Any threat to free speech needs to be taken seriously. And when the ACLU raises the free speech flag, people generally pay attention. But despite what you may have heard, the Israel Anti-Boycott Act now being considered on Capitol Hill poses no such threat to free speech.
The bill, which was introduced in the Senate in March by Maryland Democrat Ben Cardin and Ohio Republican Rob Portman, has the support of almost half of the chamber, 29 Republicans and 14 Democrats. The bill expands 1970s-era trade laws that make it illegal to comply with boycotts of Israel sponsored by governments — laws inspired at the time by the Arab League boycott of Israel — to include boycotts backed by international organizations. Those adhering to such boycotts would be subject to fines.
In a July 17 letter urging senators to oppose the bill, the ACLU said that “the bill would amend those laws to bar U.S. persons from supporting boycotts against Israel, including its settlements in the Palestinian Occupied Territories, conducted by international governmental organizations, such as the United Nations and the European Union.” And, according to the ACLU, the right to free speech would be violated, because “this bill would impose civil and criminal punishment on individuals solely because of their political beliefs about Israel and its policies.” That’s quite a series of accusations, but they are all just plain wrong.
In a letter to the ACLU, Cardin and Portman point out that “the bill does not prevent U.S. companies and individuals from expressing their points of view,” whether that’s “speaking in favor” of BDS activities, “engaging in boycott activity of their own accord, or being critical of Israel.” Indeed, even the far-left Jewish Voice for Peace agrees that the bill “does not make it illegal for individual consumers to boycott Israeli or settlement products.”
So, what does the bill do, and what “international government organizations” are implicated? The answer is simple: If, for example, the U.N. Human Rights Council asks an American company about its business dealings in Israel or Israeli-controlled territories as part of an effort to compile a blacklist of companies doing business with Israel, the bill would prohibit the company from responding. We see nothing wrong with that. And, contrary to the hype of the ACLU, the bill forswears jail time and identifies monetary fines as the only punishment for violations.
There are those like J Street who criticize the bill for not making a distinction between Israel and the territories it controls in Judea, Samaria and the eastern sections of Jerusalem. But that argument is a red herring, as the existing trade law has never made that distinction.
So the whole brouhaha by the ACLU is much ado about nothing. We could have been spared the drama if the ACLU had just read the Israel Anti-Boycott Act before challenging it.