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By JTA.org staff

The first order of business on Capitol Hill after the federal government reopened after a month-long partial government shutdown had to do with Israel.

The U.S. Senate advanced a Middle East policy bill that codifies assistance for Israel and protects states that ban dealings with Israel boycotters.

The Senate voted Jan. 28 74-19 to advance the bill, introduced earlier this month by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.

It includes language that codifies into law the $38 billion over a decade that President Barack Obama pledged to Israel in the final months of his term in 2016.

It also adds legal protections to states that penalize businesses that comply with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement targeting Israel.

The bill’s other components reinforce the U.S.-Jordan relationship and add sanctions on Syria’s Assad regime. All four components resurrect bills that failed to pass in the last Congress.

Some Democrats objected to the anti-BDS component, saying it impinges on speech freedoms. “While I do not support the BDS movement, we must defend every American’s constitutional right to peacefully engage in political activity,” Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said last week on Twitter after voting not to advance the bill.

Among Democrats voting not to advance the bill were a number of declared or likely presidential candidates, including Sanders, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey were absent and did not vote. Harris told CNN she would likely vote against the bill because of free speech concerns with its BDS component.

Democrats Launch Group to Counter Israel Disenchantment
In response to the perception that the Democratic party is drifting away from Israel, prominent Democrats announced they are launching a pro-Israel group to counter the drift.

The Democratic Majority for Israel will be led by Mark Mellman, a longtime Democratic Party pollster who has been active in the pro-Israel community.

“Our mission at Democratic Majority for Israel is to strengthen the pro-Israel tradition of the Democratic Party, fight for Democratic values and work within the progressive movement to advance policies that ensure a strong U.S.-Israel relationship,” Mellman said in a release.

Polls have shown declining support for Israel among younger Democrats. This year, for the first time, two freshmen Democrats, Reps. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., and Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., have embraced the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement targeting Israel. Leading Democrats, including Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, have robustly criticized Israel, particularly its treatment of the Gaza Strip.

Joining Mellman in the group’s leadership will be Jennifer Granholm, former governor of Michigan; Henry Cisneros, Housing secretary under President Bill Clinton; Ann Lewis, chief of communications under Clinton and a longtime leading supporter of Hillary Clinton; Todd Richman, a J.P. Morgan executive who is also a major donor to the party; Paul Begala, a former top Clinton adviser who has become a leading cable TV combatant for Democrats; and Shelley Berkley, a former congresswoman from Las Vegas.