A controversial pro-Israeli bill described as threatening the constitutional rights of US citizens was advanced in the US Senate yesterday, despite strong opposition from members of the Congress.
The bill – known as "S.1" – deals with a number of foreign policy issues, including sanctioning the Syrian regime of Bashar Al-Assad and extending military assistance to Israel, passed with the backing of 74 senators.
The most contentious aspect of the bill was a provision that would allow states to pass laws designed to thwart the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. More than 25 states have already passed such legislation, making it illegal for the state to sign contracts with service providers who refuse to sign a declaration saying they don't support BDS.
These anti-BDS laws have been used to target US citizens, including a teacher who was fired for refusing to sign an oath declaring that she did not support BDS. A number of senators have denounced the anti-BDS as unconstitutional.
In his statement opposing the bill, Senator Chris Van Hollen described the bill as an attempt to supress free speech. Supporters of the bill, he said, were using "the power of the state to punish American citizens who disagree with them on this issue".
The Democrat Senator from Maryland said that the co-sponsors of the bill – which in its original form had broad bi-partisan support – had been turned into a "political weapon" which, in the process, is "doing a great disservice to the American people".
The bill provides Israel with $38 billion of security assistance over the next ten years. "That's a lot of money when you consider the priority we have here at home and abroad," said Hollen. This amounted to more than half of the entire US global military financing.
Directing his criticism at Senator Marco Rubio, Hollen said that: "A Republican leader took a broad bipartisan bill and added a provision designed to retaliate against American citizens opposing the government of Israel specifically through their support of the boycott divestment and sanctions campaign."
Admitting that he does not support BDS, Hollen insisted that he would "fiercely defend the constitutional right of any American citizen to express his or her views, just as [he] would support any American who chooses to support political boycott and peacefully express their political views without fear of being punished by their government".