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US Congresswoman Ilhan Omar introduces House bill to assert right to boycott

Resolution comes amid crackdown on Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement
Congresswomen Ilhan Omar (C) and Rashida Tlaib (R) with longtime BDS supporter and civil rights leader Angela Davis on 30 April (AFP/File photo)

US Congresswoman Ilhan Omar has introduced a bill that seeks to assert Americans' right to participate in boycotts both at home and abroad, a move that would challenge anti-boycott legislation at the federal and state levels across the United States.

Put forward late on Tuesday, HR 496 affirms the First Amendment right of US citizens to participate in boycotts "in pursuit of civil and human rights".

The measure was co-sponsored by Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian-American congresswoman from Michigan, and Democratic Congressman John Lewis, a veteran civil rights leader and longtime member of the US House of Representatives.

"We are introducing a resolution … to really speak about the American values that support and believe in our ability to exercise our first amendment rights in regard to boycotting," Omar told news website Al-Monitor about the proposed legislation.

It comes days after Donald Trump attacked Omar, Tlaib and two other progressive Democrats - congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley - for their criticism of Israel, among other things.

The US president's racist comments were widely decried by lawmakers from both major major US political parties, who passed a House resolution on Tuesday condemning them as an attack on people of colour.

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While Omar's bill makes no mention of Israel or Palestine, it would protect US citizens' right to join the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

BDS aims to pressure Israel over its human rights abuses against Palestinians by encouraging the international community to boycott Israeli goods and institutions.

In her interview with Al-Monitor, Omar said the legislation also presents "an opportunity for us to explain why it is we support a nonviolent movement, which is the BDS movement".

Currently, several proposed federal bills - backed by both Democratic and Republican lawmakers - are circulating in the House and Senate that seek to oppose "efforts to delegitimise the State of Israel" and the BDS movement in particular.

BDS has also has come under fire at the state level, as 28 US states have passed legislation that either restricts or bans individuals or companies seeking to do business with the state government from boycotting Israel.

Only eight US states have not introduced some kind of anti-BDS legislation or resolutions.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other rights groups have condemned anti-BDS legislation as unconstitutional, and they have successfully challenged a few pieces of legislation in court.

'Breath of fresh air'

On Wednesday, Omar's bill was sent to the House judiciary committee for consideration by other lawmakers.

The Arab American Institute (AAI) immediately showed its support for the resolution, sharing news of its introduction with the hashtag #Right2Boycott. 

"The current efforts to silence advocacy for Palestinian rights put politics above the Constitution," said the group's executive director, Maya Berry, in a statement on Wednesday.

"The need to affirm our values as Americans - that vigorous human rights advocacy is central to who we are - could not be more great," Berry said.

"This statement by the cosponsors is a breath of fresh air, and affirms that all Americans have the right to engage in the political process as equal participants."

Both Omar and Tlaib, the first two Muslim women to ever be elected to Congress, are also the first two congresspeople to ever openly support the BDS movement.

Their position highlights an ongoing shift among Democrats, as progressive representatives are more openly criticising Israeli policies towards Palestinians, a break from the party's longstanding, unwavering support for Israel.

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Several top Democrats have been critical of anti-BDS laws, in particular, saying they violate the right to freedom of speech guaranteed under the US Constitution.

In February, Democratic presidential contenders voted against a Senate bill that would encourage state and local governments to sanction contractors who boycott Israel.

"Unquestioning support for Israel has been accepted for a very long time, but now there are limits to how far they are willing to go," Omar Baddar, deputy director at the Arab American Institute, told MEE at the time.

Democrats have also introduced legislation that would bar US financial support to Israel that could be used "for Israel's systematic military detention, interrogation, abuse, torture, and prosecution of Palestinian children".

The bill, called the Promoting Human Rights for Palestinian Children Living Under Israeli Military Occupation Act, was introduced in April and sent to the House Committe on Foreign Affairs.

It currently has 20 co-sponsors, including Omar and Tlaib.