New Federal Bill Seeks to Quell Criticism of Israeli Policy


For Immediate Release
Contact: Naomi Dann | Jewish Voice for Peace | media@jvp.org | (845) 377-5745

New Federal Bill Seeks to Quell Criticism of Israeli Policy

February 11, 2016–Jewish Voice for Peace strongly opposes the latest legislative effort to discourage the growing movement for justice and equality for Palestinians. The Combatting BDS Act of 2016 (S. 2531/H.R. 4514), introduced February 10, 2016, aims to encourage and authorize state legislation to divest state funds from companies that boycott Israel.

Rabbi Joseph Berman, Jewish Voice for Peace Government Affairs Liaison stated: “This legislation, as well as the bills introduced at the state level, are an attempt to stifle shifting public opinion, which increasingly sees economic pressure as a legitimate and even essential way to end Israel’s oppressive policies towards Palestinians.” A Brookings Institute poll released in December 2015 found that 49% of Democrats (and over ⅓ of all Americans) support imposing economic sanctions or more serious action against Israel over settlement construction.

At a time when the largest Israeli opposition party and columnists such as the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman are naming the reality that the peace process is dead and the two-state solution rendered inviable due to Israel’s continued expansionism, such legislation is deeply out of touch with the current political reality.

The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) originated in 2005 with a call for solidarity from Palestinian civil society organizations asking the international community to use the tools of economic pressure to hold Israel accountable for its obligations under international law, namely: an end to the nearly 50-year military occupation, full equality for Palestinians citizens of Israel and the right of return for refugees. Modeled on the global solidarity movement to end apartheid in South Africa, BDS’ intent is to leverage grassroots power to put pressure on governments and corporations that uphold an unjust political system.

The right to boycott is a constitutionally-protected form of political speech with a legacy of bringing about social change. Writing in Salon in reference to a related bill in the New York State legislature, Jewish Voice for Peace Executive Director Rebecca Vilkomerson recently noted: “Boycott has long been a tool of social movements: used by abolitionists to protest slavery, by civil rights activists to demand an end to segregation during the 1960s, by labor organizers to demand collective rights for farmworkers, and by global civil society to call for an end to apartheid in South Africa. It is an especially important tactic when, as in the case of Israel, people are acting when our government will not.”

Furthermore, the text of the legislation defines boycott of Israel as “any activity that is intended to penalize, inflict economic harm on, or otherwise limit commercial relations with Israel or persons doing business in Israel or in Israeli-controlled territories.” This language, along with similar legislation introduced over the last year, is part of a quiet campaign to legitimize and extend U.S. protection to Israel’s illegal settlement enterprise by blurring the legal distinction between Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. This would reverse decades of U.S. policy which holds that the settlements are illegitimate and illegal.

Just as the Israeli Knesset is currently considering new bills to clamp down on political dissent, the rise in anti-BDS legislation also demonstrates that the defenders of the status quo know that they cannot justify indefinite occupation and systematic discrimination, and are instead desperately trying to silence critical voices. In addition to the Combatting BDS Act of 2016, related legislation has been introduced in Indiana, Virginia, New York, Colorado, California, Arizona, and Georgia. These anti-democratic bills, supported by Jewish organizations including the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago (JUF) and the American Jewish Committee (AJC), demonstrate the failure of Jewish establishment organizations to recognize the urgent need for change in Israel.

This legislation is a move in the wrong direction. Rather than attempting to prevent consumers and companies from acting on their values, U.S. lawmakers would do better to leverage the power they have to pressure Israel to abide by international law.

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