Sen. Claire McCaskill, along with 47 other senators (including 12 Democrats), is cosponsoring Senate Bill 720, the Israel Anti-Boycott Act. The proposed legislation, described as draconian and unconstitutional, has been condemned by numerous civil and human rights organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Amnesty International, National Lawyers Guild (NLG) and the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR).
The Israel Anti-Boycott Act seeks to criminalize support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and punish supporters by up to 20 years in prison and $1 million in criminal penalties.
BDS, inspired by the South African anti-apartheid movement, is a call by Palestinian civil society organizations to apply nonviolent pressure on Israel until it complies with international law and stops its violations of Palestinian human rights.
While taking no position for or against BDS, in a letter to Congress urging lawmakers to oppose the proposed legislation, the ACLU stated that “boycotts rightly enjoy First Amendment protection,” as affirmed by the Supreme Court. Further, the ACLU warned that “S.720 seeks only to punish the exercise of constitutional rights.”
Amnesty International pointed out in a similar letter that the proposed bill “would directly violate U.S. legal obligations to respect and protect freedom of expression and association guaranteed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” and “would constitute a direct violation of the [1946 Fourth Geneva] Convention.”
Another letter signed by a diverse group of organizations, including the NLG, CCR and Jewish Voice for Peace, concluded that even “amending the Act to reduce the associated penalties or otherwise will not solve” its underlying problems and chilling effect on constitutionally protected free speech.
Activists took these warnings seriously and mobilized to demand answers from their members of Congress. In response to public pressure during town hall meetings, Senator Kristen Gillibrand (NY) withdrew her cosponsorship of the bill. Senator Elizabeth Warren (MA), when questioned during a town hall meeting, expressed her opposition to the bill because “outlawing protected free speech activity violates our Constitution.”
Senator McCaskill, on the other hand, has not budged. When asked by The Intercept on July 19 about her cosponsorship in light of the ACLU letter, she indicated that she hadn’t seen the letter but would certainly “take their position into consideration.” However, a month has passed since then, and Senator McCaskill has yet to withdraw her cosponsorship or issue a statement to explain her position and highlight the Missouri interests she feels the bill is designed to serve. This is in spite of calls by constituents and mounting evidence of the unconstitutionality of the proposed bill.
It is puzzling and disheartening when the member of Congress you elected to represent you and protect your rights tries instead to penalize you for exercising your First Amendment rights. In light of Senator McCaskill’s inexplicable intransigence and silence regarding her motivation for cosponsoring such a draconian and unconstitutional act, one has no option but to draw conclusions based on publicly available information.
It is a well-known fact that the powerful pro-Israel lobby AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) made the Israel Anti-Boycott Act a top priority on its 2017 lobbying agenda. One cannot but wonder if Senator McCaskill is intimidated by AIPAC’s pressure to maintain her support for a bill she blindly agreed to cosponsor without understanding its implications. It is also possible that she may be feeling indebted due to the campaign contributions she has received from the Israel lobby.
Data retrieved from MapLight reveal that Senator McCaskill has received close to $280,000 from individuals and organizations identified as pro-Israel. Interestingly, the vast majority of the contributions (80 percent) came from outside Missouri, the state that Senator McCaskill is supposed to represent. Although one may argue that these contributions may be small when compared with the total funds she has raised since she launched her first campaign for the Senate in 2006, this number is nonetheless significant. For example, it is $280,000 more than the funds she has received from pro-Palestinian rights groups.
Although emblematic of the ills of our political system, it is very disturbing to see a senator considered to be one of the most moderate, who built a political career on her reputation as an auditor exposing corruption, being used by special interests to advance a foreign right-wing agenda that shows no respect for our Constitution and civil liberties.
Even more disturbing is the message that Senator McCaskill is sending to the Palestinians living under military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza or as second-class citizens of Israel. If a nonviolent call for equality is to be criminalized and punished, what other options do the Palestinians have to demand justice?
Senator McCaskill, you are better than that.
Jalal El-Jayyousi is a Palestinian-American, Mizzou alum, environmental engineer and member of Mid-Missourians for Justice in Palestine.