Why These Democratic Presidential Hopefuls Voted No on an Anti-BDS
WASHINGTON (JTA) — AIPAC sounded relieved by the
substantive Democratic backing
in the Senate this week for a controversial pro-Israel bill
initiated by Republicans.
The Strengthening America’s
Security in the Middle East Act (S.1), which the American Israel Public Affairs
Committee said “contains critical pro-Israel provisions,” passed
77-23, earning yeas from every Republican but one, Rand Paul of
Kentucky. It codifies $38 billion in defense assistance to Israel and
provides legal cover to states that target the boycott Israel movement.
“These provisions — contained
in one of the first major bipartisan bills adopted by the Senate this year —
pledge security assistance to Israel and clarify that state and local
governments have the right to counter boycotts of Israel,” AIPAC explained.
Not only that, the bipartisan
numbers were good: Of 47 senators in the Democratic caucus, 25 voted for the
measure to 22 against.
The exceptions, however, were
notable: Of the seven Senate Democrats who have declared for the presidency or
seem poised to, six voted no. Only Amy
Klobuchar of Minnesota voted yes.
JTA asked all seven for
explanations, and five sent replies. Klobuchar’s staff said she was caught up
in hearings, and the office of Sen.
Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., never responded.
The five no voters based their
opposition to what has been called an “anti-BDS bill” on free speech
concerns about its anti-boycott element, which would provide federal protections
for states penalizing boycotters.
Some emphasized their support for
the other components of the bill, including the defense assistance for Israel,
as well as sanctions targeting Syria’s Assad regime and the reinforcement of
the alliance with Jordan.
Booker of New Jersey:
“I have a strong and lengthy record of opposing efforts to boycott Israel, as
evidenced by my cosponsorship of S. 720, the Israel Anti-Boycott Act. However,
this specific piece of legislation contains provisions that raise serious First
Amendment concerns, and that’s why I voted against it. I drafted an amendment
to help address these widely-held concerns, but there was no amendment process
offered to allow for this bill to be improved.
“There are ways to combat BDS
without compromising free speech, and this bill as it currently stands plainly
misses the mark.”
Sherrod Brown of Ohio: “I strongly support additional
security cooperation with Israel and Jordan, and holding the Assad regime
accountable. However, recent court cases in Kansas and Arizona have raised First
Amendment concerns with state laws, therefore, I believe we need to pause on
enacting federal legislation while the issue is still pending in court.”
Harris of California:
“Senator Harris strongly supports security assistance to strengthen Israel’s
ability to defend itself. She has traveled to Israel where she saw the
importance of U.S.-Israeli security cooperation firsthand. She opposed S.1 out
of concern that it could limit Americans’ First Amendment rights.”
Sanders of Vermont: “While I do not
support the BDS movement, we must defend every American’s constitutional right
to engage in political activity. It is clear to me that this bill would violate
Americans’ First Amendment rights.”
Warren of Massachusetts: “I
oppose the boycott. But I think penalizing free speech activity violates our
Constitution, so I oppose this bill.”
So why were the presidential
contenders more likely to vote against the kind of bill that pro-Israel types
— and a majority of their party colleagues — usually see as a slam dunk? The
Republicans want to paint them as soft on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions
movement targeting Israel, although they all oppose BDS — as a few said so
directly. The anti-Israel left said their votes prove their side is winning.
Indeed, polls and various
developments have indicated that a growing portion of the Democratic base —
especially progressives — is increasingly critical of the Netanyahu government
and vocal in opposing priorities of the pro-Israel lobby.
Here are some other possible
Fundraising for statewide office
vs. fundraising for nationwide office:
Presidential campaigns, particularly among Democrats, rely increasingly on small
donations from individuals (remember Sanders boasting about his $27 average
donation in the 2016 campaign?). An individual motivated to click on
“donate” is likelier to be a partisan, and less sympathetic to a candidate
who signed on to a bill initiated by the opposite party. Notably, grassroots
Democratic groups, including the hugely influential MoveOn, oppose the anti-BDS
bills. Senate campaigns remain more susceptible to issue-driven donors and
political action committees who favor lawmakers who cross partisan lines, in
order to turn favored bills into law.
The ACLU: The American Civil Liberties
Union is an influential voice among Democrats, and it has made killing the anti-BDS
bills a top priority, which helps embed the message among activists and donors
watching the presidential campaign. Gillibrand, notably, did a 180 last year
after ACLU representations on a separate anti-BDS bill. The group remains
formally non-partisan, however, and will not establish affiliated political
action committees or endorse candidates, which diminishes its influence in
The vision thing: Presidential candidates are under
greater pressure to come up with a coherent overall vision, and their opponents
will eagerly seek inconsistencies. Democratic candidates will be all about
speech freedoms in the face of a president who has unrelentingly attacked the
media, and the appearance of penalizing boycotts will not be a good look.
It’s true that consistency counts
in Senate races as well but within a narrower spectrum. Consider two of the
Democrats who voted yea, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Gary Peters of
Michigan: Both are in states where campaigns have focused mostly on job
creation. A free speech inconsistency won’t resonate as much.