Sen. Marco Rubio threw a rock at a political hornet’s nest on Monday when he tweeted, “The shutdown is not the reason Senate Democrats don’t want to move to Middle East Security Bill. A huge argument broke out at Senate Dem meeting last week over BDS. A significant # of Senate Democrats now support #BDS & Dem leaders want to avoid a floor vote that reveals that.”
Twitter erupted — as it is wont to do — with users arguing whether this reflected insider knowledge or was a convenient lie. Personally, I’m inclined to believe there’s something to what Rubio wrote. Anyone who’s followed American foreign policy in recent years knows that the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement is an explosive and barely contained hot-button issue for Democrats.
Consider that one year ago, Pew Research polled Americans’ attitudes toward Israel and the Palestinians. They reported that “the partisan divide in Middle East sympathies, for Israel or the Palestinians, is now wider than at any point since 1978. Currently, 79% of Republicans say they sympathize more with Israel than the Palestinians, compared with just 27% of Democrats.”
Drilling down, Pew quantified the change within the Democratic Party’s progressive wing that’s been apparent to Middle East watchers for some time: “The share of liberal Democrats who sympathize more with Israel than the Palestinians has declined from 33% to 19% since 2016. Currently, nearly twice as many liberal Democrats say they sympathize more with the Palestinians than with Israel (35% vs. 19%).”
Lest these numbers be dismissed as theoretical concerns, Midwestern voters just elected the nation’s first two pro-BDS members of Congress. Of course, neither Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan nor Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota were particularly forthright about their views during election season. It wasn’t until after winning her Democratic primary that Tlaib “explicitly endors[ed] a one-state solution and oppos[ed] aid [to Israel], a change celebrated by far-left Palestinian activists, who sharply criticized her for seeking out and receiving the J Street endorsement.” Omar didn’t publicly acknowledge that she supported BDS until after November’s election.
Leaving aside these two representatives’ real views, which I oppose, it’s dangerous for democracy if officials blatantly lie to their constituents about issues that can change votes. It’s also important for Israel and Jews that support for them is bipartisan. So, yes, answering Rubio’s allegation matters.
Given Pew’s findings, it’s not a stretch to assume at least some Senate Democrats’ views align with their base. But who are they?
On Monday and Tuesday, fellow Federalist senior contributor Ellie Bufkin and I contacted the office of every Democratic senator, along with the two Independents who caucus with Democrats. We offered every senator an opportunity to clarify his or her personal position on BDS. Only two offices responded.
Tom Mentzer of Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s office pointed me to a statement on her website that reiterated her “strong support for Israel” and described Rubio’s bill as unconstitutional.
Sue Walitsky of Sen. Ben Cardin’s office emailed Cardin’s official comment: “We should not stand idle when foreign countries or international governmental organizations use BDS tactics to isolate one of our key allies and bypass direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.” She added, “Senator Cardin has a very clear record opposing the BDS movement. He strongly believes in individual First Amendment rights that permit anyone to support BDS if they want to do so. He simply disagrees.”
Feinstein and Cardin have historically been pro-Israel. But taken together, these comments read less like full-throated support than a delicate dance between voicing support for Israel and not sounding judgmental about those who don’t.
In discussing the movement supported by part of their base, Feinstein and Cardin’s offices focused on the First Amendment, as did Sen. Bernie Sanders, who tweeted, “It’s absurd that the first bill during the shutdown is legislation which punishes Americans who exercise their constitutional right to engage in political activity.” Yet no one is trying to outlaw political activity.
The Combating BDS Act of 2019 is part of S.1, the Strengthening America’s Security in the Middle East Act of 2019, along with three other bills left over from the last Congress. It protects state and local governments, as well as employee benefit plan staff, who want to avoid doing business with entities engaged in “commerce-related or investment-related boycott, divestment, or sanctions activity in the course of interstate or international commerce that is intended to penalize, inflict economic harm on, or otherwise limit commercial relations with Israel or persons doing business in Israel or Israeli-controlled territories.”
In other words, this bill is about defining acceptable limits on economic activity, not prohibiting individual speech or political activity.
As for the matter of constitutionality, legislating against BDS is within bounds. Harvard Law School emeritus professor Alan M. Dershowitz emailed, “If the law prohibits advocacy, it is unconstitutional. If it prohibits economic discrimination based on religion or national origin, it is constitutional.” The latter is the case here.
If you’re a pro-Israel Democrat, it’s positive that Alabama’s Doug Jones, Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema, New Jersey’s Bob Menendez, and West Virginia’s Joe Manchin broke ranks and voted to advance S.1 on Tuesday. However, it’s also troubling that there weren’t more rebels, and given current trends, that’s unlikely to change.