As Congress returned for a new session at a moment of political crisis and government shutdown, the Senate chose an odd priority for its legislative agenda. Senate bill 1, or S1, authorizes billions in weapons to Israel and includes an unconstitutional law aiming to silence the movement for Palestinian rights.
Boycott, divestments and sanctions, or BDS, are tactics Palestinian civil society has asked people around the world to utilize to hold Israel accountable for policies that deny them human rights. While these tactics have gained traction, many U.S. lawmakers have chosen to introduce repressive legislation targeting BDS tactics when implemented in support of Palestinian rights.
These so-called “anti-BDS” laws, adopted at both the state and federal level, have caused great controversy. Opposition to such bills has overwhelmingly come from Democrats on the grounds that economic protest is protected under the First Amendment right to free speech; Republicans have almost entirely supported these laws as a caucus. But the debate over the “Combating BDS Act,” recently packaged into S1, led to a revealing exchange. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who sponsored the act, claimed some Senate Democrats secretly support BDS. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) quickly shot back that such a claim was untrue.
Both are wrong: There’s nothing secret about the Democrats’ support for BDS, and that support can be found on both sides of the aisle. All 100 senators, and countless elected officials, support the tactics of boycott, divestment and sanctions. In 2017, Iran-Russia sanctions legislation passed 98-2, so that’s 98 senators that support BDS right there.
Murphy has been a leading advocate for sanctioning Saudi Arabia for its human rights abuses in Yemen. President Trump called for a boycott of Harley Davidson over a steel tariff dispute. Sen. Jeff Merkley introduced fossil fuel divestment legislation, and his fellow Oregon Democrat, Sen. Ron Wyden, introduced prison divestment legislation. Sixteen senators backed the boycott efforts of the U.S. women’s national hockey team over wages. A number of senators called on the NBA to boycott North Carolina over the state’s laws targeting the LGBT community.
These senators are continuing a long history of BDS tactics being used to advocate for human rights and social justice. Boycotts played an important role in America’s civil rights movement and the fall of South Africa’s apartheid regime. When Palestinian civil society called on people of conscience to take up BDS tactics, they did so because they were inspired by the legacies of social justice movements and freedom struggles.
And yet, BDS activism for Palestinian rights is being uniquely targeted by legislators at the state and federal level. When elected officials say they oppose BDS, what they are really saying is they oppose these tactics — and would even outlaw constitutionally protected freedom of expression — only because the targets are institutions complicit in Israel’s denial of Palestinian rights. This amounts to holding Israel to a different standard and enabling its horrific policies.
Currently, Israel rules over millions of Palestinians — approximately half the population living in the territory it controls — through a separate-and-unequal system of discrimination, second-class citizenship enshrined in the nation-state law and brutal military occupation. This manifests daily human rights violations including extrajudicial killings, political imprisonment, the arrest and imprisonment of children, land seizure and more. All the while, Israel creeps closer to annexation of the occupied Palestinian territory, doubling down on an apartheid vision as its public moves further to the right.
The American taxpayer has been financing these Israeli abuses for decades. Not only does the United States give Israel $3.8 billion a year to buy weapons through the Foreign Military Financing program (of which Israel is the single largest recipient), but Israel is also the only country whose domestic arms industry is directly financed through this program. At the same time, our government shields Israel from accountability internationally with vetoes and intimidation at the United Nations.
Today, some 40 percent of Americans and 56 percent of Democrats would support sanctions or greater pressure on Israel for certain violations like settlement building. It’s high time that our elected officials end the double standard of taking economic action for the human rights of others while providing economic support for those who trample on the human rights of the Palestinian people.