The Trump administration’s latest attempt to equate boycotts of Israel with anti-Semitism is part of a years-long push to criminalise criticism of Israel in the United States and abroad, legal and political experts say.
On Thursday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced US plans to label the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestinian rights as “anti-Semitic” and curtail funding for groups that support it.
Dima Khalidi, founder and director of Palestine Legal, a US-based legal advocacy group, said the measure aims to stifle advocacy for Palestinian rights.
“This is one more step in a much larger and broader assault on a human rights movement globally, but also in the US – and that started long before [US President Donald] Trump,” Khalidi told Al Jazeera in a phone interview.
Palestine Legal has documented more than 200 proposed bills that aimed to restrict Palestine advocacy in dozens of states across the US alone. Only 25 percent of those motions have been successful, but the group says 30 US states currently have laws on the books.
Khalidi said the measures to curtail pro-Palestinian organising in the US have evolved over time, with the most recent wave being an attempt “to distort and politicise anti-Semitism to include any and all criticism of the State of Israel”.
The intent has been the same, however, she said: to prevent Palestinians from speaking out about rights abuses and holding Israel accountable for its policies.
“The fact is that all of these efforts are fundamentally an attack on our ability to dissent, on our right to engage in protest,” Khalidi said.
In a statement on Thursday, Pompeo described the BDS movement as “a manifestation of anti-Semitism” and said he had instructed the Office of the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism to identify groups that support it.
Launched by Palestinian civil society groups in 2005, the BDS movement seeks to use non-violent means to pressure Israel to end its illegal occupation of Palestinian territories, ensure equal rights for Palestinian citizens and respect the right of return of Palestinian refugees.
BDS advocates have expressly disavowed anti-Semitism and all forms of racism, but the movement has been a target of the Israeli government and its allies in recent years.
“I know this sounds simple to you, Mr Prime Minister,” Pompeo told Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu during a news conference, about the new BDS decree.
“It seems like a statement of fact, but I want you to know that we will immediately take steps to identify organisations that engage in hateful BDS conduct, and withdraw US government support for such groups. The time is right,” Pompeo said.
“It sounds simply wonderful to me,” Netanyahu replied, according to a State Department readout.
It was not immediately clear what groups the State Department might label as BDS backers.
Pompeo also announced that the US would allow products originating in Area C of the occupied West Bank – an area that accounts for 60 percent of the territory and includes Jewish-only settlements – to be labelled as “Israel”, ”Product of Israel”, or “Made in Israel” when exported.
Israel for years has advocated for goods originating in Jewish-only settlements to be labelled this way to avoid global boycott efforts.
Josh Ruebner, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University, said the country of origin directive may appear bureaucratic, but it is “extremely significant” because it “designates illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank as being part of Israel”.
It also treats the West Bank and Gaza Strip as separate entities, a move Ruebner said “further segments the Palestinian people politically and geographically”.
Then, by recognising Area C as under a different administrative arrangement than other parts of the West Bank, it also “further reinforces and strengthens the US case for enabling Israel to annex as much West Bank territory as it wants between now and January 20”, he said.
That is US President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration date.
Most of the Trump administration’s pro-Israel policy changes – including moving the US embassy to Jerusalem and cutting funding to Palestinian refugees – have been enacted through executive action, which means that Biden can overturn them.
During his presidential campaign, Biden said that while he opposes BDS, he would “protect the constitutional right of our citizens to free speech”. He also said he does not support efforts to criminalise free speech and expression.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said on Thursday that criticism of Israel is protected by the First Amendment to the US Constitution, which guarantees the right to free speech.
“Threatening to block government funds to groups that criticize Israel is blatantly unconstitutional,” the group tweeted, in response to Pompeo’s directive.
Criticism of Israel, or any government, is fully protected by the First Amendment.
Threatening to block government funds to groups that criticize Israel is blatantly unconstitutional. https://t.co/mUwxA0hZAk
— ACLU (@ACLU) November 19, 2020
Biden’s ‘real test’
But Biden is unlikely to overturn Trump administration measures aimed at limiting Israel boycotts, Ruebner told Al Jazeera, since doing so comes at a steep political cost in the US, where most Democrats and Republican lawmakers are staunch defenders of Israel.
“(Pompeo is) throwing down a marker saying (to Biden), you have to now say that Israeli settlements are illegal in order to reverse what I did. He’s also saying that you have to affirmatively say that BDS is not anti-Semitic in order to reverse what I did,” Ruebner said.
“I honestly don’t think Biden is going to take up those challenges.”
For her part, Khalidi said Biden has a “real test” in front of him to demonstrate “his willingness to stand up for human rights and for freedom, and to really reject what is, in essence, a Trumpian smear”.
“We know that Biden has been no friend to Palestinians. He has stated very clearly that he intends to back Israel and its continued occupation and to preserve the unconditional support for Israel that has been the US’s position,” she said.
“But it’s imperative that we expose what is really at stake here … and to reject this effort to conflate what is a movement for freedom with an ideology of hate.”