Sens. Sanders and Feinstein oppose Israel anti-boycott provision

Two leading Senate Democrats announces staunch opposition Wednesday to an ongoing effort to protect Israel from boycotts as part of a year-end spending package.

Sens. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinProgressive groups urge Feinstein to back filibuster carve out for voting rights or resign Senators call for Smithsonian Latino, women's museums to be built on National Mall Five faces from the media who became political candidates MORE (D-Calif.) and Bernie SandersBernie SandersSenate GOP blocks defense bill, throwing it into limbo This week: Congress starts year-end legislative sprint Restless progressives eye 2024 MORE (I-Vt.) said the provision — which would bar companies from endorsing anti-Israel boycotts promoted by governmental groups such as the United Nations — poses a threat to free speech protections.

“While we do not support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, we remain resolved to our constitutional oath to defend the right of every American to express their views peacefully without fear of or actual punishment by the government,” the senators wrote in a Wednesday letter to Sens. Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOvernight Defense & National Security — US, Iran return to negotiating table Senate GOP blocks defense bill, throwing it into limbo On The Money — Biden stresses calm amid omicron fears MORE (R-Ky.) and Charles SchumerChuck SchumerLawmakers take aim at 'Grinches' using bots to target consumers during holidays Democratic frustration growing over stagnating voting rights bills Schumer mourns death of 'amazing' father MORE (D-N.Y.).

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“[T]his bill would violate Americans’ First Amendment rights.”

The legislation, sponsored by Sens. Ben CardinBenjamin (Ben) Louis CardinIt's time for Congress to guarantee Medigap Health Insurance for vulnerable Americans with kidney disease Senators call for Smithsonian Latino, women's museums to be built on National Mall Democrats plow ahead as Manchin yo-yos MORE (D-Md.) and Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanBipartisan success in the Senate signals room for more compromise Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by Boeing — US mulls Afghan evacuees' future Hillicon Valley — Presented by Ericsson — DOJ unveils new election hacking charges MORE (R-Ohio), would bar companies from participating in anti-Israel boycotts orchestrated by international governmental organizations (IGOs). Such a ban already exists for boycotts organized by foreign governments, but not those promoted by IGOs, like the United Nations.

The proposal is a response to a 2016 resolution, adopted by the United Nations Human Rights Council, which is seeking to create a comprehensive database of companies doing business in Israeli-occupied territories, including the Gaza Strip and West Bank.

Supporters say it’s a necessary tweak to a 40-year-old law designed to protect U.S. companies from being forced to participate, for public relations reasons, in a boycott they may not support.

"We don’t want our companies to be forced into implementing other countries’ decisions to boycott U.S. allies,” a Cardin spokesperson told The Hill this week.

Opponents, including a number of civil rights groups and liberal Democrats, have a different view, saying the change would encroach on the rights of free expression and protest outlined explicitly in the First Amendment.

J Street, a liberal Jewish group advocating a two-state solution with Palestinians, issued a statement Wednesday welcoming the Sanders/Feinstein letter.

“This misguided legislation would enable greatly expanded federal action to penalize Americans for nonviolent political action and speech — including support for certain boycotts of Israeli settlements,” the group wrote.

Cardin and Portman have pressed leaders in both parties to include their bill as part of a year-end spending package, which stands among the last legislative vehicles leaving the station this year. Those leaders have been receptive to the request, though no decisions have yet been made about whether the bill wold be included on the larger package.

Sanders and Feinstein also warned of further consequences, saying the bill would also lend legal validity to settlements long-opposed by U.S. policymakers of both parties.

“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 the Israeli-Palestinian peace for more than 50 years,” Sanders and Feinstein wrote.

“Whether one opposes such targeted measures or not,” the senators continued, “criminalizing acts such as the mere furnishing of information on companies that do business in the settlements would represent a signifiant and heavy-handed departure from five decades of bipartisan opposition the settlement enterprise.”