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The following is a letter to me from Rep. Jimmy Panetta in response to my correspondence to him about the Israel Anti-Boycott Act. Following his letter is my response:

Dear Ms. Akkad,

Thank you for contacting me regarding the Israel Anti-Boycott Act (H.R. 1697) and allowing me to clarify my position as a co-sponsor of this bill.

I share your strong commitment to civil rights, including the First Amendment right to free speech. The Israel Anti-Boycott Act, however, does not restrict the right of U.S. citizens to free speech, but rather is a narrowly targeted bill that would exercise Congress’s authority to regulate international commercial activity.

In 1977, Congress amended the Export Administration Act to prohibit U.S. persons from complying with unauthorized boycotts by a foreign government. This law, upheld by the courts, was enacted in response to the Arab League boycott initiated after Israel’s independence. The Israel Anti-Boycott Act would extend this existing prohibition on U.S. companies from cooperating with foreign government boycotts of Israel to boycotts by international government organizations, such as the United Nations.

The legislation was introduced in response to U.N. Human Rights Council and other international government organization initiatives to economically isolate Israel while ignoring the atrocious human rights practices of some of the world’s worst regimes. The bill does not regulate non-governmental organizations, nor does it prohibit Americans from expressing their political points of view, including speaking in support of boycott, divestment and sanction (BDS) efforts, engaging in boycott activities or otherwise voicing criticism of Israel. Furthermore, the legislation neither compels companies to conduct business with Israel, nor punishes them for refusing to do business with Israel for political or economic reasons.

Again, I share your commitment to the constitutionally protected right to free speech. As the bill moves through the legislative process, I will keep your views in mind and support any effort to further clarify that the bill does not infringe on the right to freedom of speech.

I appreciate knowing of your concerns and encourage you to continue to be in touch via my website, signing up for my e-newsletter, following me on Facebook or Twitter, or calling my office.  It is an honor to serve you and the central coast of California in the United States Congress.

Sincerely,

JIMMY PANETTA
Member of Congress

 

Mr response:

To refresh your memory, I had tried to offer Mr. Panetta some background about the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, given his support of HR 1697; had pointed out how such a bill would run counter to our Constitution; and then specifically asked him why, given his district’s composition, he would choose to be part of such a bill in the first place.  Since Mr. Panetta did not respond my points, I remain curious about his motives.

With the luxury retirement offers, I attended a meeting our congressman had with the Monterey chapter of Veterans for Peace on Friday, Aug. 18 . He was there to address topics of interest to that group, which included their concern over his co-sponsorship of the Israel Anti-Boycott Act. Explaining his rationale, Mr. Panetta began by giving us his understanding that it “focuses on the Export Administration Act of 1977” that was created, in part, “to prevent people from participating in the Arab boycott of Israel back at that time.”

He continued by stating, “Arabs were boycotting Israel just because they did not like Israel. You know the reasons why. Back in 1977 this law was created … What the law says is that it prevents people from participating in an unsanctioned boycott of a foreign government.”

For emphasis he repeated his explanation, and said, “It prevents participation in a boycott by a foreign government.” He stated that the act went through the courts, was challenged and found constitutional. It is current law.

Then, in further explaining what he calls a narrowly focused bill, he said HR 1697 amends that act by adding international government organizations, “and that’s it.” He said, “So what the law would say is that it prevents participation in an unsanctioned boycott by a foreign government and international government organizations. That’s all it does. So, if you’re for BDS (Boycott, Divestments, Sanctions) against Israel, you can speak out. You can do your own boycott, divestment, sanctions. Companies by themselves can do their own BDS. It does not prevent anybody, and please correct me if I’m wrong, it does not prevent anybody from doing their own boycott, divestment, sanctions of Israel.”

He further stated, “It also depends upon how you feel about BDS. I am against BDS, Bernie Sanders is against BDS. I just got back from a trip to Israel where every single person I talked to over there, from people in Israeli leadership to people in Palestinian leadership — the Palestinian minister of finance — I had a one-on-one conversation with him and I straight out asked, ‘How do you feel about BDS?’. He said, ’Of course I’m against it. It hurts us.’ I spoke to people in the labor movement. They were against it. And I made sure because I wanted to see if there was anybody who supports BDS. Not one person supports BDS.”

He concluded by stating that before the bill goes to the House for a vote, “The authors should clarify the bill to let people understand that it doesn’t go against/infringe free speech. The second thing is if it comes to a vote as is, I will be inclined to introduce an amendment to the bill to clarify that bill.”

I believe Mr. Panetta hasn’t done all of the research he spoke of at that Friday. On a minor point, the Export Administration Act was introduced in March of 1979 and enacted into law by Jimmy Carter in September 1979. So, some of his terminology and dates are incorrect. In addition, unless my reading of the current bill HR 1697 from the government’s website is completely wrong, the bill, like the Senate’s version, still contains these words:

The bill prohibits any U.S. person engaged interstate or foreign commerce from supporting:

  • any request by a foreign country to impose any boycott against a country that is friendly to the United States and that is not itself the object of any form of boycott pursuant to United States law or regulation, or
  • any boycott fostered or imposed by any international governmental organization against Israel or any request by any international governmental organization to impose such a boycott.

Unless “U.S. Person” does not refer to you and me and to any U.S. company, I believe Mr. Panetta’s letter is inaccurate.  What he said to his audience Aug. 18 also seems to be inaccurate. “U.S .Persons” do appear to be prohibited from a boycott, divestment or sanction of certain Israeli policies. Perhaps Mr. Panetta should read the actual bill before the House. Again.

The trip he referred to was for freshmen members of Congress, along with Steny Hoyer and Kevin McCarthy, and took place in early August. It was paid for by the American Israel Education Foundation, a charitable organization affiliated with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Of course he met with those people! They’re the only people he either had time to meet or was allowed to meet on the whirlwind trip. His reference to the Palestinian finance minister is laughable because Salam Fayyad at this point has very little support or credibility among Palestinians and remains a relevant voice only for Israel and its allies. Like many of the other members of the Palestinian Authority, Mr. Fayyad has worked hard to keep the Palestinian economy dependent on Israel while promoting a small economic elite in the West Bank. Of course Mr. Fayyad would reject any support of the BDS movement!

Mr. Panetta could have spoken with people in the region who would let him know that BDS is not anti-Semitic but rather is against Israeli occupation of Palestine. Inspired by the South African anti-apartheid movement, it is non-violent in nature and simply aimed at giving Palestinians the same rights as the rest of humanity.

There seems no logic to his firm rejection of BDS nor does he seem to understand the obviously complicated issues surrounding the Palestinian/Israeli impasse. Mr. Panetta’s focus on HR 1697 is its potential constitutional problem. It’s an important one, but it’s not the only problem with this amendment to a segment of the original unfortunate law.

In his Q&A session, Mr. Panetta said that if the authors of the amendment do not clarify it to ensure that it does not infringe on free speech, he will do just that. Given the wording of the existing bill, Mr. Panetta would have to rewrite a significant portion with very little apparent chance of it being approved. His statement also conflicts with what he said earlier in his discussion, that the House Rules Committee under GOP majority rule controls all amendments to House bills. He and Barbara Lee sit on the Rules Committee. So he saw exactly how her amendment to repeal the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) adopted after Sept. 11, 2001 was “plucked right out” of the Appropriations bill before it was sent to the House floor for a vote.

Mr. Panetta acknowledged that his amendment to cut off all funding for any executive order that would open up our coast to oil drilling received the same fate. So, what assurance does he think he has in offering any successful amendment to this or any bill? It’s easy for him to offer an amendment, especially in the environment on Capitol Hill. It appears far harder for him to be straight with his constituents.

I do not believe Mr. Panetta has devoted enough time to any investigation prior to offering his support for HR 1697. Perhaps it’s because he’s new to Capitol Hill or because he doesn’t have adequate advisers or time managers. That was clearly obvious on Friday when he mentioned that he had not had time to read the 10 questions the veterans had sent him prior to the meeting. His time with the veterans was also limited because his aide rushed him to his next gathering even though they had arrived late to this one. I left frustrated and assume others felt the same.

It also makes me wonder why a freshman member of Congress from an ag/tourist district feels the need to support this bill.

Akkad lives in Carmel and maintains close ties to the Middle East. Panetta, a Democrat,  represents the Central Coast in Congress.

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This past weekend, I read an interesting article in The Intercept, “US Lawmakers Seek to Criminally Outlaw Support for Boycott Campaign Against Israel.” It caught my eye because I’ve had the privilege of meeting and discussing this boycott campaign with one of the founding members of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions Movement, Omar Barghouti. What I know about the movement leads me to conclude that it comes nowhere close to being a threat to the state of Israel, if that country is serious about ending its occupation and colonization of Palestinian land.

The subject is the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, H.R. 1697, that would make it a crime to support or even furnish information about a boycott directed at Israel or Israeli businesses called by the United Nations, the European Union or any other “international governmental organization.” Violations would be punishable by fines of up to $1 million and imprisonment for up to 20 years.

I did a double take when I saw that one of the many co-sponsors of the bill is our 20th Congressional District representative, Jimmy Panetta. What follows are the comments that I would share with him in a letter or face to face:

Dear Congressman Panetta,

I wonder if you can explain to your constituents why you’ve chosen to attach your name to the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, HR 1697.

In the first place, its title is misleading and it tries to conflate anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism. BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) is a Palestinian-led movement for freedom, justice and equality. It is NOT anti-Semitic but rather it is against Israeli occupation of Palestine. It was inspired by the South African anti-apartheid movement and, like that successful movement, is non-violent in nature and simply aimed at giving Palestinians the same rights as the rest of humanity.

Secondly, HR 1697, an AIPAC-sponsored proposal, appears to impose civic and criminal punishment on individuals solely for their political beliefs about Israel and its policies. Doesn’t that violate the 1st Amendment? Strictly speaking from a constitutional perspective, this bill seems to be antithetical to the very ideals Congress seeks to uphold. So, again, Mr. Panetta, why are you co-sponsoring it?

Thirdly, why would a congressman from the 20th District – one based on agriculture and tourism – feel the need to be a part of this bill? You sit on the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committees, not Foreign Affairs or Financial Services. Additionally and ironically, we live in an area that was affected by a boycott of its own back in the 1960s. What’s the difference between UFW supporters of that historic grape strike in Delano – like Caesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and Bill Monning – and BDS supporters? How is your co-sponsorship of HR 1697 going to impact Monterey or Santa Cruz counties? And, on the other side of the world, what kind of message is this bill sending to the Palestinians and Israelis when things are heating up once again in Jerusalem over the Al-Aqsa dispute?

In an effort to urge you to reconsider your co-sponsorship, I would be happy to provide you neutral and accurate information about the BDS movement, if you’re interested in being fully informed. Additionally, you undoubtedly are aware there are many Palestinians and other Arabs who are your constituents here on the Monterey Peninsula and in the rest of your district. Many of them, I am sure, share my concern over your seemingly needless support of HR 1697. If you’re interested, we could meet with you to give you information that might make you rethink your support of this unfortunate bill.

Sincerely,

Celeste B. Akkad

If Partisan readers feel as I do about this issue, I urge you to contact Congressman Panetta.

Celeste Akkad lives in Carmel.

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