The 116th Congress has barely gotten settled, and already BDS and efforts to combat it are wreaking havoc across the Democratic Party and between Democrats and Republicans. Earlier this month, there were accusations of dual loyalty, allegations of secret support for BDS, and thinly veiled efforts to use Israel and BDS, specifically, as a wedge issue for political gain.
This is almost certainly a preview of what is to come rather than an aberration, and it adds to the urgency that Democrats already feel to maintain the party’s historically pro-Israel bent while effectively beating back attempts to cast support for Israel as being the sole province of Republicans.
All the rancor sprouted from Senate legislation targeting BDS, which had been introduced as part of a package of four pieces of legislation comprising the Strengthening America’s Security in the Middle East Act of 2019. The first, but less important, episode was freshman Michigan Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib’s charge that by introducing anti-BDS legislation in the very first Senate bill of the new session rather than passing the House bill funding the government and ending the shutdown, senators “forgot what country they represent.”
There are two ways to read this statement; one is that Tlaib is accusing senators of dual loyalty in putting Israel’s interests before those of the U.S., the other is that Tlaib is accusing senators of forgetting that the U.S. is a country that protects free speech through the First Amendment. The argument for the first interpretation is that this is the plain and most obvious reading of Tlaib’s tweet, and that her focus on Israel is unsurprising given her public support of BDS. The argument for the second interpretation is that the four sponsors of the legislation are not Jewish, and it would be odd to hurl the dual loyalty charge at them; additionally, the rest of Tlaib’s tweet reads, “This is the U.S. where boycotting is a right and part of our historical fight for freedom & equality. Maybe a refresher on our U.S. Constitution is in order, then get back to opening up our government instead of taking our rights away.”
Whatever Tlaib’s intended message was, many American Jewish organizations understandably interpreted it as being an accusation of dual loyalty, and the debate almost immediately moved to whether Tlaib is a hypocrite on the dual-loyalty issue given her outspoken defense of Palestinian rights and embrace of her Palestinian identity.
The mistake in this approach should be evident; rather than refute the dual loyalty canard, it, in effect, concedes the point but says that Tlaib cannot credibly wield the accusation, which is the very definition of cutting off your nose to spite your face. It also leads to the bizarre scene of American Jewish groups pointing to affinity for a foreign country as a core component of one’s identity as being problematic, which is an argument that will never end well for American Jews no matter who is on the other side.
The Tlaib episode was alarming, but it was only the undercard. The real fireworks came from the Senate machinations over the bill itself. On the heels of procedural criticism from Senate Democrats — including Jewish senators Chuck Schumer, Ben Cardin and Bernie Sanders — that the only bills that should be considered by the Senate during a government shutdown are ones that would reopen the government, Sen. Marco Rubio alleged in a tweet that Senate Democrats’ objection to the Middle East security bill was not due to the shutdown, but was actually because “a significant # of Senate Democrats now support #BDS & Dem leaders want to avoid a floor vote that reveals that.”
Rubio’s allegation about Democratic support for BDS was curious given that not one Democratic senator has ever gone on the record with such a position and because Cardin had tried to have the Senate pass an anti-BDS bill just last month as part of the spending package to avert a shutdown. There was speculation on social media that some Senate Democrats were telling grassroots activists that they support BDS but were unwilling to admit so publicly, although there is zero evidence for such a charge, not to mention that it would break every rule of politics for BDS activists not to leak such an enormous public relations coup were it actually true.
Deepening Politicization of Israel
What is actually going on here is the ever-deepening politicization of Israel and an early sign of what the next two years are going to look like. There is absolutely zero evidence for the claim that a “significant number of Senate Democrats,” let alone any Senate Democrats, now support BDS. But that does not mean that Senate Democrats are itching for anti-BDS bills on which to vote. The fact is that much of the anti-BDS legislation puts Democrats in an uncomfortable position, where they are forced into a bad choice of either being on the side of absolute support for Israel or absolute support for free speech, but not both. While none of the senators support BDS, many of them would rather see the issue go away. That is not to say that the bulk of Democratic senators will ultimately vote down anti-BDS legislation on the merits, but like any wedge issue that splits elected officials from vocal parts of their base, it is not a great place for them to be politically.
The Republicans know this, and they are in turn playing a deeply cynical political game with the BDS issue. By raising the BDS issue in the very first piece of legislation coming from a new Senate but doing so while Congress was unable to pass a spending bill that President Donald Trump would sign, the Republican majority created a campaign issue that is good for them but terrible for Israel’s status as a bipartisan cause. It is glaringly obvious that Democrats are not going to allow legislation to proceed to debate that does not address the shutdown, but now Republicans are going to use Jan. 8’s cloture vote — in which only four Democrats voted to advance the bill — as alleged evidence that Democrats support BDS, including those like Schumer and Cardin whose pro-Israel bonafides are unimpeachable.
But Republicans did something even sneakier with the anti-BDS legislation than conflating objections on procedure with support for BDS. Rather than include the anti-BDS bill sponsored by Cardin and GOP Sen. Rob Portman targeting boycotts led by foreign governments and international organization that was the result of months of negotiations and revisions in response to free speech objections from the ACLU and other groups, they used an anti-BDS bill that would affirm the right of state and local government to pass anti-BDS legislation that has in some states already been struck down by courts as unconstitutional.
In other words, rather than ask Senate Democrats to pass a bill that was the result of painstaking efforts to mitigate free speech concerns, they asked them to pass a bill that protects state and local legislation to which Democrats have legitimate free speech objections and that has already been successfully challenged. The fact that Democrats, including Cardin, sponsored a version of this bill before it was successfully challenged in courts makes it even better for Republicans politically, since they can truthfully — but nonetheless misleadingly — claim that the bill is bipartisan, ignoring the fact that there is a heaping pile of changed circumstances. None of these facts or details will make it through to 99.99 percent of the public, who will simply hear that Democrats do not want to combat BDS and that only Republicans can be trusted to safeguard Israel from this wishing to erode its legitimacy and destroy it as a Jewish state. This is not good for Israel, and this is not good for pro-Israel Democrats, but it is a master class in how to use procedural chicanery and wild unsupported accusations to turn support for Israel into a cudgel with which to beat your political enemies.
Get used to much more of this as the 2020 presidential campaign season heats up. Democrats do indeed have a problem with some of their base on Israel, and Republicans are going to do all they can to make them take uncomfortable vote after uncomfortable vote, reaping whatever political wins they can rather than try and sustain bipartisan support for Israel as a policy goal. Praise the rock-solid support for Israel in the Republican Party all you want but ask yourself how pro-Israel it truly is to accelerate a process through which Israel becomes a partisan issue rather than trying to stem the tide.
Dr. Michael J. Koplow is Israel Policy Forum’s Policy Director, based in Washington, D.C.