(Sebastian Scheiner//AP)
Opinion writer

Earlier this week I wrote about the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, a piece of legislation that some Democrats and Republicans are hoping to quietly attach to a budget bill so it can be passed into law. The bill would bar American companies and individuals from participating in certain boycotts of Israel, and, though even its supporters say it would have minimal practical impact, it represents a serious attack on fundamental principles of free speech.

The bill is also part of a broad nationwide movement playing out at both the federal and state level to quash criticism of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud government and its policies toward Palestinians, an effort that Democrats unfortunately have participated in far too often.

Now two senators — Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) — have a plan to try to do something about this. They are coming out against that measure, which could help realize the larger goal of forcing a genuine debate in Congress that does not place such criticism off limits.

It is a lack of debate about Israel — not just about the Netanyahu government’s policies but also about how we in America should react to them — that allows provisions such as the Israel Anti-Boycott Act to flourish. But that also means that if you draw enough attention to them, things can change. We may be at a point where politicians who would previously have gone along precisely because it seemed like the easiest thing to do given that few people were watching are now having second thoughts. And that’s what makes this an important lesson in how politics works.

Sanders and Feinstein represent two influential Jewish senators from different points on the ideological spectrum. On Wednesday morning, they sent a letter urging Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) not to include the IABA in the latest budget bill. Here’s part of what they wrote:

The bill would prohibit and penalize certain constitutionally-protected political activity aimed solely at Israeli settlements in the West Bank, thereby extending US legal protection to the very settlements the United States has opposed as illegitimate and harmful to the cause of Israeli-Palestinian peace for more than 50 years. Whether one opposes such targeted measures or not, criminalizing acts such as the mere furnishing of information on companies that do business in the settlements would represent a significant and heavy-handed departure from five decades of bipartisan opposition to the settlement enterprise. At a time when the Netanyahu government is pursuing policies clearly aimed at foreclosing the two-state solution, it is deeply disappointing that Congress would consider penalizing criticism of those policies.

Now for some context. In the past few years, Republicans have elevated “support for Israel” to a core conservative belief, which in their case means not support for Israel in general but support for policies that deny any rights to Palestinians and seek to expand West Bank settlements so that returning land to them will become impossible. The unspoken but clear long-term vision of both the Israeli and American right is that if the Palestinians are made to suffer enough, they will eventually give up their hopes of self-determination and accept their miserable lot. Both the Netanyahu government and the Trump administrationn have stopped even pretending that they support a two-state solution.

That will not change. But what can change is how Democrats approach this issue. The reason that so often so many Democrats go along with the Republican approach for “support for Israel” is that it seems like the easiest thing to do. That’s because there’s an imbalance of power at play which determines the risks politicians face for taking certain positions. For instance, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is a well-organized and well-funded lobby with the ability to reward its friends and punish its opponents. Groups that advocate Palestinian rights are not nearly as powerful. Which is why, despite the fact that AIPAC has long been not “the Israel lobby” as it styles itself but, in truth, the Likud lobby, Democratic politicians still troop to its meetings to proclaim their “support for Israel.”

And when something like the Anti-Israel Boycott Act came up, I'm sure more than a few Democratic senators and congressman said to themselves, "This is really an affront to free speech. But what is opposing it going to get me? The only people who will notice are the ones who'll be angry."

But what’s important about calculations like that is that they’re open to change. When you have a bill such as this one, the more attention it gets, the more opposition will rise. Especially for Democrats, the cost of supporting it begins to increase. If it hadn’t started getting attention over the past few days, Sanders and Feinstein might not have written that letter to make their opposition vocal. And now other Democrats might be having second thoughts too, and could decide they have enough cover to pull back their support.

That process could be pushed along if we begin to debate the way conservatives all over the country are pushing to quash any dissension from right-wing Israeli policies. As I said, this piece of legislation is part of a nationwide effort in which two dozen states have passed laws forbidding the state to contract with companies that support boycotts of Israeli products. The result is cases like this one, in which a speech pathologist in Texas who contracts with a school district to work with students was told that she would have to sign what was in effect a loyalty oath to the Netanyahu government, promising not to support any boycott of Israel, as though that could possibly have anything do so with her work. She refused to sign, and sued instead. Now the ACLU is also suing over the Texas law, which the state will fight; Gov. Greg Abbott has said, "Anti-Israel policies are anti-Texas policies."

That’s obviously ludicrous, and there’s a strong case to be made that the greatest long-term threat to Israel is precisely the policies toward the Palestinians that critics of the Netanyahu government — both within and outside Israel — would like to see changed, and that people such as Abbott support (and yes, there are some Democrats who enthusiastically support them too). But without something resembling a real debate, the American public doesn’t hear why someone can simultaneously support Israel, oppose a particular set of Israeli policies, and oppose restrictions on the free speech rights of Americans. All they’ll learn is that there’s a “pro-Israel” bill out there, and if you oppose it you must be “anti-Israel.”

In their letter, Sanders and Feinstein hint at the need to undercut this basic mind-set. They stress that the Senate must “debate” the new measure as “freestanding legislation" on “its merits.” That is, its specifics must be debated, and not as a reflexive indicator of “pro-Israel” or “anti-Israel” sentiment.

I’ve long argued that the very idea of “pro-Israel” vs. “anti-Israel” is not just the enemy of rational thought and moral thinking, but also plays right into the hands of the American and Israeli right (you’ll notice that we don’t use that formulation with any other country; nobody talks about being “pro-China” or “anti-Canada”). It’s up to Democrats to create a more complete debate on this issue, because Republicans certainly aren’t going to do it. And standing up against laws that forbid Americans from expressing certain opinions would be an excellent place to start.