Protecting Americans’ Right to Boycott Israel is More Important Than Ever

Ilhan Omar (Fibonacci Blue via Flickr)

by Laila Ujayli

In a letter this week, forty organizations urged members of Congress to support a resolution affirming Americans’ constitutional right to participate in political boycotts. The effort is a response to escalating attempts to stifle efforts like Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS), a Palestinian-led movement designed to pressure Israel to comply with international law. And with embattled Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently pledging to annex all illegal settlements in the West Bank if re-elected, starting with the Jordan Valley, protecting this essential tool of American advocacy may be more important than ever.

Introduced by Rep. Ilhan Omar in July, and originally co-sponsored by the first Palestinian-American in Congress, Rashida Tlaib, and civil rights icon John Lewis, H.Res.496 affirms that boycotts in support of civil and human rights are constitutionally protected. The rich history of American participation in boycotts, from tossing British tea into the harbor in 1773 to refusing to buy goods from apartheid South Africa in the 1980s, should theoretically make H.Res.496 uncontroversial.

Nevertheless, a slew of anti-BDS legislation threatens the future of American boycotts. Anti-BDS laws are currently enacted in 27 states and pending in several more. They have already cost Americans their jobs and contributed to a systematic silencing of Israel criticism. The ACLU maintains that anti-BDS laws are unconstitutional and set a dangerous precedent by making it easier to suppress future civil society boycotts. Despite this, legislation passed by the Senate in February protects these laws, encouraging state and municipal governments to punish people who boycott Israel.

As a result, H.Res.496 was already sorely needed to safeguard American political expression. Netanyahu’s pledge to annex occupied territory in the West Bank, however, makes passing the resolution even more urgent. Americans should have every tool available to oppose a move that would be catastrophic to peace. The two-state solution’s future may have already been dim, but annexation could extinguish it entirely. The proposed annexed territory—nearly a third of the West Bank—would completely encircle a future Palestinian state and deprive Palestinians of the land’s valuable agricultural potential. Moreover, it would further entrench an illegal occupation that deprives Palestinians of self-determination and basic civil rights. Netanyahu losing next week’s Knesset election may not even prevent future annexation—his main opponents, the Blue and White party, claim that declaring the Jordan Valley as part of Israel “forever” was their idea all along.

While Netanyahu’s proposed plan would be devoid of any “international legal effect” in the eyes of the United Nations, Donald Trump would still likely recognize it. The Trump administration has continually partnered with Netanyahu’s government to dismantle the two-state solution, even as it remains stated U.S. policy. For example, the Trump administration moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and recognized Israel’s illegal annexation of Syria’s occupied Golan Heights. Indeed, Netanyahu cited the present level of U.S. support as an opportunity for making Israel’s occupation of the Jordan Valley permanent.

Even if the U.S. government won’t protest this flagrant violation of international law, the U.S. public has the right to do so. Whatever one’s personal opinion of BDS, that movement and other boycotts against Israel are legitimate advocacy tools. Boycotts can raise public awareness of an issue, and even change public perception. Moreover, participating in a Palestinian-led, non-violent campaign can serve as a message of individual American solidarity with Palestinians now confronted with a U.S. administration that is an ever-larger partner in their oppression.

Consequently, anti-boycott laws can handcuff many advocates standing in solidarity with Palestinians, calling for Israeli compliance with international law, and demanding that U.S. policies meaningfully empower peace. There are a number of measures to move U.S. policy in that direction that both legislators and their constituents should support, like H.Res.326, which expresses U.S. opposition to annexation and support for a two-state solution, and H.R.2407, which requires that U.S. funds do not support Israel’s military detention of Palestinian children. But H.Res.496 is also vital to ensuring that advocacy efforts can be as robust as they need to be when the stakes are so high.

Whether the boycott is directed at Israel, or other U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia, H.Res.496 is vital to protecting American engagement on issues of civil and human rights at home and abroad. In defense of Americans’ freedom to boycott, each and every legislator should support the resolution. Americans should also urge their representatives to co-sponsor or vote for H.Res.496. We need this essential tool of U.S. political engagement, for today’s fight for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and for all future fights to come.

Laila Ujayli

Laila Ujayli focuses on the human impact of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. She was previously a Fall 2018 Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellow at Win Without War. Follow her on twitter @lailaujayli.



  1. Before the unlawful 2003 invasion of Iraq it was the Vietnam War that effectively exposed worldwide the hypocrisy of the American values and its abuse of power – a political culture that has continued to this date. Since the end of WWII, contrary to the US former leaders’ advocacy that the US should be a force to promote democracy, the American military, intelligence and economic power have shamelessly been devoted to the promotion of ruthless dictatorships from the Middle East to South American, Africa and Asia.

    The tarnished image of the mindless US military power dominated the world while morally the US sank deeper and deeper as the Zionists joined in and shared their world views with the American policy makers; then the Middle East turned more unstable and inhumane.

    The defeated Britons, nostalgic and bemused by their ruthless colonial history, having for long inherited similar vicious values and heartlessly practised them in the Third World found their ideal partners to follow, just as Sancho Panza followed his delusional master, Don Quixote. No wonder whenever the Zionist criminals savagely bombed Lebanon and Gaza it was the American and British politicians who gave their blessing and moral support.

    Along with their abominable crimes we also saw the emergence of new generations in the US, UK and Israel who would no longer remain silent bystanders, but unreservedly condemned their leaders’ foreign policies – we saw them during the Vietnam War in the US and Europe, during the Gulf Wars, and often during the Zionists massacres of the Palestinians. Recently the British anti-war groups and some politicians took the British government to court and successfully condemned the UK arms sales to the Saudis.

    The active engagement of a new generation of young politicians, who dare challenge the inhumane policies of their aging politicians, and join the uncompromising NGOs and other opponents of unlawful wars and land appropriation, is a new chapter that deserves the full support of the world media.

  2. Laila Ujayli’s essay is timely. It;s worth adding that Washington’s advocacy of sanctions and UN censures toward what President Eisenhower called Israeli “expansion” has been mainstream Republican Party policy. What is now labeled “BDS” isn’t new.

    Eisenhower assured that Israel was censured in the UN Security Council on three occasions for attacks on Jordan, Syria, and Egypt (November 1953, March 1955, and January 1956).

    The reasons behind such US-backed censures were essentially the same as advocates of BDS lay out today: territorial expansion, brutality toward civilians, and ignoring international law

    The Palestinian body count that resulted from Israel’s behavior of the time included “upward of 2,700 Arab infiltrators, and perhaps as many as 5,000, [who] were killed by the IDF, police, and civilians along Israel’s borders between 1949 and 1956,” writes the eminent Israeli historian Benny Morris, “the vast majority of those killed were unarmed.”

    Americans, certainly including the president, weren’t at all persuaded by Israeli arguments of self-defense. .

    By 1957, in a speech from the Oval Office, Eisenhower posed a question to the world about Israel that is also timely today: “Should a nation,” he asked, “which attacks and occupies foreign territory in the face of United Nations disapproval be allowed to impose conditions on its own withdrawal?”

    In sum, Representatives Omar and Tlaib, among many other Americans, are really endorsing a return to a traditional evenhanded Republican foreign policy position.

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