BDS Is A Trap For Democrats


Op-ed by Lara Friedman, published in The Forward on January 28, 2019.

Some are predicting that Israel-Palestine will be the big foreign policy issue in the 2020 Democratic primaries; others disagree.

But the fact is that Israel-Palestine is already being used as a potent weapon in today’s political arena.

Anyone who doubts this should pay attention this week, as the Senate once again considers S. 1, aka the “Strengthening America’s Security in the Middle East Act of 2019.” S. 1 was introduced by an all-GOP set of sponsors back on January 3. A grab-bag of Israel and Middle East-related measures, it also includes the “Combating BDS Act,” a controversial bill which would grant federal cover to laws passed by U.S. states that, in the name of supporting Israel, require companies and even individual contractors to sign away their right to engage in boycotts of Israel or its settlements.

The ACLU says these state laws are unconstitutional. Federal judges in Kansas and Arizona agree. So do constitutional law scholars and free speech experts.

But AIPAC and its fellow travelers, both in the GOP and among hardline pro-Israel forces, reject such views, albeit with arguments that stand up poorly to fact-checking. Instead, they have been framing these state laws, and S. 1, as political litmus tests of pro-Israel bona fides.

For the past three weeks, Senate Democrats, with the notable exceptions of Senators Dianne Feinstein, Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders, avoided dealing with the substance of S. 1, arguing instead over its timing and insisting on the impropriety of dealing with any business until the government was re-opened.

Now, with the government open again, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has, predictably, made S.1 the first item on the Senate’s agenda.

In doing so, McConnell, the GOP, and pro-Israel hardliners have set a political trap for congressional Democrats. Anyone who opposes the bill will be labeled anti-Israel and even anti-Semitic.

And yet, those who support the bill will be betraying the free speech rights of American citizens. And not only that; they will betray truly progressive elements in their own party, enraging the growing part of the progressive wing that is no longer willing to tolerate the political hypocrisy and cognitive dissonance of those who are progressive on all issues except Israel.

Senate Democrats are caught between a rock and a hard place. And it’s not the first time. We’ve seen this movie before.

Solidarity with the Palestinians, criticism of Israel, and support for free political speech, including in the form of boycotts, have in recent years been weaponized to attack the most significant progressive grassroots political movements, like Black Lives Matterand the Women’s March.

Legitimate disagreements about Israel have been inflated, inflamed, and cynically repurposed as political cudgels wielded to fracture progressive unity and organizing.

With S. 1 and the Combating BDS Act (and no doubt coming soon, a re-upping of the brazenly unconstitutional Israel Anti-Boycott Act) McConnell and friends are now working to undermine democratic freedoms and further codify a definition of pro-Israel that is as anathema to the real interests of Israel as it is to the American Constitution.

And as important, they are manufacturing a false binary, a “with-Israel-or-against-Israel” debate, designed to divide Democrats, to quash debate, to delegitimize and marginalize powerful emerging progressive voices, and to fracture and weaken the progressive grassroots.

Progressive leaders and elected officials can break this false binary, but only by acting with courage and conviction, re-claiming the moral high ground by affirmatively and unapologetically defining “pro-Israel” in terms that uphold liberal values, protect free speech and defend the legitimacy of differences of opinion among progressives when it comes to Israel-Palestine.

Unless and until they do, progressives will be caught between the same rock and hard place, time and again. So long as the likes of McConnell, AIPAC, Sheldon Adelson and Benjamin Netanyahu are allowed to dictate the limits of acceptable discourse and opinion on Israel, and to impose a definition of “pro-Israel” that is inconsistent with liberal values, progressives are preordained to get hammered politically.

And in that case, the role Israel will play in the 2020 election battle, primaries and general election, is easy to predict.