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New York Democrat defends decision to back Republican-led anti-BDS bill

Tom Suozzi defends legislation that critics have decried as contrary to free speech rights protected under First Amendment
Suozzi is among a number of US politicians who have called for anti-BDS legislation [Tom Suozzi's Facebook page]
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New York City

A US congressman has defended his decision to sign an anti-BDS bill, arguing that it was completely in keeping with the Constitution, despite the Supreme Court having made clear that political boycotts are protected under the Constitution.

Late on Monday, Democrat Tom Suozzi said during a Q&A with his constituency in New York's third district, that it was perfectly legal to prevent Americans from exercising a boycott against Israel.

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In an exchange with one constituent, Suozzi was asked why he chose to sign the Israel Anti-Boycott Act - HR 5595, also known as the "anti-BDS bill," which activists say violates the Constitution.

The bill was introduced in Congress last week, and Suozzi was the only Democrat to sign on.

"I will never support the boycott, divestment and sanctions," said Suozzi, who also sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

"It is being used by adversaries to actually hurt Israel and to make things worse in Israel.

"And the Supreme Court has ruled, other courts have ruled that this act that tries to prevent BDS from happening is not unconstitutional. People have been saying that but the courts have ruled otherwise."

Rights groups have decried anti-BDS bills as contrary to free speech rights protected under the First Amendment of the Constitution, which in US jurisprudence allows people to participate in various forms of boycotts as an act of political protest.

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Kate Ruane, a senior legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), told Middle East Eye that Suozzi was misinforming his constituents.

"The Supreme Court has been unequivocally clear that political boycotts, like politically motivated boycotts of Israel, are protected under the Constitution," she said.

"It has never ruled the Israel Anti-Boycott Act to be constitutional. In fact, three federal courts have now blocked state laws seeking to suppress politically motivated boycotts of Israel, including the BDS movement, on constitutional grounds.

"In reaching their decision, each court cited NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware, a case in which the Supreme Court ruled that punishing politically motivated boycotts is unconstitutional.

"The IABA, like the anti-BDS state laws that multiple courts have blocked, restricts political expression because the government disapproves of the speakers’ message, and is unconstitutional."

Commenting on the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, the Foundation of Middle East Peace said that the bill "has nothing to do with commercial boycotts of Israel, but is focused on preventing any boycotts or economic pressure on settlements".

"And once again, this legislation, at its cores, is based on a conflation of coercive boycotts of Israel with voluntary decisions by owners of US businesses to refrain from certain business activities as an expression of their opposition to Israeli policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians and the occupation" it wrote.

'Violate the First Amendment'

Also at the event on Monday, Suozzi appeared to blame the Palestinians for the stalling of the peace process.

"I am going to try and do everything I can to try and foster peace in Israel. I know that many people are suffering," Suozzi said.

"But we have to recognise that every effort that has been made to make peace in Israel, every open hand that has been reached out has been returned with the swat of the hand back.

"People have used the money to build tunnels to actually send missiles, to hide missiles, to bring them down on the people of Israel."

Jay Bhargava, Suozzi's press secretary, told MEE on Tuesday that Suozzi supported all individuals' right to peaceful and non-violent protest.

"He strongly opposes the BDS movement, which is specifically designed to destroy the State of Israel," Bhargava said.

"The Congressman believes that a two-state solution is necessary for any chance at long lasting peace, and that the BDS movement is counterproductive to achieving that goal." 

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Suozzi's comments have caused consternation among some members of his constituency, who have been alarmed by a series of decisions by the Congressman.

In May 2018, Suozzi expressed support for US President Donald Trump's decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem. In September 2019, his constituency was further alarmed upon learning that he had decided to travel to Houston for the "Howdy Modi" event with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Last week, Jeremy Ben-Ami, president and founder of J Street, and Rabbi Jill Jacobs, the executive director of T'ruah, wrote that legislation used to stifle boycotts against Israel were something "American Jews should fear."

"In recent years, several states have enacted legislation to use the power of government to stifle boycotts against Israel and Israeli settlements," they wrote in a joint op-Ed for NBC. 

"These laws not only violate the First Amendment; they also open the door to much broader government control of public discourse, something that all Americans and especially American Jews should fear."

The Senate passed a different anti-BDS bill in February 2019, but it hasn't received a vote in the House.

Every senator currently running for the Democratic nomination voted against the legislation, except Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar.