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 FeinsteinWhat's that you smell in the Supreme Court? New variant raises questions about air travel mandates Progressive groups urge Feinstein to back filibuster carve out for voting rights or resign MORE (D-Calif.) and Bernie SandersBernie SandersOvernight Health Care — Presented by March of Dimes — Abortion access for 65M women at stake Hospitals in underserved communities face huge cuts in reckless 'Build Back Better' plan Sanders urges Biden to delay Medicare premium hike linked to Alzheimer's drug 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 McConnellDemocrats livid over GOP's COVID-19 attacks on Biden US could default within weeks absent action on debt limit: analysis The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Congress avoids shutdown MORE (R-Ky.) and Charles SchumerChuck SchumerHospitals in underserved communities face huge cuts in reckless 'Build Back Better' plan GOP infighting takes stupid to a whole new level Progressive groups urge Schumer to prevent further cuts to T plan 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 CardinOvernight Defense & National Security — US tries to deter Russian invasion of Ukraine Senate eyes plan B amid defense bill standoff Senators propose sanctions against Iran over alleged plot to kidnap US journalist MORE (D-Md.) and Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanGOP ramps up attacks on SALT deduction provision Senate race in Ohio poses crucial test for Democrats Ohio Senate candidate unveils ad comparing Biden to Carter 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.”