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Sen. Hassan Criticized for Co-Sponsoring Israel Anti-Boycott Act



Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, July 20, 2017

U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., on Thursday responded to criticism from civil-liberties advocates over her co-sponsorship of the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, a bill that would criminalize support among some Americans for foreign-organized boycotts of Israel.

Although the legislation has bipartisan support from 280 members of the U.S. House and Senate, the American Civil Liberties Union this week said it contained severe penalties and had the potential to restrict free speech.

The bill, which goes by H.R. 1697 and S. 720, would prohibit American businesses or individuals engaged in interstate or foreign commerce from “supporting any boycott fostered or imposed by an international organization, or requesting imposition of any such boycott, against Israel,” according to a congressional summary.

Proponents say the legislation would aid the U.S.’s foreign-policy efforts in Israel and the Middle East, but the ACLU on Monday asked lawmakers not to support the bill, citing free-speech concerns and harsh punishments for violators: a minimum civil penalty of $250,000 and a maximum criminal penalty of $1 million and 20 years in prison.

“We urge you to refrain from co-sponsoring the legislation because it would punish individuals for no reason other than their political beliefs,” the ACLU said in a July 17 letter, later alleging that the proposed legislation would be “in direct violation of the First Amendment.”

A spokeswoman for Hassan said the senator believes boycotts hamper the United States’ efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and denied that the bill could limit free speech as protected under the First Amendment.

“Senator Hassan strongly opposes the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel and believes that it harms efforts to secure enduring peace through bilateral negotiations toward a two-state solution,” Ricki Eshman, Sen. Hassan’s press secretary, said in a statement.

BDS is an international movement that aims to pressure the Israeli government over settlements and alleged human-rights abuses. The BDS campaign says it is a Palestinian-led "global movement made up of unions, academic associations, churches and grassroots" groups.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobby group, in March identified the Israel Anti-Boycott Act as a priority for this legislative season.

Eshman in the statement said that the bill “simply builds on existing law,” namely the 1979 Export Administration Act, which forbids participation in foreign-sponsored boycotts against U.S. allies.

“Nothing in this bill infringes upon the constitutionally protected right to free speech,” Eshman said.

Hassan’s staff said the senator’s schedule could not accommodate an interview on Thursday.

Her representatives also shared a response to the ACLU letter from the bill’s prime sponsors, Ben Cardin, D-Maryland, and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who said their proposal would only prohibit compliance with boycotts imposed by “foreign countries” and “international governmental organizations such as United Nations agencies or the European Union.”

“The bill does not prohibit U.S. companies and individuals from expressing their points of view, speaking in favor of boycott, divestment, or sanctions (BDS) activities, or being critical of Israel,” Cardin and Portman said in their response on Thursday.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., said through a spokesman that she opposed boycotts of Israel but was considering the concerns raised about the legislation.

“I remain opposed to any boycott of Israel, and it is critical that the United States continue to stand in support of one of our closest international allies,” Shaheen said. “While I am still reviewing the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, I am aware of the legal questions and concerns surrounding the bill. I will keep those considerations in mind as I continue to study this legislation.”

Spokespeople for the five other members of New Hampshire and Vermont’s congressional delegations did not respond to requests for comment or declined to offer on-the-record comments.

Dartmouth College saw a similar controversy this spring, when an appointee for dean of the faculty of arts and sciences, Native American studies professor Bruce Duthu, declined the position amid criticism from some scholars for his past participation in a letter advocating boycotts of Israeli academics.

Udi Greenberg, an associate professor of history at Dartmouth who serves in the Jewish Studies Program, defended Duthu at the time.

Greenberg, an Israeli-born academic who earned his credentials in Jerusalem, said Duthu had proven himself a friend of Israeli scholars and denied that criticism of the majority-Jewish country was anti-Semitic, as some critics claimed.

On Thursday, Greenberg expressed a similar view regarding the proposed legislation.

“On this matter, I believe that the ACLU is right,” he said in an email. “While I personally do not support boycotting Israeli institutions and companies, it is one’s right to choose to do so. Boycotts are rarely productive and often are destructive, but they are a legitimate form of social and political action, which people should have the right to use if they see fit. I believe that trying to criminalize them is both morally wrong and politically counterproductive. I very much hope that Senator Hassan drops this misguided effort.”

Michael Macleod-Ball, a senior adviser to the ACLU on First Amendment issues, said the bill did not specifically target people in the academic world, where the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement has found both supporters and detractors.

“In my view, it is not my intention of this bill or the underlying act to get at the academic community, where there may be some protest,” Macleod-Ball said in an interview.

He added, however, that pro-boycott activity or protests against Israeli government actions might be used as “circumstantial evidence” to prosecute an individual under the bill.

Macleod-Ball offered a hypothetical: if a university professor involved with an international company takes part in a campus protest, “will an overzealous prosecutor take that behavior as some evidence for why that company is not doing business with Israel?”

The ACLU adviser also noted that the bill does not include specific protections for people in academia, either.

Rob Wolfe can be reached at rwolfe@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.

Correction

The "Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions" campaign says it is a Palestinian-led "global movement made up of unions, academic associations, churches and grassroots" groups. An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the breadth of its sponsorship.