Republicans push BDS bill to paint Dems as anti-Semites, and party leadership falls for the trap

Josh Ruebner May 17, 2019

On Wednesday, Republicans in the House initiated a rarely-used legislative procedure to try to force a vote on a controversial bill that encourages states and localities to penalize individuals, nonprofit organizations, and companies that boycott for Palestinian rights.

The legislative procedure, known as a “discharge petition”, was filed by Rep. Brian Mast (R-FL) and supported by Republican leadership in the House, as well as the only two Jewish members of the GOP House caucus, Reps. David Kustoff (R-TN) and Lee Zeldin (R-NY).

If such a petition receives 218 signatures (a majority of the 435 voting Representatives), then it is “discharged” from consideration by the committee or committees assigned jurisdiction over the bill and brought to the floor for a vote. The procedure is a rarity because it requires at least some of the majority party to upend the legislative priorities of its leadership and instead join forces with the minority party.

Mast is attempting to bring to a vote H.R.336, the companion bill to S.1, sponsored by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and passed by the Senate in February by a 77-23 vote. The bill, which authorizes military aid for Israel and Jordan and imposes additional sanctions on the Assad regime in Syria, also contains the controversial Combating BDS Act, a measure which failed to pass during the two previous congressional sessions.

The Combating BDS Act encourages states and local governments to pass laws prohibiting government contacts with anyone who does not sign a McCarthyite loyalty oath pledging not to boycott for Palestinian rights. Judges in Texas, Arizona, and Kansas have ruled these laws to be violations of the First Amendment and the American Civil Liberties Union called the bill “unconstitutional”.

Mast’s discharge petition has quickly gathered support, but The Hill reportedthat “there is no indication that House Democrats will buck their own leadership and join the GOP effort.” To date, first-term Rep. Elaine Luria (D-VA) is the only Democrat on record to consider signing. As of yesterday, the Clerk of the House reported that 177 Republicans had signed the discharge petition. No Democrats have signed it yet.

However, even if the GOP is unable to peel off enough Democrats to force a vote, legislation opposing boycotts for Palestinian rights appears to remain high on the Congressional agenda thanks to pro-Israel Majority Leader Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD).

Rather than assert the First Amendment right to boycott for Palestinian rights free of governmental condemnation, interference, or penalty, much less acknowledge the valid reasons why people boycott for Palestinian freedom, justice, and equality, Hoyer now seems intent on shepherding through the House an AIPAC-backed resolution opposing the BDS movement.

“I expect to be moving something out of the [House Foreign Affairs] Committee in the relatively near future,” Hoyer said Wednesday in a press briefing. “My inclination is to put it on the floor, yes, but I want to see what the committee does first before I make that decision,” he added.

A spokesperson for Hoyer confirmed to Mondoweiss that the legislation he referred to is H.Res.246, introduced by Rep. Brad Schneider (D-IL) in March and supported currently by 256 other Representatives. In addition to formally putting Congress on the record as being opposed to boycotts for Palestinian rights, the resolution also opposes “all efforts to delegitimize the State of Israel”, a phrase often utilized to equate criticism of Israeli policies with anti-Semitism.

Perhaps Hoyer is holding out hope that if he passes a non-binding resolution which has widespread Democratic support, rather than acceding to Republican demands to bring up a controversial anti-boycott bill that split the Senate Democratic caucus in half, that Republican clamoring for the House to pass anti-boycott legislation will die down. Hoyer is mistaken, however.

This latest GOP stratagem is not an isolated legislative maneuver, but part of an ongoing, concerted effort to blur the lines between and conflate criticism of the Israeli government and advocacy for Palestinian rights with hatred of and bigotry toward Jewish people. By doing so, Republicans are trying to portray themselves as the saviors of Israel and the Jewish people and paint the Democrats as an anti-Semitic, BDS-loving, radical left horde.

This would be risible if it did not have such serious repercussions. The GOP’s incessant Islamophobic incitement against Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) and Ilhan Omar (D-MN) have spurred death threats against the first Muslim Congresswomen, who also happen to be the first Members of Congress to support boycotts for Palestinian rights. It is no coincidence that the two feature prominently directly or indirectly in the dozens of social media posts by Republicans in support of the discharge petition.

In one such typical, egregious Facebook post, Rep. Mark Green (R-TN) blamed Speaker of the House Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) for letting “open anti-Semites like Rep. Ilhan Omar and Rep. Rashida Tlaib control the U.S. House.” Rep. Bill Johnson (R-OH) accused Pelosi of not bringing up H.R.336 for a vote because she “wants to shield the radical anti-Israel elements of her party.”

And Mast, the petition’s sponsor, argued that “with the resurgence of anti-Semitism happening right now, the American people deserve to know whether their elected Representatives have the courage to stand up against the extreme anti-Israel factions trying to force their will on the House of Representatives.”

Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) are the highest ranking leaders of the GOP pushing the discharge petition. Their posturing as front-line defenders against the scourge of anti-Semitism is particularly galling in light of the former’s anti-Semitic dog whistling and the latter’s dalliance with white supremacists, underscoring the crass hypocrisy of the GOP posing as champions of Jewish people, most especially in the Trump era when the president’s embrace of white nationalism has encouraged deadly synagogue shootings.

“BDS is the gift that keeps on giving for the GOP,” states Lara Friedman of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, “and will remain so until Democrats find the courage to stop punching left and recognize boycotts of Israel and settlements as legitimate free speech that they unapologetically defend.”

This is a lesson that seems to be lost on Hoyer. If he allows a vote on a resolution condemning boycotts of Israel, then the GOP will only ratchet up its pressure to pass more onerous legislation penalizing BDS supporters. And if the Democrats continue to refuse to pass H.R.336, then the GOP will surely make hay of the Democrats’ feckless hypocrisy in rhetorically condemning BDS but refusing to do anything substantive to shut it down. The only way for the Democrats to avoid this GOP trap is by not playing their game.

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