Washington- The Senate voted Monday to advance legislation affirming the right of local and state governments to break ties with companies that boycott or divest from Israel, as Republicans try to drive a wedge between the Democratic Party and its traditional allies in the American Jewish community.
The bipartisan legislation reauthorises assistance to Israel and Jordan and imposes additional sanctions on individuals providing support for the Syrian regime. But Republican leaders added a provision by Senator Marco Rubio that aims to curtail support for the boycott, divest and sanctions - or BDS - movement, which seeks to pressure Israel into ending the occupation of the West Bank.
The late inclusion was an opportunity for Republicans to draw out the new generation of insurgent liberal representatives who have been critical of Israel. Republicans are trying to paint them as extremist, and even anti-Semitic, as they try to push moderate voters away from a Democratic Party moving left. The Senate voted 74-19 on Monday to cut off debate on the measure, with final passage expected Wednesday.
Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, a Somali refugee; Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, the first Palestinian-American woman to serve in the House; and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York have emerged as the most vocal supporters of Palestinian rights, and as high-profile targets of Republicans. The three represent heavily Democratic districts, with supportive constituents, but Republicans hope to tar the whole party with their views.
“I don’t see much hope for changing where Tlaib and Omar are, but there is a battle in the Democratic Party,” said Norm Coleman, national chairman of the Republican Jewish Coalition and a former senator from Minnesota. “It is a message to Jews who still care about Israel, to say, ‘You’ll be much more comfortable in the Republican Party.’”
The message extends further to other House Democrats, Coleman added, who “will have to make choices about whether they’ll quiet those voices or whether they’ll remain quiet.”
With Britain’s Labour Party embracing anti-Israel policies, and other left-wing parties in Europe courting Muslim immigrant voters, Jews in the United States have eyed the toehold that Palestinian rights activists have secured in the Democratic Party with trepidation. Republicans see an opportunity.
The inclusion of the anti-BDS provision will most likely kill the Senate package in the House. Lawmakers in the lower chamber will instead take its pieces one at a time, and have already passed the Syria piece by voice vote this month. The components addressing Jordan and security assistance to Israel are expected to pass easily, as they did last Congress, though they have not yet been reintroduced in the House.
There are no plans to take up the anti-BDS provision, and House Democrats have accused Senate Republicans of attaching the fourth bill to score political points and distort the views of liberal lawmakers who favour a two-state solution in the region.
But Republicans are becoming more brash in their accusations. The National Republican Congressional Committee, the political arm devoted to recapturing the majority in the House, has called Omar and Tlaib anti-Semites, seizing on writings the freshman lawmakers have posted on social media.
Omar was previously criticised for writing on Twitter in 2012 that Israel had “hypnotised” the world from seeing their “evil deeds.” She apologised this month, saying that she was unaware that invoking hypnosis was an “anti-Semitic trope.” But she came under fire again when she seemed to defend members of the Black Hebrew Israelites who appeared in a now-viral video goading and yelling at a group of high school students and Native American activists.
“It’s too bad she can’t delete the anti-Semitism in her heart,” the National Republican Congressional Committee said.
Sen. Kevin Cramer mused on Twitter that Democratic opposition to the anti-BDS measure “may be nothing more than a thinly-veiled attempt to hide the rising anti-Semitism in their own party.”
Tlaib took a swing at the anti-BDS legislation this month, writing on Twitter that “this is the US where boycotting is a right & part of our historical fight for freedom & equality.” Rubio fired back, “This ‘dual loyalty’ canard is a typical anti-Semitic line.” The movement “isn’t about freedom & equality, it’s about destroying #Israel,” he continued.
Democrats have largely scorned those attacks. Sen. Chris Murphy responded to Rubio, saying that “you know it isn’t true” that a significant number “of Senate Dems support BDS.” No Senate Democrats have publicly announced support for the movement, though some liberals, such as Sen. Bernie Sanders have objected to the legislation on the grounds that it would violate freedom of speech.
“While I do not support the BDS movement, we must defend every American’s constitutional right to engage in political activity,” he said Monday after voting to filibuster the bill. “It is clear to me that this bill would violate Americans’ First Amendment rights.”