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.