Key New York Senator Withdraws Support From anti-BDS Bill

Kirsten Gillibrand, one of the legislation's original co-sponsors, says she 'would never support any bill that chills free speech'

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand listens during a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing in Washington, U.S., May 13, 2014.
Bloomberg

WASHINGTON –  A Democratic senator from New York officially withdrew her support from the "Israel Anti-Boycott Act" after civil rights groups criticized the legislation for having a "chilling effect" on free speech.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand was one of the bill's original co-sponsors, and her withdrawal could lead other Democratic senators and members of Congress to take a similar step. A number of Democrats have already announced in the last two weeks that they are re-examining their support for the controversial bill, which is supported by the pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC. 

Gillibrand addressed the issue at a town hall in New York earlier this week, in which she was asked about it by a number of constituents. Gillibrand said in response that she "would never support any bill that chills free speech."

Gillibrand added that after meeting representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union and hearing why they feel the bill "chills free speech," she will "urge the authors of the bill to change the bill and will not support it in its current form.”

On Wednesday, she went forward with that promise by withdrawing her name from the list of the bill's co-sponsors, despite the fact that she is known to be a strong opponent of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. Gillibrand could renew her support for the bill if it were to be re-written in a way that doesn't leave room for legal ambiguity.  

Gillibrand, it should be noted, doesn't fully agree with what many of the bill's critics have been saying. The ACLU warned, in a letter distributed to members of the Senate two weeks ago, that the bill could lead to a situation in which U.S. citizens would be sent to prison or suffer from fines worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, for supporting or participating in boycotts of Israel and the settlements.

Gillibrand's office released a statement two weeks ago saying that "We have a different read of the specific bill language, however, due to the ACLU's concerns, the Senator has extended an invitation to them to meet with her and discuss their concerns." 

Her "different reading" of the bill came from the fact that the penalties mentioned in the bill are based on an existing law from 1977, which made it illegal for U.S. corporations to join the Arab League boycott of Israel. While her position hasn't changed, Gillibrand now believes that if the ACLU has such serious concerns regarding the bill, it's a sign that the bill's language is too ambiguous, and that it should be clarified before the legislation moves forward.

"There must be ambiguity there because otherwise the ACLU wouldn’t reach their conclusion, so I’m going to urge them to rewrite it to make sure it says, ‘This does not apply to individuals," she said on Monday.

Gillibrand's decision was welcomed by the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights, an organization which supports BDS and have been working to create pressure on Democratic politicians to retract their support for the bill.

“It’s exceedingly rare for members of Congress to withdraw their sponsorship of bills, especially on this issue,” the organization's policy director, Josh Ruebner, said in a statement on Wednesday.

“We thank Senator Gillibrand for listening to her constituents’ concerns about this bill and removing her sponsorship after realizing the draconian nature of the penalties it would impose on individuals exercising their First Amendment right to engage in boycotts in support of Palestinian human rights.”