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US senator outlines plans for nationwide anti-BDS legislation

Senator Tom Cotton's proposal would deny military contracts to entities engaged in a boycott of Israel
Senator Tom Cotton during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the US Army's Defense Authorization Request for fiscal year 2023 at the US Capitol, on 5 May 2022.
Senator Tom Cotton during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the US Army's Defense Authorization Request for fiscal year 2023 at the US Capitol, on 5 May 2022 (AFP)
By MEE staff in Washington

United States Senator Tom Cotton has outlined a plan to introduce nationwide legislation targeting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement - a campaign which calls for the non-violent severance of civic ties with Israel.

Anti-BDS legislation currently only exists at the state level in the US. 

The announcement came Monday at a summit hosted by Christians United for Israel, an organisation founded by Pastor John Hagee - who has been criticised for his controversial comments on Islam and Jewish people.

Cotton, a Republican lawmaker, said that the legislation he was planning to introduce would prevent the US military from contracting with any companies engaged in a boycott of Israel.

"We can fight the antisemitic BDS movement by passing a bill I plan to introduce this year to deny military contracts to any company that boycotts Israel," he said.

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The announcement comes after House lawmaker Josh Gottheimer introduced similar legislation as an amendment to the country's annual defence budget, a piece of legislation titled the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

The amendment would have required a defence department report on whether any contractor "participates in or supports any organized effort or organization that, based on a belief that Israel is oppressing Palestinians, promotes a boycott of, removal of investments from or economic sanctions against Israel or any person or entity in Israel".

The move, however, was ultimately blocked from consideration on the House floor last week by a vote in the House Rules Committee that toed partisan lines.

There are currently dozens of similar bills in states across the US, each requiring state contractors to sign a pledge not to boycott Israel. Yet Cotton's legislation, if passed, would be the first at the national level to target the BDS movement in the US.

The Palestinian-led BDS movement is a non-violent initiative that seeks to challenge Israel's occupation and abuses of Palestinian human rights through economic, cultural and academic boycotts, similar to the successful boycott campaigns of apartheid South Africa.

Free speech advocates have decried anti-BDS legislation as being antithetical to the US constitution's First Amendment - which guarantees the right to freedom of speech - and have accused the legislation of stifling the voices of Palestinians and their advocates.

Multiple lawsuits have been filed in the US against such laws, to varying degrees of success. One lawsuit is now headed to the US Supreme Court, after an appeals court in Arkansas upheld its law on the anti-BDS legislation.

Meanwhile, similar anti-boycott laws in Arizona, Kansas and Texas that had been blocked were later allowed to be enforced after lawmakers narrowed requirements to apply only to larger contracts. The Arkansas law applies to contracts worth $1,000 or more.

Citing its anti-boycott law, Arizona last year sold off millions of dollars in Unilever bonds over the decision by Ben & Jerry's - its subsidiary - to stop selling its ice cream in Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories.

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