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Opinion Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy: The House must stand against the toxic BDS movement

A “Boycott Israel” sign is displayed in the West Bank town of Bethlehem in 2015. (THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images)

Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is the Senate majority leader. Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) is the House Republican leader.

There is a rising tide of anti-Semitism in the world, a scourge that is spreading in the Middle East, in Europe and even here in the United States. In recent months, Jewish communities in Pittsburgh and the San Diego area have been victimized by deadly shootings at synagogues. Monitors say that the frequency of anti-Semitic incidents in the United States is near a four-decade high. Anti-Semitic statements have been heard lately from members of Congress, and an anti-Semitic cartoon was published recently by a major newspaper.

A particularly troubling aspect of this anti-Semitic trend is that the ugly Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, or BDS — a political and economic attack on Israel’s right to exist — continues to gain steam. Political leaders on both sides of the aisle have a responsibility to confront this ugliness head-on.

State and local leaders across the nation are stepping up and taking action to ensure that the taxpayers they represent are not made unwilling participants in the BDS movement. In the House and Senate here in Washington, we have worked together to champion bipartisan legislation that would prevent the federal government from obstructing those state and local efforts. It is past time for the legislation to become law.

The BDS movement seeks to compel individuals, private corporations and even entire countries to refuse to invest in or do business with Israeli firms. At its root, it is an effort to weaponize grievance politics and attack Israel’s sovereignty under the guise of defending the Palestinian cause. BDS’s real aim is to exclude, isolate and delegitimize Israel. It undermines direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority by placing all the blame on the Jewish state. And it echoes a long, dark history of anti-Semitic boycotts visited upon the Jewish people since well before the establishment of the modern state of Israel.

The leaders of the BDS movement are not shy about their true motives. They do not believe the state of Israel should exist. Omar Barghouti, one of the movement’s co-founders, proclaimed in 2013 that “no Palestinian — rational Palestinian, not a sell-out Palestinian — will ever accept a Jewish state in Palestine.” 

The anti-Semitic bigotry masquerading as principled activism clashes with core principles that Americans have held dear since the nation’s founding. As early as 1790, in a letter to a Hebrew congregation in Rhode Island, President George Washington famously insisted that the government must give “bigotry no sanction.” Surely this common-sense, universal principle must still apply today — to all men and women of all races, religions and abilities. And surely, if the principle tells us anything, it tells us that state and local governments should not be obliged to finance anti-Semitic bigotry with taxpayer dollars.

Across the country, more than two dozen states and local governments have moved to fight BDS’s bigotry by boycotting the boycotters. The governments want to make sure that individuals and companies with whom they do business will not use the taxpayer money they receive to publicly engage in boycotting the state of Israel, Israeli firms or others doing business with the Jewish state.

Accordingly, a bipartisan group of members of Congress committed to confronting anti-Semitism has brought forward legislation that would ensure that the federal government doesn’t hinder these local determinations by making it clear they don’t infringe on the federal government’s authority over foreign policy. Clarity is needed because BDS supporters are using this argument to fight the anti-boycott laws in court.

Both of us are committed champions of the First Amendment and recognize that any state and local action would need to carefully balance individuals’ freedom of speech and expression with the public’s right not to be co-opted into bankrolling an anti-Semitic boycott. This legislation ensures this important process cannot be short-circuited by BDS proponents citing federal supremacy over foreign policies.

In February, the Senate made bipartisan legislation on Middle East-focused defense and security matters a top priority of the new Congress. The legislation included this kind of counter-BDS provision — legislation that Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) had himself co-sponsored only months before. The package passed the Senate with 77 votes.

That was three months ago. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has let the legislation languish on her desk. House Republicans, recognizing that Congress should not remain silent on this subject, are employing a rare procedural tool to attempt to force an up-or-down vote on the measure. If 21 Democrats sign on — fewer than the number of Senate Democrats who supported the bill — it will get the vote it deserves.

Last week, people in Israel and around the world celebrated the anniversary of the modern state’s founding in 1948. Israel needs not just rhetorical support for its existence but also real legislation that combats those who seek to delegitimize it. 

The Senate stands against the toxic BDS movement. The House must do the same.

Read more:

Richard Cohen: Republicans, stop using the Holocaust to score cheap political points

David Von Drehle: Anti-BDS laws are popular. That doesn’t mean they’re constitutional.

Yousef Munayyer: The hypocrisy of anti-BDS laws is a slap in the face of Palestinians

Paul Waldman: How Democrats are helping the right stifle debate on Israel

Josh Rogin: The 2020 foreign policy fight is on in Congress