.
The agreement asked her to affirm that she did not boycott Israel and assert that she would not while working for the school.
She declined to sign it. Amawi, an American citizen of Palestinian descent who was born in Austria, said the statements infringed on her principles: her stance on Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and her belief in the First Amendment. So she was forced to stop working with the district.
The contract, which stems from a 2017 law passed by the state’s Republican-held legislature and governor that prohibited state agencies from contracting with companies boycotting Israel, is the subject of a lawsuit filed this week by Amawi in federal district court in Austin.

So what starts as the state deciding not to do business with companies supporting boycotts of a U.S. ally in practice turns into a situation where a speech pathologist working with students has to essentially sign a loyalty oath, not to the United States but to a foreign country. How is that not an atrocious violation of every principle of free speech that America is supposed to stand for?

And please, don’t tell me that “there are leftist anti-Semites who support BDS!” Sure there are. But passing laws to protect Israel from criticism doesn’t fight anti-Semitism. And using the recent rise in right-wing anti-Semitism in the United States as an excuse for these kinds of measures — as Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) did when justifying his support of the Israel Anti-Boycott Act — is nothing but cynicism.

Now let’s put this in an even broader context. While a few on the right had an interest in Israel for a long time, it wasn’t until the fall of communism followed by the 9/11 attacks that right-wing American Zionism really became a movement. The War on Terror provided conservatives with what they had been lacking for a decade: an enemy. Instead of communism being the focus of evil, Muslims were now the ones to be feared and hated. Instead of commies infiltrating your schools and homes, now it was the dire threat of Sharia law and terror babies.

Conservatives realized that Israel could be a strategic locus of that struggle, and the next thing you knew Republican politicians were trekking up Masada, dancing the hora and performing awkward public displays of Philo-Semitism. Which, by the way, most American Jews don’t buy for a second; when we see Mike Huckabee and the guy from "Duck Dynasty hanging out in Israel, we don’t think it’s good for the Jews.

When Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) or Sarah Palin waxes rhapsodic about their love of the Jewish state, that’s what’s behind it: a belief that we’re in a clash of civilizations between the white Christian west and everyone else. (Jews are just pre-Christians who will either convert or be condemned to eternal hellfire once Jesus returns, of course.) That means that Palestinians should be treated like the enemy in an ongoing war. Their demands for human rights and fair treatment should be dismissed and ignored; no amount of Palestinian suffering is worth caring about; and any claim that they make to self-determination is illegitimate.

What we have right now is a situation in which the Israeli right and the American right are joined in an effort to convince the world that any criticism of the Likud government’s policies is not just wrong but anti-Semitic and thus must be quashed. It’s a poisonous idea, and Democrats such as Cardin and Booker, not to mention the other Democrats who have supported this bill, shouldn’t help them spread it.