Recent actions in Congress show the overwhelming support that Israel has among both Democrats and Republicans. Much has been made recently of the opposition to Israel by several members of Congress. However, their position is a tiny one.
In late July, the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed (398-17) a measure condemning the BDS movement, the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel. The lead sponsor was a Jewish Democrat from Illinois, Rep. Brad Schneider. He said that bringing a vast majority of the House on board to the resolution was a major achievement.
Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), who is one of four Representatives who make up what has become known colloquially as the “squad,” joined the bipartisan majority in voting for the resolution. She publicly defended her decision: “What I heard resounding in my community was that voting yes on this resolution affirmed to my constituents raised in the Jewish faith Israel’s right to exist, a view I share as a supporter of a two-state solution.”
Schneider said the passage of the anti-BDS resolution made clear that opposition to the movement was a consensus issue. “I spent the last four months working with my colleagues so they understand the purpose of” the resolution and “what impact it will have in our [Jewish] community and promoting peace in the Middle East,” he said.
The anti-BDS resolution was backed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and also enshrines the two-state outcome to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict at a time that the Trump administration and Israel’s government appear to have retreated from the concept. Rep. Schneider stated that “It is an important statement that the United States is committed to a negotiated two-state solution to ensure that Israel is Jewish and democratic.”
However, there is also a resolution (HR 246) that affirms “all Americans have the right to participate in boycotts in pursuit of civil and human rights at home and abroad, as protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution.” Some supporters of Israel have expressed concern that that resolution could be interpreted as support for BDS efforts, although BDS is not mentioned in the resolution.
Pressley co-sponsored that second measure along with Omar and Atlanta’s own Rep. John Lewis. Pressley stated, “Like Congressman John Lewis, I believe that I can hold these strong views without opposition. Protest is sacred and activism is critical.”
The first resolution also says Americans have a right to petition in opposition to government policy, a nod toward some Democrats who oppose separate legislation that penalizes Israel boycotts because, they say, such penalties impinge on speech freedoms. Republicans continued to press for the Democratic-led House to pass separate legislation, already approved by the Senate, that would protect states that penalize boycotters. That effort has run into opposition because of First Amendment concerns.
For most Jews, we are in the uncomfortable position of defending Israel and defending the central rights of the American experiment, including freedom of speech and freedom to petition. Restrictions on Americans’ liberties such as speech can only hurt Jews in the long run. We are in our best position when we can use our own freedom of speech to defend Israel and defeat BDS efforts wherever they crop up.
Also passed in the House was legislation that codifies the $38 billion over 10 years in defense assistance that the Obama administration announced in the last months of 2016. Writing the assistance into law keeps any current and future presidents from walking it back. The Senate passed a similar measure.
Still another bill passed that imposes new sanctions on Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, two terrorist groups that have fired missiles on Israeli civilian areas.
AIPAC applauded the House of Representatives for “adopting three bipartisan measures that strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship.”
The Jewish community must follow up these resolutions by meeting the BDS movement head on.
Harold Kirtz is president of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Atlanta