Senator Ben Cardin Defends Criminalizing Boycotts of Israel

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A swarm of protestors— mostly white seniors— stood outside the steel and glass John Hopkins Medical Center building in Rockville on Thursday, August 31, 2017, ready to confront Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) in person about the criminalization of their first amendment rights to engage in Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaigns for Palestinian human rights.

The BDS campaign is a Palestinian-led "global movement made up of unions, academic associations, churches and grassroots" groups, which aims to pressure the Israeli government over settlements and human rights abuses.

Sen. Cardin defended his American Israel Public Affairs Committee drafted Israel Anti-Boycott Act that targets BDS but also said that Americans would still have the “absolute right to boycott” Israel. Cardin has deep ties with the Israeli-American lobbying group and has tried to insert a similar bill into legislation in 2015.

This new bill, H.R. 1697 and S. 720, supported by 280 members of the U.S. House and Senate from both parties, can give Americans up to 20 years in prison and a $1 million fine if they publicly support the boycott of Israel. It would prohibit American businesses or individuals engaged in interstate or foreign commerce from “supporting any boycott fostered or imposed by an international organization, or requesting imposition of any such boycott, against Israel,” according to a congressional summary.

To put in in layman’s terms, a person could participate in a domestic boycott and activists will not be jailed because of their activism but companies would not be able to participate in a boycott of Israel by say… the United Nations. This bill is to protect illegal settlements, says Maryland based Rabbi Joseph Berman of Jewish Voices of Peace. As human right organizations have stepped up their call to cease doing business with illegal settlements and the United Nations is curating a list of companies with business interests in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, this bill will bar anyone in the United States from looking at that database before they do business.

And that is unconstitutional say the American Civil Liberties Union- the countries largest civil rights organization.

“The underlying law refers to severe civil and criminal penalties. The underlying law calls for prison time. The language is unambiguous and a prosecutor could interpret it broadly,” says Michael W. Macleod-Ball, senior advisor to the ACLU.

The law is already bad, explains McCloud-Ball but this bill makes it worse by expanding it.

The bill is built on the1979 Export Administration Act, which forbids participation in foreign-sponsored boycotts against U.S. allies. According to the ACLU, the law “would punish individuals for no reason other than their political beliefs” by expanding the Export Administration Act of 1979 and the Export-Import Bank Act of 1945, which “prohibit U.S. persons from complying with a foreign government’s request to boycott a country friendly to the U.S.”

“I personally oppose this bill because it is a blatant attack on our constitutional rights and Palestinian solidarity activists. It's bad enough that a US Senator would seek to silence legitimate dissent. The fact that Cardin is doing so to protect illegal Israeli settlements is unconscionable,” says Saqib Ali, a former member of the Maryland House of Delegates, to the Muslim Link. Ali found the group Freedom to Boycott and organized the protest.

Nathan Feldman, of Baltimore Palestine Solidarity, who had confronted Sen. Cardin at a town hall in Towson, Md. about the bill stood in line in Rockville waiting to ask the Senator some pointed questions about the language of the bill.

“Senator Cardin, you have stated that you [don't intend to criminalize boycott] [disagree with the ACLU's interpretation of the law] [etc.] However, as you yourself state, the Israel Anti-Boycott Act extends the Export Administration Act of 1979 to prohibit acting in compliance with boycotts of foreign countries in accordance with international government organizations?”

Feldman went on, “Additionally, section 4(c) of the Israel Anti-Boycott Act states that an individual in violation of the law may be punished according to section 206 of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, which designates a criminal punishment up to 20 years in prison.”

He asked for the removal of reference to the law where criminal penalties were mention.  When Senator Cardin dilly-dallied, Feldman restated, “Will you remove the reference to the law from your bill?”

“He essentially tried to filibuster me,” says Feldman who is considering a run for the Maryland House of Representatives on a Green party ticket for the 11th district of Baltimore County. “He couldn’t deny what was in the bill. I was reading it”.

Feldman was raised in a moderately observant Jewish home and says he resents the education he received about Israel and Palestinians in particular in his Hebrew School and Youth Group. “It ignore the Palestinian plight,” he said. He joined Student Justice for Palestine while at the University of College Park after researching and reading books such as The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, authored by Israeli historian Ilan Pappé. He followed the work of Breaking the Silence, a group of Israeli Defense Force veterans who write about their experiences in the occupied territories. “I felt betrayal for my incorrect teachings,” he says, so like a growing number of American Jews, he joined the BDS movement.

At the town hall, Ben Cardin indicated he would clarify the language in the bill in regard to criminal sanctions.

He also said, “I have a great deal of respect for the ACLU... I would ask you to go back and talk to the ACLU because their initial letter was not accurate, and I think they will acknowledge that to you.”

“Cardin's response fell short because he indicated that nobody would go to jail under his bill. But numerous lawyers (including the ACLU) who read it say otherwise. Furthermore, let's assume for a second that Cardin is right and it doesn't jail anyone. Then what does the bill do? Nothing?? Something is fishy,” says Saqib Ali, who has spoken to the ACLU as suggested by the Senator.

Cardin was continuously pressed hard on his bill at the town hall, which upset those in the crowd who had come to discuss healthcare. “Will you please do a town hall to talk about over $3 billion worth of unconditional aid given to Israel,” asked Benjamin Douglas who had be waiting patiently for his turn to speak.

Community elder Samira Hussein, a tireless advocate, despite suffering from high blood pressure stood at the mic at the town hall —a town hall scheduled on the holiest day in the Muslim calendar—asked the senator why he “honors her as an Arab American and then dishonors her as a Palestinian.” She spoke passionately about her family’s ordeal in the occupied territories and asked why she had to now “pay” for his bill that infringed on her right to boycott.

As Sen. Cardin dodged her question, she reiterated, “It’s not about my beliefs, it’s about my identity as a Palestinian.”

“In December we took a dozen preachers to Palestine to see for themselves. And what they saw there was an apartheid state. It looked like Jim Crow in the 1950s. We need to stop giving aid and comfort to an apartheid state,” thundered Reverend Graylan Hagler, Senior Minister of the Plymouth Congregational of the United Church of Christ. He compared Sen. Cardin to Ronald Reagan when he stood against the boycotts of South Africa. Sen. Cardin ignored him.

“Cut the money! Cut the money!” chanted the crowd. Senator Ben Cardin supports universal healthcare. Many in the audience who were there to speak about healthcare made the connection that that money would be better used to take care of sick and unhealthy Americans at home.

After the town hall, a Zionist verbally harassed two teenagers in hijab, assuming they were of Palestinian descent, called them racial expletives. The young women were astonished at the “immaturity and extremism” of the few Israeli supporters sprinkled in the crowd.

“It is hard to say what will happen with the bill. It is written very vaguely and I think unconstitutionally,” said Feldman.

“I'm not sure what's next. We will wait and see what develops with this bill,” said Ali.