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‘The Palestine Exception’: War on BDS is now a War on American Democracy

There is something immoral in Washington D.C., and its consequences can be dire for many people, particularly for the health of US democracy.

The US government is declaring war on the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The fight to defeat BDS has been ongoing for several years, but most notably since 2014.

Since then, 11 US states have passed and enacted legislation to criminalize the movement, backed by civil society, which aims to put pressure on Israel to end its occupation of Palestine.

Washington is now leading the fight, thus legitimizing the anti-democratic behavior of individual states. If the efforts of the US government are successful, an already struggling US democracy will take yet another step back, and many good people could potentially be punished for behaving in accordance with their political and moral values.

Senate Bill 720 (S.720), also known as the ‘Anti-Israel Boycott Act’, was largely drafted by the notorious and powerful Israel lobby in Washington, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

According to its own ‘2017 Lobbying Agenda’, AIPAC has made the passing of the bill its top priority.

The US Congress is beholden by Israel’s interests and by the ‘stranglehold‘ of AIPAC over the elected representatives of the American people.

Thus, it was no surprise to see 43 senators and 234 House representatives backing the Bill, which was first introduced in March.

Although the Congress has habitually backed Israel and condemned Palestinians – and any politician or entity that dared recognize Palestinian rights – this time, the Congress is going too far and is jeopardizing the very basic rights of its own constituencies.

The First Amendment to the US Constitution has been the pillar in defense of people’s right to free speech, freedom of the press, “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”  This right, however, has often been curtailed when it applies to Israel. The Center for Constitutional Rights refers to this fact as “The Palestine Exception.”

S.720, however, if it passes, will cement the new US status, that of ‘flawed democracy’ as opposed to a full democratic nation that legislates and applies all laws fairly and equally to all of its citizens. The law would make it a ‘felony’ for Americans to support the boycott of Israel.

Punishment of those who violate the proposed law ranges from $250,000 to $1 million, and/or 20 years in prison.

The Bill has already had chilling effects on many groups in the country, especially among African American activists, who are fighting institutionalized racism. If the Bill becomes law, the precedent will become the norm, and dissidents will find themselves standing trial for their mere opinions.

With regard to Israel, the US Congress is united. Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers often act in ways contrary to the interests of their own country, just to appease the Israeli government. This is no secret.

However, the real danger is that such laws go beyond the traditional blind allegiance to Israel – into a whole level of acquiesce, where the government punishes people and organizations for the choices they make, the values they hold dear or the mere inquiry of information about an issue that they may find compelling.

On July 17, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) issued a letter calling on lawmakers who signed the Senate version of the Bill to reconsider.

“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,” ACLU stated.

Only one person, thus far, has reportedly reconsidered her support, junior Democratic Senator from New York, Kirsten Gillibrand. She requested for her name to be removed from the list of co-signatories.

AIPAC’s reaction was immediate, calling on its army of supporters to pressure the Senator to reinstate her name on the list and to “reaffirm her commitment to fighting the international de-legitimization of Israel.”

Dire as it may seem, there is something positive in this. For many years, it has been wrongly perceived that Israel’s solicitation of American support against Palestinians and Arabs is, by no means, a foreign country meddling or interfering in the US political system or undermining US democracy.

The ‘Israel Anti-Boycott Act’, however, is the most egregious of such interventions, for it strikes down the First Amendment, the very foundation of American democracy, by using America’s own lawmakers to carry out the terrible deed.

This Bill exposes Israel, as well as its hordes of supporters, in Congress. Moreover, it presents human rights defenders with the opportunity to champion BDS, thus the rights of the Palestinian people and also the rights of all Americans. It would be the first time in many years that the battle for Palestinian rights can be openly discussed and contextualized in a way that most Americans find relevant to their everyday life.

Actually, this was one of the aims of BDS, from the start. While the boycott and de-legitimization of the Israeli military occupation of the Palestinians is at the core of the civil society-backed movement, BDS also aims at generating an urgent discussion on Israel and Palestine.

Although inadvertently, the Congress is now making this very much possible.

The Bill, and the larger legislative efforts across the US – and Europe – are also a source of hope in the sense that it is recreating the very events that preceded the demise of the Apartheid regime in South Africa.

The US and British governments, in particular, opposed the South African liberation movement, condemned the boycott and backed the racist authoritarian role of P. W. Botha to the very end. Former President, Ronald Reagan, perceived Nelson Mandela to be a terrorist. Mandela was not removed from the US terror list until 2008.

It is quite telling that the US, UK and Israel were the most ardent supporters of South Africa’s Apartheid.

Now, it is as if history is repeating itself. The Israeli version of Apartheid is fighting for legitimacy and refuses to concede. It wants to colonize all of Palestine, mistreat its people and violate international law without a mere word of censure from an individual or an organization.

The US government has not changed much, either. It carries on supporting the Israeli form of Apartheid, while shamelessly paying lip service to the legacy of Mandela and his anti-Apartheid struggle.

Although the new chapter of the anti-Apartheid struggle is called ‘Palestine’, the US and its western backers continue to repeat the same costly policies they committed against the South African people.

As for true champions of human rights, regardless of their race, religion or citizenship, this is their moment. No meaningful change ever occurs without people being united in struggle and sacrifice.

In one of his speeches, an American abolitionist and former slave, Frederick Douglass said, “power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

The US Congress, with the help of AIPAC, is criminalizing this very demand of justice.

Americans should not stand for this, if not for the sake of Palestinians, then for their own sake.

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Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and editor of Palestine Chronicle. His latest book is The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story (Pluto Press, London, 2018). He earned a Ph.D. in Palestine Studies from the University of Exeter and is a Non-Resident Scholar at Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies, UCSB.

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