It’s unusual for two Democratic senators from a deep blue state to disagree. But last week at the University of Maryland, U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen acknowledged that he did not support the legislation cosponsored by his colleague, U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, called the Israel Anti-Boycott Act. The bill, introduced in the Senate in March, expands 1970s-era trade laws that make it illegal to comply with boycotts of Israel sponsored by governments — laws inspired at the time by the Arab League boycott of Israel — to include boycotts backed by international organizations. Those joining such boycotts would be subject to fines.
During a question and answer session, Van Hollen explained his position: “My interpretation of that legislation is that it does things that the sponsors say were unintended in terms of the bill. … I don’t think any American for example should be threatened with fines or imprisonment for expressing their views in the form of participating in economic actions with respect to Israel. So I certainly do not support that bill, certainly not in its current form.”
Van Hollen also said that the American Civil Liberties Union has raised some “important points” about the bill. The ACLU saw in it a threat to free speech, in that, according to the ACLU, it would penalize those who don’t do business with Israel for political reasons but take no action against those who don’t do business for other reasons. Companies that have a political motive risk a civil penalty of up to $1 million and 20 years in prison, the group said.
When the issue first arose in July, we pointed out in this space that the ACLU had misread the bill and reached the wrong conclusions. And now Van Hollen has apparently done the same. The specter of imprisonment for boycotting Israel is a red herring, as the bill actually forswears jail time. And the notion that penalties would be imposed for not doing business with Israel is a misdirection. Rather, the bill’s provisions would become operative if, for example, the U.N. Human Rights Council asks an American company about its business dealings in Israel or Israeli-controlled territories as part of an effort to compile a blacklist of companies doing business with Israel.
Joining in that international organization’s boycott effort would trigger consequences under the BDS bill. But otherwise, no one’s businesses decisions would be influenced for political reasons.
Van Hollen is known as a cautious and conciliatory legislator, who usually does his homework. To his credit, when asked, he did not duck the question, even if his answer was controversial. Unfortunately, his answer was also misinformed. We know that Van Hollen does not support economic boycotts of Israel. We therefore encourage him to work with Senator Cardin to adjust whatever language he finds unclear, so that he can support the Israel Anti-Boycott Act.