The bipartisan Israel Anti-Boycott Act (S.720), introduced by Senators Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Rob Portman (R-OH) in March 2017, sparked controversy across American society, particularly in the Jewish and pro-Israel communities. The bill forbids American involvement with national or international efforts to impose “restrictive trade practices or boycotts by any foreign country, against a country friendly to the United States or against any United States person,” specifically Israel.
Since the 1973 Arab oil embargo, the West fears becoming a victim of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Some consider S.720 a potential violation of the First Amendment, while others defend it as in line with existing U.S. policy. Kol HaBirah contributors Samuel Kramer and Jackson Richman believe (for different reasons) that this bill does not further America’s or Israel’s best interests.
The Israel Anti-Boycott Act, while well-intentioned in confronting states and international governmental organizations (IGOs), does little to address Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) legislation’s ultimate consequence: a climate of fear.
While BDS’s victories remain few and far between, lingering unease in Israel and Western college campuses fuel a siege mentality among Israelis and Jews.
At George Washington University, my alma mater, a student association pro-divestment resolution turned acrimonious when BDS supporters accused opponents of outside support and astroturfing (i.e. masking their sponsors to make it appear as though they were a grass-roots movement). The evidence? Opponents of BDS formed a group called “GW Together” and ordered T-shirts for debate night.
Outside the campus, Ahmed Moor, a Gaza-born activist, wrote, “BDS is not another step on the way to the final showdown; BDS is The Final Showdown.” Given BDS’s hostility to Jews, the similarity between “The Final Showdown” and a certain final solution suggests either insensitivity to longstanding Jewish fears or actual support for their expulsion and torment.
Such insinuations of disproportionate power and eschatonic rhetoric do more than ruin a debate. They sow fear among Jewish students unsure whether their faith determines their on-campus status. They discourage people from expressing nuanced, personal, perhaps idiosyncratic views on the Israeli-Arab conflict. People already well-disposed to Israel will cling tighter to established beliefs, hardening their positions and perpetuating the impasse. A community once defined by cosmopolitanism could slip into a deep vein of insularity, threatening Western Jewish survival in an era of anti-Semitic populism and terror.
Sadly, the proposed bill cannot eliminate such fear. Due to First Amendment protections, as long as the speech avoids directly inciting violence, proponents of BDS can harass and shout unimpeded. Jews worldwide suffer little from the feeble attempts at boycotting Israeli products. Yet the political and psychological damage done by campaigns of division and fear remain untouched by S. 720.
The bipartisan anti-BDS bill may undermine both freedom of expression and of association.
If the U.N. and EU aren’t mandating its members boycott Israel, a boycott of IGOs isn’t warranted. Per the bill, “[The United Nations Human Rights Council] is calling for the establishment of a database, such as a ‘blacklist.’” Now, will members of the UNHRC be forced to cooperate on that initiative? Probably not, considering that, like any international assembly, there is no enforcement mechanism.
At the end of the day, I believe in free trade and association. The issue being debated should relate to national security, which is why I don’t oppose sanctions against foreign entities that threaten the U.S. If foreign states and entities actively practice BDS, they would unfortunately be boycotting America’s closest Middle East ally, but this would not endanger American national security. The only reason there are sanctions against Iran and other entities which may be hostile toward Israel is that they pose a national security threat to the U.S.
By Samuel Kramer and Jackson Richman
Samuel G. Kramer is a recent graduate from George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs and a master’s candidate at Georgetown University. He has interned at the State Department, Department of the Treasury, and the Hudson Institute. The views expressed in this article are his own.
Jackson Richman is a recent political science graduate of George Washington University. His writing has appeared in The Weekly Standard, The Daily Caller, Red Alert Politics, and numerous other outlets. Follow him on Twitter: @jacksonrichman.