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Why is Jimmy Panetta criminalizing free speech?

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Editor’s note: This piece was written by Glenn E. Robinson and John Walton. A shortened version appeared in the Monterey Herald.

Why is our local congressman, Jimmy Panetta, sponsoring a bill that would restrict free speech in America?  The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is unequivocal in its opposition to HR 1697 and its Senate sister bill S 720: “the legislation would be antithetical to free speech protections enshrined in the First Amendment” and “punish U.S. persons based solely on their expressed political beliefs.”

The free speech that Representative Panetta, D-Carmel, seeks to chill surrounds support for any economic boycott of Israel or its illegal settlements in the West Bank.  Put another way, this legislation would make it illegal to support exactly the kind of non-violent economic pressure that successfully put an end to Apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s.

Does this infringement on free speech rights impact you?  Yes. You would not be legally allowed to call for and act upon a boycott of products made in the hundreds of illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.  Or as the ACLU clearly concluded, the legislation would “bar U.S. persons from supporting boycotts against Israel.”  The criminal penalties for violating this law are a fine of up to $1 million dollars and 20 years in prison.

It is not just the ACLU that has raised red flags. The premier scholarly association for the study of the Middle East, the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), has also come out strongly against this bill, calling it a “grave threat to academic freedom” that would have a “chilling effect on the free and open exchange of opinions and perspectives.”

J Street, a liberal Israel lobbying group, has similarly expressed its concern that this legislation would “actually harm U.S. and Israeli interests by extending U.S. legal protections to illegal West Bank settlements that undermine the prospects for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”  The legislation would “erase the legal distinction between Israel and the settlements and place the settlements, in effect, under U.S. protection.”

As analyses of this bill have surfaced, support for it has weakened.  Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York has withdrawn her co-sponsorship of the Senate version, and other representatives have indicated similar discomfort.  Trying to stem the tide of potential defectors, the primary Israel lobbying group in Washington, AIPAC, immediately targeted Gillibrand, trying to pressure her to reverse course.  She has held firm so far.

Panetta and other representatives have made two spurious arguments in defense of this legislation. First, they have tried to downplay its importance as just a technical correction to legislation passed in 1945 and 1979 that does not have any free speech implications.  This is the Ostrich approach, simply denying the obvious infringement on protected speech.  Second is the Red Herring: strongly denouncing “BDS.” The “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions” movement is a specific attempt by Palestinian civil society to put economic pressure on Israel (bdsmovement.net).  BDS has had only marginal impact to date, despite the sometimes over-heated rhetoric surrounding it.  The marginality of BDS certainly cannot justify putting the First Amendment at risk, so what is really behind this legislation?

There are two main drivers behind this legislation: preventing any kind of two-state solution by normalizing illegal Israeli settlements, and preventing a repeat in the US of what has begun to happen in Europe.  AIPAC, which wrote Mr. Panetta’s legislation, reflects the hardline policies of Mr. Netanyahu and his Likud party.  Netanyahu and the Likud have worked tirelessly to defeat any hope of a peaceful settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on the creation of a Palestinian state in the territory captured by Israel in the 1967 war and occupied for the past 50 years.  The steady expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem has been the primary vehicle for negating the emergence of a Palestinian state.  Again last week Mr. Netanyahu made clear that there will never be an evacuation of settlements on his watch, when he visited the settlement of Barkan: “We are here to stay, forever.  We will deepen our roots, build, strengthen and settle.”

Mr. Panetta’s legislation seeks to normalize the colonization of the West Bank by chilling free speech calling for sanctions against this very settlement drive.  Supporters of a two-state solution – as we are – must both oppose this legislation and support legitimate and non-violent pressure on Israel to withdraw from occupied Palestinian lands.

The second real driver of this legislation is AIPAC’s attempt to pre-empt in the United States exactly what is happening in the European Union.  Both EU member states individually and the EU as a whole have taken steps to economically highlight the border between Israel and the occupied West Bank.  The EU has mandated that Israel not label products that are made in settlements as “made in Israel,” making it easier for consumers to boycott settlement products — and affirm their support for real peace.  AIPAC, and Mr. Netanyahu, do not want Americans to have that same choice.

Ironically, Mr. Panetta’s legislation goes well beyond what Israel’s own anti-sanctions law allows.  In Israel, vocal and peaceful calls to boycott Israel and Israeli settlements are still protected speech.

No one, not Panetta nor his AIPAC allies, can explain what good will come of this bill. Representative Panetta would do well to drop his co-sponsorship of HR 1697, reaffirm his support for the First Amendment, and truly support social justice in Israel and Palestine by encouraging – not criminalizing – free speech in support of peace.

Glenn E. Robinson is affiliated with the Center for Middle East Studies at UC Berkeley and lives in Pebble Beach. John Walton is research professor of sociology at UC Davis and lives in Carmel Valley.

{ 16 comments… add one }
  • Jean October 9, 2017, 9:12 pm

    Terrific article.
    Thank you.

  • Helga Fellay October 9, 2017, 9:42 pm

    I totally agree with the authors, with the exception of one statement: “BDS has had only marginal impact to date, despite the sometimes over-heated rhetoric surrounding it. The marginality of BDS certainly cannot justify putting the First Amendment at risk, so what is really behind this legislation?”
    The fact is that the BDS movement has proven very successful, so much so, that Netanyahu and his Likud party are acting out of desperation. Numerous experts have explained it better than I could, but I have kept no records of them. However, even a cursory 3-minute Google search seems to confirm it as well. Here but a small sample:
    • Jerusalem Post
    ‘IMPACT OF BDS IS WORSE THAN MOST PEOPLE REALIZE’
    New book probes the growing impact of BDS on academiaPublished by a scholars’ rights group, ‘The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel’ includes 32 essays about the boycott movement’s crusade against the Jewish state

    Eleven signs that BDS continues to grow despite Israel’s war of …
    https://bdsmovement.net/…/eleven-signs-bds-continues-grow-despite-israel’s-war-repr…

    Barghouti: BDS is growing as Israel becomes associated with far-right …
    mondoweiss.net/2017/04/barghouti-associated-movements/

    Growing BDS movement raises alarm among Israeli leaders – Middle …
    https://www.haaretz.com › Middle East News

    Ten Years On, the Undeniable, Growing Power of the BDS Movement …
    https://www.commondreams.org/…/ten-years-undeniable-growing-power-bds-movem.

    U.S. BDS Victories – US Campaign for Palestinian Rights
    https://uscpr.org/campaign/bds/bdswins/

    BDS Movement Counts Successes for 2016– IMEMC News
    imemc.org/article/bds-movement-counts-successes-for-2016/

    Ten Years of BDS: The Growing Movement Against the Occupation of …
    http://www.truth-out.org/…/31786-ten-years-of-bds-the-growing-movement-against-the-oc..

    Israel Launches Anti-Boycott Drive At The UN, In The Face Of Growing …
    https://www.forbes.com/…/israel-launches-anti-boycott-drive-at-the-un-in-the-face-of-..
    etc.etc.etc.
    Israel will succeed in getting this bill, which essentially nullifies the First Amendment, passed by a supine White House and an equally, if not more supine US Congress, just as it gets its genocide of the Palestinian people, as well as its other ME adventures in Syria, Iran and other places, paid for by US taxpayers to the tune of $billions per annum. So why then does it even bother to push this unpopular bill through, when it knows that it already rules the US with an iron fist. Because it fears what BDS has done, and I don’t mean BDS’s economic impact. What BDS has done, and what Zionists are fearing the most, is that it continues to expose the Big Lie of permanent Israeli victimhood. BDS has been very successful in showing the world that they are not the victims, but the victimizers. This bill is overreach and I predict it will backfire. Comatose and distracted Americans may finally, I hope, wake up to say enough, already.
    Panetta, who, as I recall, once even co-sponsored this bill, has shown that he is a spineless and unprincipled politician who will do whatever it takes to work his way up the crooked political ladder. I will vote for whoever it is who will run against him.

  • Dan Turner October 9, 2017, 9:58 pm

    It took courage to print this, Royal. Good for you!

    P.S. : I’m afraid Rabbi Greenbaum may be very cross with you.

  • Bob Oliver October 9, 2017, 11:06 pm

    Royal,
    You re ready to play ball again.

    Israel may be full of Jews, but it is a Zionist State! Best to gain an understanding of Zionism and its stated and unstated goals.

    Bob Oliver

  • John Dalessio October 10, 2017, 12:05 am

    Excellent article, Glenn & John. Thank you both for stepping forward.

  • Phillip Crawford October 10, 2017, 7:47 am

    I’m glad the Herald and the Partisan printed this. Now, we will all be treated to Monterey County’s armchair activists displaying how much they know about the subject in the comment section of the Partisan. I guess spouting off on the internet is more rewarding than actual activism.

    • Helga Fellay October 10, 2017, 9:46 am

      What Phillip seems unable to understand is that ALL meaningful activism starts with honest Communication, especially in the land of Fake News, Misinformation, and state sponsored Propaganda, Indoctrination and Brainwashing by politicians and by its corporate MSM. As we live in the age of the www, we enjoy the benefit of instant mass communication. You cannot become an activist unless you know and understand what it is you are activating for or against. Glenn and John, as well as the commenters stepping up to speak out publicly about this topic (which, after the passage of this bill, might even get them indicted, fined and jailed) ARE activists in the truest sense of the word. To be an activist, one does not need to stand in front of Macy’s handing out flyers to shoppers (most of which end up littering the sidewalk). It’s so 1950’s. What’s needed is enough voters to contact their congressmen and senators to threaten them to vote against their re-election, should they endorse this or any other bill which would deprive Americans of their constitutional rights.

      • peggy Olsen October 11, 2017, 9:34 am

        Right on Helga!

  • Louis MacFarland October 10, 2017, 9:30 am

    I did not, and will not vote for Jimmy Panetta, he does not come across as terribly bright. I actually left that part of the ballot blank, I was not going to vote for the Republican candidate just because Jimmy caused me concern

    In following Jimmy during the campaign, he did not express much original thought, I could have written his response on most issues before he even started to speak, and I have always looked at his Bronze Star with some skepticism, likely awarded because of who his father was, I seriously doubt he was ever in harms way in Afghanistan. I have a couple friends who have been awarded the Bronze Star and they went through hell and then some saving others while greatly outnumbered in long drawn out firefights, no way Jimmy was even close to that type of action

    Though I do appreciate the work Jimmy does supporting local veterans and the Veterans Transition Center.

    • Dan Turner October 10, 2017, 4:49 pm

      “…he does not come across as terribly bright.” That’s my take on him, also.

  • Jean October 10, 2017, 1:06 pm

    House of Stone by Anthony Shadid, a very good story for anyone interested in Lebanon, cultures of the region and the collateral damage from modern warfare.

    • Helga Fellay October 10, 2017, 2:54 pm

      “House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East
      “House of Stone,” Anthony Shadid’s wonderful memoir of the year he devoted to restoring his great-grandfather’s home in the southern Lebanese town of Marjayoun. …”

      I don’t get confused easily, but I am confused now. I was under the impression that the topic of this post is our own Congressman Panetta’s push to pass a bill which would make our First Amendment right to free speech null and void, and not only that, but criminalize the exercise of this constitutionally guaranteed right with sentences more severe than those for some very serious crimes.

  • Ron Weitzman October 10, 2017, 5:00 pm

    Jimmy Panetta is right. The issue is not free speech or the 1st Amendment. Boycotts, Divestment, and Sanctions are not speech. They are not symbolic actions like standing up to salute the flag. They are acts of violence, directed against people with the intention to hurt them. The true issue is whether Land for Peace makes any sense. That is the issue to debate with our free speech. You may believe otherwise, but I believe it does not make sense. Israel is not giving up any land, and the Palestinians are giving Israel no peace. BDS will not change that any more than it has turned North Korea into a nuclear-free nation. Land is won or lost by war. Living in the 21st Century, as much as we would like it to be otherwise, will not change that. That said, does it mean I am unsympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians? No, I am sympathetic to their plight, but I am also realistic. Palestinians can get back the land they lost to Israel only by war, the way they lost and Israel won it, sympathies for either Palestinians or Jews notwithstanding.

    • Helga Fellay October 10, 2017, 7:14 pm

      Dear Ron: What do you mean: “The issue is not free speech or the 1st Amendment. Boycotts, Divestment, and Sanctions are not speech…They are acts of violence, directed against people with the intention to hurt them.”
      Really? You can’t possibly believe that yourself. Do you really believe that if I criticize the way Israel treats the Palestinians, I can be arrested, fined, and imprisoned, and that this has nothing to do with free speech or the 1st Amendment? Can you really believe that my condemning the cruelty, murder, oppression and persecution of Palestinians online should be called “acts of violence.” Violence implies action, not speech. The real “acts of violence” – the murders, arrests, torture of Palestinians, including children, are committed by the Zionist Israelis, not by those who criticize those acts of violence. You can never win this argument, Ron, because all the facts are against you, and the veil has been lifted from the hasbara propaganda, and once exposed, you can never go back. The words Boycott, Divest and Sanction contain not a shred of violence. What they mean is that I choose not to buy products coming from a country oppressing a people. It means that I would not invest my money in a country that engages in apartheid. It means that if I were an entertainer, I would refuse to perform in such a country. It means that if I were a scholar, I would choose not to lecture in such a country. I would be expressing my right of free speech, or else the right of any individual to choose what to do, and where to do it. And you call this “violence?” Where is the “violence” in that? And rather than assume that it’s “the intention to hurt them” – just open your mind and consider the possibility that it’s not an intention to hurt them, but an intention to send a clear message – that humanity does not condone what you are doing, and until you do understand and accept that, we will shun you. It’s not a new idea.

    • peggy Olsen October 11, 2017, 9:45 am

      Is it realistic to think Palestinians can win land lost to Israel by war? How absurd.
      The way for Palestinians to get their land back is for people to recognize the extreme
      unfairness of their land being stolen by western powers and to demand the US stop supporting Israeli
      military and government propaganda that make Israel the victim. There is growing support
      around the world for Israel to end its occupation, stop the settlements and pay restitution to the Palestinians.

  • Peggy Johnson October 20, 2017, 3:51 pm

    The world isn’t getting smaller; human populations are getting larger. There will always be territorial disputes; we are territorial animals. Unless we control reproduction, learn to get along, discard superstitious beliefs, and base beliefs on evidence and reason, war is inevitable.

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