US Democratic Congresswoman Ilhan Omar has introduced a resolution in the House of Representatives that seeks to affirm “the right to participate in boycotts in pursuit of civil and human rights at home and abroad”. The resolution will potentially include the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement of global solidarity with the Palestinian struggle. Although the resolution (H. Res. 496) does not explicitly talk about the campaign, Omar told Al Monitor, “It is an opportunity for us to explain why it is we support a non-violent movement, which is the BDS movement.”
The resolution is significant as various sections of the US political establishment, including Ilhan Omar’s own Democratic Party, have passed and supported anti-BDS legislation at both the Federal and State levels. This includes a non-binding resolution that will also be voted on in the House in this session.
The resolution seeks to protect a US citizen’s right to participate in protests and boycott campaigns against the government, as well as other countries, as an extension of the First Amendment rights that protect freedom of expression in the US. It also seeks that the House “oppose unconstitutional legislative efforts” to criminalize such non-violent protests and boycott movements. It cites the history of US citizens participating in several boycott and sanctions movements against oppressive regimes, including those of Nazi Germany in the run up to the Holocaust, against the Japanese during the World War II, and also of the apartheid in South Africa.
Despite the existence of legal and political precedents that protect non-violent freedom of expression, the resolution states, “governments and non-governmental organizations alike have sought to criminalize, stigmatize, and delegitimize the use of boycotts.”
Bucking a countrywide trend
In April 2015, Tennessee became the first State to condemn the BDS movement as “anti-semitic”. Since then, 27 of the 50 US States have passed anti-BDS resolutions and legislation. 26 of these States have laws that explicitly target establishments, and in some cases individuals, who take up a pro-BDS position with divestment of various kinds of contracts with the State government.
An anti-BDS resolution introduced in the House earlier this year by Democratic representative Brad Schneider had 341 co-sponsors, 173 out of whom were Democrats. Although the resolution, (H.Res. 246), is non-binding and pays lip service to affirming First Amendment rights, it was drafted and lobbied by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). According to Common Dreams, the AIPAC had the resolution as a lobbying agenda in March, and it is identified as a top priority by the group’s website.
The AIPAC has previously drafted most of the anti-BDS laws that were adopted by several State legislatures. It was also behind the notorious Israel Anti-Boycott Act (HR 1697) that was introduced several times between 2017 and 2018. If legislated, it would have allowed State governments to freely sanction foreign companies that do not pledge to oppose the BDS movement.
Veteran civil rights activist John Lewis and Michigan Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib were the first to support Omar’s resolution, becoming the original co-sponsors. So far, four more Democratic congresspersons have extended their support to the resolution. This includes the first black New Jersey congresswoman, Bonnie Watson Coleman, civil rights activist and former Black Panther Bobby Rush, as well as veteran Democratic congressmen Danny Davis and Donald Payne Jr.
The resolution also attracted support from the anti-war group Codepink, which tweeted “This is HISTORIC!” while sharing the news. In the same thread, Codepink also encouraged their social media followers to pressure their congress members to vote against the anti-BDS resolution. A statement released by Palestinian human rights activist Hind Awwad, on behalf of the BDS movement, said that the “groundbreaking resolution will inspire human rights defenders everywhere, including BDS activists for Palestinian rights.”It also called on people to contact their representatives to endorse the resolution. According to reports, the House of Representatives is likely to vote on both Omar’s resolution and the anti-BDS one next week.