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 Kirsten Gillibrand of New York has withdrawn her co-sponsorship of the Senate version, and other representatives have indicated similar discomfort.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.