U.S. Senate Passes anti-BDS Legislation With Strong Majority

Democratic senators were almost evenly split on the bill; passage in House of Representatives not guaranteed at this point

FILE PHOTO: Demonstrators wear shirts reading "Boycott Israel" during a protest against Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital, in Paris, France, on Saturday, December 9, 2017.
Kamil Zihnioglu / AP

WASHINGTON – The Senate voted Tuesday to pass legisation that encourages state governments in the United States not to sign contracts with supporters of boycotts against Israel or its settlements in the West Bank.

The law passed the Senate after close to a month of political fighting between Democrats and Republicans, and also within the Democratic Party, over its implications regarding freedom of speech.

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In the end, 77 senators voted in favor of the legislation and 23 voted against it. Like in previous rounds of voting, the Democratic Party was split on the issue, with a narrow majority of Democratic senators voting in favor and close to half opposing it.

Only one Republican senator, Rand Paul of Kentucky, joined Democrats opposing the law by warning that it harms free speech.

The law isn’t likely to pass the House of Representatives at this point due to Democratic control over the chamber. Democratic representatives are expected to break the bill up into component parts, with the leadership likely to bury the anti-BDS section while advancing the other sections.

The American Civil Liberties Union said in response to the Senate vote: “Today, the Senate chose politics over the Constitution and trampled on the First Amendment rights of all Americans.

“We encourage each senator who voted for this bill to read the Constitution and understand the protections it affords individuals against the unconstitutional, McCarthy-era tactics this bill endorses.”

The anti-BDS bill passed the Senate as part of a “package” of Middle East-related laws that were presented in one piece of legislation. The other part of the bill includes consensus issues such as security assistance to Israel and sanctions on Syria that, separate from the anti-BDS law, probably would have passed the Senate with very broad support from both parties, perhaps with no opposition at all.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee applauded the Senate for passing the legislation. The pro-Israel lobby gave strong backing to the anti-BDS law, fighting back against the warnings of the ACLU regarding free speech concerns.

AIPAC said on Tuesday: “This legislation mirrors a provision in current federal law that protects states directing divestment from companies invested in Iran’s energy sector,” and that “the legislation has no impact on the right of Americans to personally boycott Israel or oppose Israeli policies” – a statement that opponents of the law, including the liberal Jewish group J Street, said was untrue.

J Street called the legislation “deeply flawed” and asked its own supporters to contact their representatives in the House and call on them to oppose the bill.