As if we didn’t have enough reasons to feel exasperated by our politicians: Sherrod Brown, a senator from Ohio and one of the top Democrats rumored to be in consideration for the role of Hillary Clinton’s vice presidential nominee, is blocking a bipartisan effort in Congress to combat anti-Israeli boycotts on the state level.
This is surprising as the particular effort in question is a carefully worded bipartisan initiative grounded in language that has previously been passed into law. It began earlier this year with the Combating BDS Act of 2016, which empowers state and local governments to divert taxpayer money away from companies that engage in boycotts and other economic measures against the Jewish state. The bill was originally sponsored in the House by Reps. Robert Dold (R-IL) and Juan Vargas (D-CA), and cosponsored by a whopping 103 representatives from both parties, and in the Senate by Senators Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Joe Manchin (D-WV), where it also received strong bipartisan support.
Eager to quickly advance the fight against BDS, Kirk has recently sought the support of both Republicans and Democrats in the Senate to incorporate the anti-BDS measures into Congress’s pending defense bill. His efforts require going through the chamber’s powerful Banking Committee. Republicans were happy to sign; Brown, the committee’s senior Democrat, was not.
Brown’s objection is Talmudic: the anti-BDS measure makes it clear that its aim is to combat attempts that “are intended to penalize or otherwise limit commercial relations specifically with Israel or persons doing business in Israel or in Israeli-controlled territories.” Brown, according to sources on the Hill who are familiar with the proceedings, is complaining that the phrase “Israeli-controlled territories” would be construed as implicitly supporting the settlements.
The specific language about “Israeli-controlled territories,” Kirk argued, ought not be controversial, as it’s taken directly from pre-existing United States Law. It was used verbatim in the Defending Public Employees’ Retirement Act, which became law in 2015. Removing the wording about Israeli-controlled territories, Kirk continued, would blunt the law’s edge.
Still, Kirk’s office, working with Sens. Manchin, Ben Cardin (D-MD), and Chuck Schumer (D-NY), compromised and amended the act to include an even-handed paragraph stating that “nothing in this section shall be construed to alter the established policy of the United States concerning final status issues associated with the Arab-Israeli conflict, including border delineation, that can only be resolved through direct negotiations between the parties.” That, the senators hoped, would achieve the purpose of blocking malicious anti-Israel attacks while still making it clear that the U.S. government sees the ultimate resolution of the conflict, including all territorial disputes, as a question only the two sides themselves can ultimately resolve.
Senator Brown thus far remains unmoved, and hasn’t allowed the amendment into the Senate’s defense bill.
This is alarming: considering that the language to which Senator Brown objects has already been passed into law with strong bipartisan support, and that the compromise language in the bipartisan amendment takes care of any real concern anyone might have regarding the precise meaning and future implications of the phrase “Israeli-controlled territories,” it’s very hard not see any objection here as motivated purely by callous political calculations. Requests for comments from Senator Brown’s office went unanswered.
“American lawmakers at all levels want to make sure that the will of their constituents is expressed in legislation,” said Omri Ceren, managing director at The Israel Project, a non-profit which has been deeply involved in anti-BDS measures on state and federal levels, “and the American people want to protect our Israeli allies from economic warfare, just like they want to see Israel protected from any other kind of warfare. Of course Congress is going to want to act to promote that.”
This is especially true given that the state anti-BDS measures being protected by the Congressional law are not designed to target the largely symbolic calls to ban Israeli goods on American college campuses, say, but instead take aim at meaningful attempts by large global corporations to exercise pressure on Israel through interstate and international commerce. We should be thankful for the strong bipartisan support this issue is already generating in the Senate, and hope that Senator Brown and others who oppose efforts to combat BDS will show leadership and join in.