The House overwhelmingly approved a resolution Tuesday opposing an international effort to boycott Israel, a rare bipartisan vote as Democrats try to tamp down increasingly heated political rhetoric over differences with the longtime U.S. ally.
Democrats have been wrestling with the issue all year. Liberal lawmakers, most notably Reps. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., and Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., two newly elected Muslim Americans, have spoken out about the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement, known as BDS, as they criticize Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, particularly in the occupied territories. Republicans have amplified the views of the left flank to portray Democrats as deeply divided and at odds with Israel.
Ahead of voting, the bill’s chief backers warned against the stark framing as dangerous for both countries.
“This issue has been politicized in a way that I find ugly and ultimately harmful to the U.S.-Israel relationship,” said Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee.
The resolution passed on a vote of 398-17.
House Democrats have been eager to vote to show support for Israel and, for those lawmakers from more conservative areas, to resist having the party be defined by its most liberal members.
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Tlaib delivered an emotional speech opposing the bill on the House floor. “I stand before you the daughter of Palestinian immigrants,” Tlaib said, “Parents who experienced being stripped of their human rights, the right to freedom of travel, equal treatment. So I can’t stand by and watch this attack on our freedom of speech and the right to boycott the racist policies of the government and the state of Israel.”
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez joined her fellow “squad” members Tlaib and Omar in opposing the measure. However, the fourth member of the so-called “squad” - the group of progressive congresswomen demonized recently by President Trump, Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley, broke with the other members of the group and voted for the anti-BDS bill.
Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., the majority leader, had promised lawmakers the bill would come up for a vote before the August recess. It’s a way to shield House Democrats from continued Republican efforts to attack them around the issue of Israel, according to a Hoyer aide who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the private conversations.
Omar, a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, was among the only lawmakers to voice objection when the bill was included in a package the panel approved last week.
“What are we doing to bring peace? I believe that simple question should guide every vote we take in this committee,” said the freshman lawmaker, who came to the U.S. as a refugee from Somalia when she was a child and became a U.S. citizen.
Omar has been outspoken against Israel, once tweeting that lawmakers were supportive of the Jewish state because they were essentially being paid to do so. It was widely considered a slur that relied on a trope against Jewish people, and she later “unequivocally” apologized.
Trump called her apology “lame” and Republicans have continued to stoke opposition to her views as part of the “squad” of liberal freshmen lawmakers. Trump stood by last week at a campaign rally as the crowd chanted about Omar, “Send her back.”
Omar, who was among a handful of Democrats who voted against the bill Tuesday, said she supports the long-held U.S. goal of a “two-state solution,” one for Israel and one for Palestine. But she said during the committee hearing last week that “truly achieving peace” means “ending this occupation” of Israeli settlements.
The House has struggled with the issue since the start of the year, after an earlier version passed the Senate. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., had introduced it as the first bill of the new Congress, and brought it forward repeatedly for votes until it ultimately passed, also with robust bipartisan support. But the Senate bill, which was part of a broader foreign policy package, stalled in the House amid concerns over First Amendment rights and the ability of Americans to protest Israel’s policies.
The resolution puts the House on record opposing the BDS movement and its efforts to target U.S. companies that do business with Israel. The movement has grown in recent years, and Israel sees it as a threat. Supporters of Israel view it as an attempt to delegitimize the Jewish state.
“We must reject the blatant anti-Semitics injected throughout BDS,” said Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y., a sponsor of the measure.
The resolution has been pushed by AIPAC, the influential Israel lobby in Washington. J Street, a more liberal group in the progressive Jewish community, had opposed an earlier Senate version but supported the House’s approach.
To win over those in the House who had panned the Senate effort, the resolution beefed up First Amendment protections over the boycott. While the Senate bill affirmed the legal authority of state and local governments to restrict contracts or take other actions against entities that boycott Israel, the House bill affirms the constitutional right of Americans to engage in “free speech, including the right to protest or criticize the policies of the United States or foreign governments.”
The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations applauded the vote, declaring that “Congress has taken a strong stand in support of Israel’s right to exist in safety and the Jewish people’s right to self-determination.”
AIPAC noted that 92% of the House voted “to condemn the BDS campaign as anti-Israel, anti-peace and damaging to U.S. interests” saying it was “representative of the broad, bipartisan support in Congress for Israel and the U.S.-Israel relationship.”
The progressive group IfNotNow criticized the timing of the vote, saying that it was “maddening that Nancy Pelosi, Elliot Engel, and the Democratic Leadership would choose this moment to have a vote on this sweeping, ambiguous condemnation of the BDS Movement” a day after “the Israeli government demolished 70 Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem” and at a time when “we are in the midst of Trump stirring up violent racism against sitting Congresswomen.”