House measure opposing boycott of Israel splits Michigan Democrats

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit) speaks Monday at the NAACP convention in Detroit.

Washington — The Democratic-led House passed a measure with overwhelming bipartisan support Tuesday disapproving of the global movement to boycott, divest and impose sanctions on Israel. 

The vote was 398-17, with Michigan's delegation largely in support. But the resolution split Democrats with Reps. Rashida Tlaib of Detroit — the first Palestinian-American woman in Congress — and Debbie Dingell of Dearborn voting no. 

Newly independent Rep. Justin Amash voted present. 

The campaign to boycott, divest and impose sanctions on Israel, known as BDS, is intended to put financial pressure on Israel over its treatment of Palestinians and the occupation of the West Bank.

BDS opponents argue it could economically harm Israel, which enjoys widespread support in Congress.

"I'm against BDS. I'm against singling out Israel among all countries of the world in this way," said Rep. Andy Levin, who voted for the resolution in the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week. 

"To me, the goal of U.S. policy toward Israel and Palestine should remain what it has been for many decades, which is to get to a two-state solution. And the BDS (campaign) is really not helpful to get to two-state solution and is perhaps even antithetical to it." 

Tlaib, the daughter of Palestinian immigrants, said the resolution is unconstitutional because it aims to "silence" the First Amendment rights of those in the movement.

"I can't stand by and watch this attack on our freedom of speech and the right to boycott the racist policies of the government and the state of Israel," Tlaib, an attorney, said on the House floor. 

"I love our country's freedom of speech, Madam Speaker, and dissent is how we nurture democracy and grow to be better and more humane and just." 

The resolution, she said, sets a "dangerous" precedent that "attempts to delegitimize a certain people's political speech and to send a message that our government can and will take action against speech."

Levin disagreed with Tlaib that the measure infringes on free speech. 

"This is a sense of the House that BDS is not helpful. It's not saying boycotts in of themselves are bad, right? It's not saying divestment campaigns are bad. It's not saying sanctions are bad," said Levin, who is Jewish and former president of the Reconstructionist synagogue Congregation T'chiyah in Oak Park. 

"It's really just about singling out Israel in this way."

U.S. Rep. Andy Levin, D-District 9.

Tuesday's vote comes as Tlaib and Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota — the first two Muslim women elected to Congress — have been the targets of attacks by President Donald Trump and other Republicans who seek to portray them as anti-Semitic, in part for their opposition to anti-BDS legislation.

The measure considered Tuesday had about 350 co-sponsors — well over the two-thirds needed to pass the measure on the floor under a fast-track process that suspends House rules.

Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Tipton, said the resolution would have had "totally bipartisan" support in the past.

"You just would expect us to stand strongly and say, no, BDS is wrong. We don't do that to our closest ally and friend — not only in the Middle East but one of the closest in the world that we have," Walberg said. 

Tim Walberg

He said he was disappointed that House Democrats put up a "watered down" measure instead of a bipartisan bill that passed the Senate in February letting state and local governments refuse to do business with companies that boycott Israel. 

Nearly 200 House members, including all six Michigan Republicans, signed a petition seeking to discharge that bill from committee for a floor vote. 

"That puts some teeth into what we're talking about," Walberg said. "I'd like to think we can ultimately get to that, but I believe Speaker (Nancy) Pelosi is afraid to cross a number of her members on this issue, some of whom, like Omar, have gone the opposite direction in pushing for support of BDS." 

Levin said he opposes the anti-BDS bill passed by the Senate because it seeks to "punish" those who participate in the BDS campaign. 

"The House can pass this resolution today, and then you Jane or Jack Citizen can go out and boycott all you want," he said.

"The Senate bill actually withheld money and punishes people who participate in BDS. I don't have any interest in that. This is America. Everybody's free to do whatever they want."

Tlaib joined Omar last week in introducing a measure that affirms "all Americans have the right to participate in boycotts in pursuit of civil and human rights at home and abroad, as protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution.” The text does not mention Israel. 

Omar and Tlaib's measure is also sponsored by civil rights heavyweight Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat who also supported the anti-BDS resolution. Omar's office said groups including J Street and the Arab-American Institute endorsed the measure.

Tlaib on Tuesday highlighted the history of Americans participating in boycotts to advocate for human rights abroad, saying the practice is "deeply rooted in the fabric of our country."

She noted Americans boycotted Nazi Germany in response to the "dehumanization, imprisonment and genocide of Jewish people," and boycotted South African goods in opposition to apartheid in the 1980s.

"What was the Boston Tea Party but a boycott? Where would we be now without the boycott led by civil rights activists in the 1950s and '60s, like the Montgomery bus boycott and the new United Farm Workers grape boycott?" she said. 

"Some of this country's most important advances and racial equality and equity and workers rights has been achieved through collective action protected by our Constitution."

"All Americans have the right to participate in boycotts, and I oppose all legislative efforts that target speech," she added. 

Tlaib this spring invited her House colleagues on a trip to the Palestinian territories next month, but organizers are still waiting on the required approval of the House Ethics Committee, according to Tlaib's office. 

She announced plans for the trip last year as an effort to "humanize" Palestinians, and the agenda is expected to include a stop in the farming village where her maternal grandmother still lives. Omar said last week she plans to participate in the trip.

The journey was to be sponsored and privately funded by the nonprofit Humpty Dumpty Institute based in New York, but the institute is no longer involved after deciding to focus on scheduled domestic trips this summer and fall, Executive Director Joe Merante said Tuesday. 

"For any congressional travel, there is no trip until approved by Ethics," Merante said. "Ethics approval, for any trip, doesn’t come until very late in the process."

Another group, the Forum for Cultural Engagement, has since taken over sponsorship of the trip, Tlaib spokesman Denzel McCampbell said. 

Israeli news reports last week said Tlaib and Omar could be blocked from entering the country under a law that bars entry to those who have publicly called for a boycott of Israel. 

But Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer, told the New York Daily News last week that members of Congress would be welcome to visit. 

“Out of respect for the U.S. congress and the great alliance between Israel and America, we would not deny entry to any member of Congress into Israel,” Dermer said.