(CNSNews.com) – The U.S. Senate on Tuesday passed in a 77-23 vote legislation strengthening U.S. support for Israel and Jordan, sanctioning the Assad regime in Syria, and enabling state and local governments to divest from any company or fund which boycotts, divests from, or sanctions Israel.
Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio’s bill drew attention, among other things, because the arrival in Congress of two Democratic freshmen publicly supportive of the anti-Israel “boycott, divestment and sanctions” (BDS) movement has stoked a debate about anti-Semitism versus criticism of Israel.
Critics of the BDS-related provision in the “Strengthening America’s Security in the Middle East Act of 2019” (S.1) said it threatened to muzzle free speech. Rubio countered that it simply gave Americans the right to boycott the boycotters.
“The law does not outlaw boycott divestment sanctions,” Rubio said on the Senate floor last month. “If a United States company caves to this pressure and decides it’s going to boycott or divest from Israel, they have the legal right to do so.”
“Free speech is a two-way street,” he said at the time.
The sole Republican “no” vote on Tuesday came from Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who argued that “the right to boycott is about as fundamental a right as we have in America.”
Among the “no” votes were most of the likely, possible or confirmed 2020 presidential candidates – Sens. Cory Booker (N.J.), Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), Kamala Harris (Calif.), Jeff Merkley (Ore.), Chris Murphy (Conn.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)
The exception was Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who supported the bill.
Welcoming the bill’s passage on Tuesday, the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) said it “helps our Middle East allies, Israel and Jordan, sanctions Syria for its crimes against its own people, and combats the anti-Semitic BDS movement.”
J Street, a liberal Jewish group which says it opposes BDS but also campaigned against S.1, expressed disappointment at the Senate vote, claiming the bill “alienates average Americans by infringing on constitutional rights.”
It urged the House of Representatives not to take up the legislation as passed by the Senate.
Other organizations which lobbied against S.1 included MoveOn.org, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), which calls itself the nation’s biggest Muslim civil rights and advocacy group.
“It is a shame that the U.S. Senate would pass such an unconstitutional bill that violates the First Amendment right of all Americans to challenge the illegal and discriminatory actions of a foreign government and goes against the principles of free speech on which our country was founded,” said CAIR’s government affairs director, Robert McCaw.
CAIR describes BDS as a campaign “in support of Palestinian human rights.” Critics argue that BDS is anti-Semitic, since it targets only the Jewish state and none of the other nations around the world where territorial disputes exist.
The Israeli government’s Strategic Affairs Ministry published a report this week alleging links between the Palestinian terrorist groups Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and leading NGOs backing the international BDS movement.
Tlaib, a Palestinian-American, came under fire last month – not just from Republicans – for insinuating that supporters of the anti-BDS measure were acting in the interests of Israel rather than the United States. “They forgot what country they represent,” she tweeted.
The bill passed on Tuesday also reauthorizes foreign military financing to Israel, extends defense cooperation with the kingdom of Jordan, and seeks to tighten sanctions on entities involved in the conflict in Syria.
And it includes an amendment expressing concern that “the precipitous withdrawal” of U.S. troops from Afghanistan or Syria “could put at risk hard-won gains” against terrorist groups.
That amendment sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), passed on Monday by 70-26, with only four Republicans – Sens. Ted Cruz (Texas,) John Kennedy (La.), Mike Lee (Utah) and Paul – opposing it.
The measure is viewed as a reprimand of President Trump’s plans to withdraw 2,000 military personnel from Syria, and to reduce the number of troops in Afghanistan. Trump in a CBS interview broadcast on Sunday challenged the notion that the planned pullouts were “precipitous,”
“Precipitously?” he said. “We've been there [in Afghanistan] for nineteen years. I want to fight. I want to win, and we want to bring our great troops back home.”