The Senate Wants To Limit Americans’ Free Speech In Order To Protect The Occupation

By Laila Ujayli

Mural on the Israeli West Bank Barrier. Photo taken by Justin McIntosh, August 2004.

Before Donald Trump took the podium for his delayed State of the Union address, the Senate passed a Middle East policy package similarly delayed by the shutdown. At first glance, the legislation, S.1, features the usual Congressionally-accepted staples of U.S. foreign policy: Reauthorizing military aid to Israel, security assistance to Jordan, and new sanctions for Syria. Two components of the bill, however, sparked controversy.

PREVENTING AMERICANS FROM ENGAGING ON FOREIGN POLICY

Designed to suppress Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) activity deemed “not appropriate” to use against Israel, the Senate bill allows state and municipal governments to punish companies and individuals that boycott Israel, making it easier to pass legislation that combats the BDS movement and protects the anti-BDS laws currently enacted in twenty-six states.

Regardless of your position on the BDS movement, the measure is a direct attack on Americans’ rights to free speech and political engagement. Our ability to work on foreign policy rests, in part, on our ability to criticize allies of the United States, whether that is Saudi Arabia, the Philippines, France, or Israel. Legislation that emboldens the silencing of certain political activity threatens to handcuff the peaceful advocacy of any American seeking to change U.S. foreign policy and sets a dangerous precedent. As the ACLU has said, “If the government has the power to penalize or outlaw boycotts of Israel today, there is nothing that would prevent it from exercising that power to suppress civil society boycotts against other favored entities tomorrow, whether that’s Planned Parenthood, the NRA, or Saudi Arabia.”

Anti-BDS laws are already beginning to take a toll on the day-to-day lives of Americans. Take for example, Bahia Amawi, a Palestinian-American children’s speech pathologist in Texas who lost her job with a public school district after refusing to sign a political oath affirming that she does not and will not boycott — or even advocate for boycotting — Israel or companies operating in the occupied West Bank.

Moreover, the anti-BDS laws this legislation seeks to protect are part of a grander erosion of Americans’ right to engage on the subject of Palestinian rights. Across the country, college students even partly associated with pro-Palestinian advocacy risk having their names and photographs posted to The Canary Mission, a website that “compiles dossiers on Palestinian rights advocates and labels them racists, anti-Semites, and supporters of terrorism.” The site’s targeted harassment can intimidate young people concerned about employment prospects into silence. That defamation tactic extends beyond college students: The first two Muslim congresswomen — Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, the first Palestinian-American member of Congress — have been repeatedly vilified and smeared by their colleagues with bad faith accusations of anti-Semitism and bigotry for their critical stances on Israel and support of the BDS movement.

The ACLU has firmly maintained that anti-BDS laws violate First Amendment protections. However, we cannot continue to lay our fundamental civil liberties at the feet of our courts. While federal courts have blocked anti-boycott laws in Kansas and Arizona, a federal court in Arkansas ruled in their favor, demonstrating that striking down anti-BDS laws in court is by no means guaranteed. Our courts are fallible — we must treat them as such.

Boycotts have long been integral to American civil resistance, from boycotting British tea to boycotting segregated businesses in Mississippi. The freedom to call for and engage in boycotts extends to how Americans choose to politically engage on U.S. foreign policy today. All Americans have the right to interrogate U.S. engagement with the world — not matter how inconvenient, uncomfortable, or painful.

THE SENATE WON’T AUTHORIZE WARS, BUT IS HAPPY TO PROLONG THEM

As if trampling on Americans’ civil liberties wasn’t enough, the Senate bill also works to perpetuate endless war and empower those seeking war with Iran.

Senators voted 70–26 to accept an amendment — dubbed the “McConnell amendment” — warning the Trump administration of the dangers of a “precipitous withdrawal” of U.S. forces from Syria and Afghanistan, advancing a military-first approach in Afghanistan and Syria that for years has failed to curb violence, achieve stability, or limit the reach of extremist groups. Remember: Congress never authorized the use of military force in Syria in the first place. Congress’s actual job is to make those authorizations, which it has consistently failed to do. Apparently, the only time Congress actually wants to vote on war is to prevent troops from coming home.

The amendment’s repeated references to countering Iran’s activities in Syria and Afghanistan also underhandedly suggests that U.S. forces must remain in both countries to counter Iran. No matter how you spin it, there is no Congressional authorization for military force against Iran. So like Sen. Chris Murphy, we are “deeply worried about the language in this amendment that empowers those in the administration who are jonesing for a fight with Iran.”

A WINDOW INTO THE 2020 FOREIGN POLICY DEBATE

While S.1 passed with broad bipartisan support, 77 to 23, a closer look at the 22 dissenting Democrats sends a promising signal about Democrats’ approach to foreign policy in 2020. Apart from Sen. Amy Klobuchar, all of the announced or rumored Democratic presidential-hopefuls in the Senate voted against the legislation, including Senators Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, Sherrod Brown, Jeff Merkley, and Bernie Sanders.

But before 2020, this legislation must fail in the House. Members of Congress have the responsibility to listen to their constituents, not silence them. It’s their job to authorize wars, not perpetuate them. By passing this legislation, the Senate has abdicated its responsibility on both those tasks. Now, we must pressure the House not to make the same mistake.

Laila Ujayli is a Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellow at Win Without War specializing in the human impact of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.