Israel should not be allowed to criminalise BDS in the US

The Israel anti-Boycott Act is the pro-Israel lobby’s latest attempt to criminalise any criticism of Israel in the US.

BDS protest New York AP
BDS supporters protest an executive order prohibiting state investments in any company that supports a boycott of Israel, June 15, 2016, in Albany, NY [File: Mike Groll/AP]

In the United States, before the new Congress is seated in January, some legislators hope to pass a piece of legislation that would penalise support for the BDS movement (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) against the Israeli occupation. The controversial measure is another attempt by the pro-Israel lobby and the Israeli government to paint support for Palestinian human rights as anti-Semitism, and to characterise BDS activists and supporters as criminals, terrorists and racists.

Some politicians have decided to capitalise on the rise in anti-Semitic violence in the US by demonising BDS – a social justice movement to end the oppression of Palestinians, which is inspired by the struggles decades ago to end apartheid in South Africa – rather than addressing domestic white supremacist terrorism.

The legislation, known as the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, would criminally penalise individuals, including companies or their employees who participate in international boycotts of Israel and the occupied territories.

In its earlier form, the bill would have provided for imprisonment. While the revised legislation has eliminated imprisonment as a penalty, civil liberties groups still vehemently oppose the legislation as an unconstitutional infringement on freedom of speech which would impose potentially exorbitant criminal financial penalties against those who support a boycott of Israel.

“From the campaign to divest from apartheid South Africa to the recent boycott against the National Rifle Association, boycotts have always been a key feature of American politics,” noted Brian Haus, a staff lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union. “If state and federal governments could outlaw boycotts they don’t like, all sorts of social movements would suffer.”

In addition to the proposed federal legislation, 26 US states have enacted anti-BDS laws, with legislation pending in 13 states, according to Palestine Legal.


That the US government would consider criminalising criticism of Israeli policies speaks to the hold the pro-Israel lobby has on many legislators. In 2018, the lobby spent $3.8 million on politicians, with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) accounting for the lion’s share.

AIPAC has achieved its goals of pushing the Trump administration to open the US embassy in Jerusalem and end the Iran deal. Newly elected members of Congress are expected to participate in AIPAC-sponsored junketsThe all-expenses-paid trips – which cost between $9,300 and $10,500 for each freshman legislator and their family member – provide a one-sided view of Israel and are designed to consolidate US support for its government.

Incoming Rep Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, a Palestinian American whose mother lives in the West Bank, will reject the AIPAC-sponsored trip in favour of her own congressional delegation to the West Bank. Tlaib and newly elected Rep Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, both members of the Democratic Party and the first Muslim women elected to Congress, are BDS supporters.


The bill in Congress enjoys far more Republican than Democratic support, with Democrats with 2020 presidential aspirations have stayed away from the legislation, save Sen Cory Booker.

Booker, who says he is a staunch BDS opponent, is a co-sponsor of the anti-BDS bill. “We’ve seen the alarming rise in anti-Semitism in the United States and across the world in recent years manifest itself in many deeply concerning ways, including in the actions of foreign governments targeting Israel and the Israeli people,” the senator said, arguing the legislation “will prevent international entities from imposing their will on US businesses with regards to their decisions, consistent with US law, to conduct commerce with our close ally Israel and its citizens”.

Booker, like Trump and other pro-Israel politicians, has used the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh – in which a white supremacist gunman killed 11 people – to demonise BDS for political gain.  

Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs works with front groups such as the Israel Project and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) to spy on US citizens who support Palestinian rights and smear them as anti-Semites, in a covert campaign that smacks of McCarthyism and Islamophobia.

Recent examples include the attacks against Temple University professor Marc Lamont Hill after he gave a speech at the United Nations for the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, and Lara Alqasem, a Palestinian American student at Hebrew University who was detained by Israeli authorities for 15 days. The Israeli government reportedly detained Alqasem because her name appeared on the Canary Mission – a website bankrolled by American Jewish establishment which maintains a list of BDS supporters, academics, students and others.

The Israeli government and its supporters have made it clear that with their support of Jewish settlements on Palestinian land, they will not tolerate a two-state solution in which Israel and Palestine live side-by-side with self-determination. Nor will they tolerate a one-state solution in which Israelis and a Palestinian majority share the land and enjoy equal citizenship rights in a vibrant democracy.

The only alternative is the current state of affairs, an apartheid system and a military occupation that denies basic human rights and dignity to the Palestinian people. Maintaining the occupation requires the demonisation of those who oppose it.

In the US, this also means the branding of pro-Palestinian movement activism as terrorism, and any disagreement with the Israeli government as anti-Semitism. Supporters of the anti-BDS bill in Congress aim to quash any discussion of Palestinian rights and the occupation, in the hope that the Palestinian people and their movement for freedom will simply go away. The result is a repressive, anti-democratic piece of legislation that violates civil liberties and free speech, including a fundamental right to engage in political boycotts.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.