Criminalizing Free Speech about Israel

Allan Brownfeld shows how desperate the Israel lobby is in making BDS a criminal offence. It also shows how craven US politicians are when it comes to Israel’s crimes.

Israel has now occupied the West Bank and East Jerusalem for fifty years, in violation of international law.  The U.S. Government, under both Republican and Democratic administrations, has advocated Israeli withdrawal from these territories and called for the establishment of a Palestinian state.  Israel’s current government is committed to keeping these territories.  Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declares that a Palestinian state will never be established while he holds power.  Instead, Israel is settling these occupied areas with its own citizens—approximately 700,000 so far. Some members of the Israeli government called for the annexation of these territories.



Around the world, those who object to this occupation and to the denial of basic rights to the Palestinians living in these areas, have embarked upon a peaceful movement calling for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel.  This movement has been compared to the boycott movement against South Africa during the years of apartheid.  American churches—including the Presbyterians, Mennonites and the United Church of Christ—have voted to divest from companies assisting in the occupation.  Jewish groups, such as Jewish Voice for Peace, support this effort.



There are those, however, who are seeking to make any calls for such a boycott illegal.  Legislation to this effect was drafted with the assistance of the militant Israeli lobbying group, AIPAC, and has the support of the far-right Christians United For Israel.  A group of 43 senators—29 Republicans and 14 Democrats—-now want to implement a law that would make it a felony for Americans to support any boycott against Israel.  The  two primary sponsors of the bill are Democrat Ben Cardin of Maryland and Republican Rob Portman of Ohio.  Perhaps the most extraordinary  part of the bill is the punishment:  anyone guilty of violating its prohibitions will face a maximum civil penalty of $250,000 and a maximum criminal penalty of $1 million and 20 years in prison.


Writing in The Intercept, Glenn Greenwald and Ryan Grim show that one of the bill’s sponsors, Sen Cardin of Maryland, actually did not know what was in the bill at all. They note that he was “particularly insisting that it contains no criminal penalties.”  How many of the other co-sponsors have any idea what is in the bill they are supporting, apparently submitting to the desires of AIPAC, which seems to have written the legislation? 




Discussing this legislation in The American Conservative, Daniel Larison declares that, “Whatever one thinks about the BDS movement…it is deranged to try to criminalize protected political speech and association. As the ACLU points out, that is what the bill does. This legislation is clearly unconstitutional and I assume it would be struck down in court if it were ever signed into law, but the deeper problem is that so many elected representatives think it is appropriate and desirable to trample on constitutional rights to defend another government’s illegal occupation. It is a measure of how lopsided and unthinking ‘pro-Israel’ hawks are in their support for bad Israeli policies they would try to infringe on Americans’ rights and threaten citizens of their own country with prosecution for engaging in peaceful political action.  It Is also a sign of how frightened these same hawks are that they feel the need to resort to such heavy handed tactics.”

Israel’s long-term best interests are not being served by those who are uncritical of its occupation, a fact that many Israelis understand.  Professor David Shulman of Hebrew University notes that, “No matter how we look at it, unless our minds have been poisoned by the ideologies of the religious right, the occupation is a crime.  It is first of all based on the permanent disenfranchisement of a huge population….In the end. It is the ongoing moral failure of the country as a whole that is most consequential, most dangerous, and most unacceptable.  This failure weighs…heavily on our humanity.  We are, so we claim, the children of the prophets.  Once, they say, we were slaves in Egypt.  We know all that can be known about slavery, suffering, prejudice, ghettos, hate, expulsion, exile.  I still find it astonishing that we, of all people, have reinvented apartheid in the West Bank.”

While Israeli settlers enjoy protection from the Israeli army and subsidies from the government. Israel keeps 3 million indigenous Palestinians in the West Bank under military rule with restrictions placed on nearly every aspect of their lives.  While Palestinians  live under military law and cannot vote, settlers have full rights of Israeli citizenship.


Dan Ephron, author of “Killing a King:  The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the Remaking of Israel,” describes  it this way:  “…it includes separate legal systems—Israeli law for settlers and much harsher military law for Palestinians—and separate courts that mete out wildly unequal penalties…On Israel’s Independence Day in May, the government’s Central Bureau of Statistics published a report with updated population figures…A map in the report depicted the West Bank as just one more region of Israel, labeling it ‘Judea and Samaria District.’ The population figure, 8.68 million. included settlers who live in the West Bank.  But it left out their neighbors, the Palestinians.”


Clearly, the Israeli government is promoting the idea that the occupied territories are really part of Israel.  The Green Line, the border which separates Israel proper from the occupied areas, no longer appears on schoolbook maps or newspaper weather charts.


The Economist declares that, “…the never-ending subjugation of Palestinians will erode Israel’s standing abroad and erode its democracy at home.  Its politics are turning towards ethno-religious chauvinism….The government objected even to a novel about a Jewish-Arab love affair…To save democracy and prevent a slide to racism or even apartheid, it has to give up the occupied lands.”

Editorially, The Los Angeles Times notes that, “…whether one agrees with the goals of BDS or not, the fact remains that boycotts are a form of speech, a classic form of political expression…Truly free countries tolerate peaceful dissent.  The 50-year occupation of the Palestinian Territories…has gone on for too long and must eventually be brought to an end.”

The political director of the ACLU, Faiz Shakir, expressed this view of the proposed legislation which would criminalize support for any boycott of Israel:  “We take no position for or against the effort to boycott Israel or any other foreign country, for that matter.  We do assert that the government cannot, consistent with the First Amendment,  punish U.S. persons based solely on their expressed political beliefs.  The bill would punish businesses and individuals based solely on their point of view.  Such a penalty is in direct violation of the First Amendment.”


AIPAC and its friends in Congress have a strange way to show support for Israel’s 50-year occupation—by eliminating free speech on the subject in the U.S.  They are embracing a policy which is, in fact, both harmful to Israel’s own long-term best interest, and contemptuous of American values of free speech.  During the years of apartheid in South Africa, there were heated debates about the merits of a boycott campaign—–but no one tried to make advocating such a boycott a criminal act.  Regardless of one’s view about the BDS campaign, Congress must reject any effort to criminalize free speech and peaceful, non-violent protest.

Allan C. Brownfeld is a nationally syndicated columnist and editor of ISSUES, the quarterly journal of the American Council,for Judaism.


1 Comment »

  1. 1
    mushafta Says:

    Unimaginable how Israel has garnered so much support.

    Our own Conservative party and indeed the other two can hardly be stated to be pro Palestine, or even neutral on this issue. And the Churches aren’t too far behind.

    Bravo Ted for doing this!

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