Neal backs bill to punish supporters of boycotting Israel



Published: 07-21-2017 12:28 PM

U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, is one of 237 members of the House to co-sponsor a controversial bill that the American Civil Liberties Union says would impose harsh penalties on U.S. citizens who support a boycott of Israel.

The bill, known as the “Israeli Anti-Boycott Act,” would make it a felony offense to support an international boycott movement against Israel over that country’s treatment of Palestinians. Those found in violation would be subject to a minimum civil penalty of $250,000, a maximum criminal penalty of $1 million and 20 years in prison.

“I am opposed to international efforts that attempt to isolate, boycott and delegitimize the State of Israel. If peace in the Middle East is to be achieved, it will only come about through direct negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians,” Neal said Thursday in a statement to the Gazette.

“I take the views of the ACLU seriously, but remain deeply concerned about a movement that demonizes our close ally and rejects a two-state solution.”

Neal, who represents 13 Hampshire County communities, including South Hadley, Granby, Easthampton and Southampton, and Rep. Joe Kennedy, D-Newton, are the only two Massachusetts lawmakers currently co-sponsoring the bill. The bill was drafted with the assistance of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

In a statement to the Gazette, Dan Black, a spokesman for Kennedy, said that while Kennedy firmly opposes boycotts of Israel, “He takes the concerns raised with this particular bill extremely seriously and is reviewing the legislation.”

The global “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions” movement, or BDS, began after Palestinian civil society organizations in 2005 called for a boycott to pressure Israel to comply with international law. Among the movement’s goals: ending the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and Golan Heights; equality under Israeli law for Arab citizens; and stopping the expansion of almost exclusively Jewish settlements in Israeli-occupied territories, which the United Nations says is a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

Detractors say that BDS unfairly targets Israel, with the Anti-Defamation League going so far as to say it is “the most prominent effort to undermine Israel’s existence.” Supporters, however, say it’s a nonviolent movement inspired in part by similar to actions taken against the apartheid regime in South Africa in the 1980s.

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The legislation that Neal is co-sponsoring, together with more than half of the House, would expand the Export Administration Act of 1979 and the Export-Import Bank Act of 1945, which prevent U.S. persons from engaging in a foreign government’s call to boycott U.S. allies. The bill seeks to add international governmental organizations, like the United Nations and the European Union, into that language.

“I think the bill is horrible. It is a clear violation of people’s right to express their opinion,” said Joseph Levine, a philosophy professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a member of Western Mass Jewish Voice for Peace. “It represents a frightening kind of authoritarianism that would be absolutely horrible and a terrible precedent if it passed.”

In a letter to members of the U.S. Senate, the ACLU said the bill cannot be fairly considered an anti-discrimination measure. Discrimination against customers based on race, color, religion or national origin, they said, is already barred under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“This bill, on the other hand, aims to punish people who support international boycotts that are meant to protest Israeli government policies, while leaving those who agree with Israeli government policies free from the threat of sanctions for engaging in the exact same behavior,” the letter reads.

The civil liberties organization has pointed to the 1982 Supreme Court case National Association for the Advancement of Colored People v. Claiborne Hardware Co., in which the court ruled that nonviolent advocacy of politically motivated boycotts is protected as free speech.

“The right to engage in a peaceful political boycott is squarely protected by the First Amendment, and a proud part of America’s constitutional legacy,” Brian Hauss, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, wrote in a statement to the Gazette.

“Whatever Congress thinks about boycotts targeting Israel, it should reject any attempt to expand the scope of criminal laws targeting peaceful political activity.”

The ACLU has similarly spoken out against efforts across the country to ban boycotts of Israel at the state level. As of May, 19 states have enacted anti-BDS legislation, according to the organization Palestine Legal.

Levine, of Western Mass Jewish Voice for Peace, himself was at the Statehouse in Boston on Tuesday to testify against legislation moving through both chambers of the state Legislature — S.1689 and H.1685 — that would prevent those who have contracts with the state from refusing to do business with anybody based on their “race, color, creed, religion, sex, national origin, gender identity or sexual orientation.”

Some of the bill’s backers, however, have explicitly stated that the goal is to target BDS as a movement.

“This bill clarifies to businesses that either support BDS or who boycott Israeli-owned businesses and products that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts will not engage in commerce with them,” state Rep. Steven Howitt, R-Seekonk, said in a statement.

“As a Jewish American growing up in the generation right after the Holocaust I am well aware of the frightening consequences that attend social toleration for racism in all its forms, particularly anti-Semitism,” Levine said in his testimony Tuesday. “But I strongly oppose this act because I believe it actually fosters, rather than combats, discrimination.”

State Sen. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow, is one of the co-sponsors on the bill, though he did not immediately respond to request for comment on the legislation.

The ACLU says the Israel Anti-Boycott Act goes a step further by imposing severe, punitive measures against boycott supporters. The act would even penalize those who simply request information about such boycotts, according to the organization’s letter to senators.

When the outlet The Intercept interviewed several of the bill’s sponsors, some seemed surprised by the ACLU’s concerns and have announced, like Kennedy, their intention to review the bill.

“We hope they do the right thing by backing away from any bill that violates our First Amendment rights,” Hauss, of the ACLU, said in an article posted to the organization’s website.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at