Israel lobby bills may pass through Congress by stealth

The legislation – the Israel Anti-Boycott Act and the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act – could be tacked on to a spending bill, evading debate on the House and Senate floors.

End-of-year spending bills are usually thousands of pages long and include legislation that could not pass earlier by regular means.

Both bills have been stalled in Congress amid First Amendment concerns, but sponsorship and support from Democratic and Republican representatives has been climbing.

If passed, the bills would have a chilling effect on students and scholars who criticize Israel and bolster efforts by Israel lobby groups to blacklist, surveil and harass supporters of Palestinian rights.

Under threat of federal investigation, university administrations would be pushed to crack down harder on student Palestine solidarity groups.

And churches, human rights organizations, corporations and investment fund managers could face fines if they decide not to invest in companies that profit from Israel’s violations of human rights.

The Israel Anti-Boycott Act, which would criminalize the boycott of Israel, was introduced last year by Democratic Senator Ben Cardin.

Cardin “is making a behind-the-scenes push” to slip the legislation into the last-minute spending bill, The Intercept reported last week.

The act would impose prison sentences and heavy fines on organizations or their personnel that participate in a boycott of Israel or its settlements in the occupied West Bank and the Syrian Golan Heights.

The powerful Israel lobby group AIPAC has made the bill one of its top legislative priorities.

It was recently given a boost by Senator Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat tipped as a possible presidential candidate and a top recipient of Israel lobby donations.

Booker seized on the massacre by a white supremacist of Jewish worshippers at a synagogue in October by announcing his support for the Israel Anti-Boycott Act.

The evangelical group Christians United for Israel told Jewish News it was also backing the bills, along with other pro-Israel legislation.

In response to concerns over First Amendment violations, the bill was slightly amended earlier this year but top civil rights groups contend that it still violates free speech protections.

Unconstitutional

More than 100 civil and human rights groups are calling on lawmakers to block the last-minute effort to pass the unconstitutional measure.

The Israel Anti-Boycott Act “has failed to pass for two years because of pressure from civil liberties groups and concerned citizens who oppose the punishment of political boycott activities intended to achieve Palestinian rights,” said one of those groups, Palestine Legal.

The American Civil Liberties Union says it will likely challenge the bill in court if it passes.

The ACLU pointed out in a letter to senators that two federal courts this year blocked state laws in Kansas and Arizona that imposed similar restrictions to the federal bill.

To date, 26 US states have passed anti-boycott measures.

Silencing students

The Anti-Semitism Awareness Act would adopt the “State Department definition” of anti-Semitism, which is substantially the same as the so-called IHRA definition of anti-Semitism that Israel lobby groups pressured the UK’s Labour Party to adopt as part of their campaign against leader Jeremy Corbyn and to curtail support for Palestinian rights.

The definition conflates criticism of Israel with anti-Jewish bigotry.

Even the definition’s lead author, former American Jewish Committee executive Kenneth Sternstrongly opposes efforts to enshrine it in legislation or university rule books, arguing that this would unconstitutionally infringe on free speech.

In June, lawmakers re-introduced the act in Congress after previous efforts to pass it stalled.

Republican Senator Tim Scott is joining Democrat Ben Cardin in efforts to tack the two pro-Israel measures onto the year-end spending bill.

However, the fact that Cardin and Scott “are attempting to push their controversial and unconstitutional bills through the must-pass budget process is an indication that they’ve been unable to get these bills passed through the normal legislative process,” Josh Ruebner, policy director of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights told The Electronic Intifada.

“They’re afraid of having an open debate and a vote on these bills and they’re doing whatever they can behind the scenes to sneak them through into passage without scrutiny,” he said.

Ruebner is urging people to contact their senators – and Democratic Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, the likely next speaker of the House, to demand that the bills be blocked.

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