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Israel boycott bans are threatening our First Amendment rights

After days of deadlock in which far-right Republicans held the board hostage in an attempt to taint Kevin McCarthy’s bid to be elected speaker, the US House of Representatives is finally back in session. Republicans, who gained control of the House in the 2022 midterm elections, began the new year by voting to launch an investigation into President Joe Biden’s so-called “arming” of the federal government. With that, the GOP made its agenda clear: to be a thorn in the side of the administration at all times, regardless of the cost to progress and democracy.

But while we will likely see a partisan deadlock on most issues until the next election cycle, there will be one area of ​​bipartisan activity that will continue unabated: the concerted effort to shield Israel from accountability for war crimes and human rights abuses against the Palestinian people. .

In particular, lawmakers and advocacy groups on both sides of the political spectrum have stepped up their efforts to attack those who use their First Amendment rights to condemn the Israeli military occupation or demand that the Israeli regime abide by international law.

In recent years, dozens of states have passed legislation to punish individuals and companies that refuse to do business in occupied Palestine or with those who profit from Israel’s military occupation. For example, in 2017, the state of Texas provided hurricane relief funds only to those who pledged not to boycott Israel. In 2018, Bahia Amawi, a child speech pathologist in Texas, told had been fired for refusing to make a similar undertaking. That year, the Arkansas Times, a local Little Rock newspaper, published sued the state of Arkansas after a public university withdrew an advertising contract. Why? Because the newspaper did not waive its constitutionally protected right to boycott Israel.

While federal courts have struck down most of these laws for flagrant violations of the First Amendment, the Arkansas Times case was different. The Eighth Circuit Court decided against the Arkansas Times in July 2022, stripping the newspaper of its right to boycott Israel. Earlier this month, the Supreme Court announced its decision not to review, at least for now, the constitutionality of Arkansas’ anti-boycott law.

However, the issue is far from over. The anti-boycott laws emerging in various jurisdictions in the US will sooner or later be reviewed by the Supreme Court, and that review will have far-reaching consequences for all of us, including those who do not support boycotts of Israel. If we allow criticism of Israel to be an exception to our First Amendment rights, many more exceptions will follow. Several states have already introduced “copycat” anti-boycott laws aimed at criminalizing boycotts of the fossil fuel And firearms industries.

The anti-boycott laws are a total assault on our right as Americans to protest without government interference or intimidation.

From the 1773 boycott of British tea that helped spark the American Revolutionary War to the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott against racial segregation, boycotts have long been a popular and effective tool for bringing about political change in the US. The tactic has also been applied against injustice abroad. Boycotts proved instrumental in ending the apartheid regime in South Africa and are now widely used against Russia in response to its invasion of Ukraine. However, many continue to show selective intolerance of the boycott right when it is used to hold Israel accountable for its many crimes, from subjecting millions of Palestinians to an apartheid regime and building illegal settlements on stolen land to attacking journalists. healthcare workers and even children.

Some of the most vociferous advocates of efforts to reverse our right to protest against Israel’s human rights abuses are conservative legislators and interest groups. One of the most prominent of these groups is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which legislates for state and federal governments. In addition to its efforts to protect Israel from US boycotts, ALEC is also targeting public education financing, LGBTQ+ rightsAnd climate activismwhile he “Stand your ground” laws, forbids critical race theoryand June 2022 from the Supreme Court reversal of Roe v Wade. As the case of ALEC shows, trying to suppress criticism of Israel in the US is a favorite conservative pastime that goes hand in hand with efforts to encourage white supremacy, roll back reproductive and LGBTQ+ rights, and weaken the principles of healthy democracy.

However, it would be unfair to give conservatives full credit for the almost complete protection from criticism that Israel seems to enjoy in the United States. After all, the push to exempt Israel from the same standards of accountability to which other states are subject has long been a truly bipartisan effort.

For example, in 2016, former New York governor Democrat Andrew Cuomo blacklisted companies he said boycotted Israel. In August 2022, Dan Rosenthal, a Democratic member of the New York State Assembly, urged the state’s attorney general to investigate alleged anti-Israel bias at investment firm Morningstar, which is worth billions of dollars, because it dared inform investors about Israel’s human rights violations through its environmental and social governance (ESG) rating system. In January, Representatives Bob Menendez and Ritchie Torres, both of whom had openly condemned boycotts against Israel in the past, were among several Democrats who joined the likes of Mitch McConnel, Kevin McCarthy and other Republicans in reiterating their unequivocal commitment to support Israel at the last AIPAC conference. Not only are these Democrats willing to abolish liberal values ​​like freedom of speech and the right to boycott when targeting Israel, but they are also willing to do so hand-in-hand with conservative Republicans who attack a host of rights that Democrats claim to defend.

With the right of American citizens to boycott already under threat, our right to protest against injustice, wherever it arises, inevitably comes next. This is especially critical in light of Israel’s new extremist government, which has been open about its far-right agenda.

In fact, as they find themselves increasingly unable to defend the apartheid state’s unlawful actions, supporters of Israel are shutting down the debate before it can begin by labeling anyone who dares criticize the Israeli government’s policies as anti-Semitic. to label. They are also trying to codify these smears into law. In 2019, Donald Trump signed an executive order that redefined anti-Semitism and mixed it with legitimate criticism of Israel. Since the signing of the order, there has been an increase in federal complaints and sanctions against those who stand up for Palestinian rights.

With the 118th Congress underway and the GOP in charge of the House, the stage is set for a renewed campaign to not only criminalize boycotts of Israel, but punish anyone who musters the courage to denounce Israeli human rights abuses. to denounce.

After finally achieving his dream of the speakership, Kevin McCarthy now has a chance to reintroduce additional federal anti-boycott laws in addition to those he helped pass in 2019. He can also keep his promise to silence Israel’s vocal critics. Earlier this month, Republicans led by McCarthy voted to elect Rep. Ilhan Omar from the House Foreign Affairs Committee in response to her statement criticism of Israel’s apartheid policies and the use of US military aid to harm Palestinian civilians. Other critics of Israel are likely to receive similar treatment in the coming weeks and months. Now we, as democrats, will have to decide whether to take a stand in defense of efforts to denounce injustice or whether to continue to allow Israel to be absolved of the human rights standards and democratic ideals we hold so highly in the have a banner.

While public opinion has changed with a growing number of Americans expressing sympathy for the Palestinians in recent years and their fight for an end to the Israeli occupation and apartheid, official US policy has failed to reflect changing voter attitudes. Despite increase calls for fitness the unparalleled amount of financial and military aid the US gives to Israel each year, the bipartisan support for the so-called “special relationship” has left these calls unanswered. House Republicans have already expressed their intention to step up their efforts to shield Israel from accountability, even at the cost of freedom of speech or the right to boycott — and the Democrats may not stop them.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial view of Al Jazeera.