WASHINGTON — The House voted overwhelmingly Tuesday night to formally oppose the Palestinian-backed movement to boycott Israel, over the objections of Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib.
The measure, H.Res.246 opposes “efforts to delegitimize the State of Israel and the Global Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement [BDS] targeting Israel,” according to the bill’s text. BDS — a movement which began in 2005 — calls for groups to apply economic pressure to Israel to achieve Palestinian independence in the Middle East. The Senate passed a similar bill amid concerns that the legislation violates the First Amendment.
The bill passed the House Tuesday 398–17 with five members voting "present" to abstain from the vote. Sixteen Democrats opposed the bill, including Omar and Tlaib. Just one Republican voted against the measure, Rep. Thomas Massie.
The New York City government adopted anti-BDS legislation in 2016 after Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order. While the House bill is just a formal rebuke of the BDS movement, Cuomo’s executive order goes further and requires New York state agencies to divest from groups that participate in the BDS movement.
Rep. Brad Schneider is the initial sponsor of the resolution; as of one hour before the vote, 349 members had signed onto the legislation. Rep. Eliot Engel, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, appeared confident the measure would pass when he spoke to BuzzFeed News on Friday.
Two weeks ago, Tlaib, the first Palestinian American woman in Congress, took to Twitter to denounce the resolution saying it silences “the opposition to Israel’s blatantly racist policies that demonize both Palestinians and Ethiopians.”
“I stand before you the daughter of Palestinian immigrants,” Tlaib said on the House floor the morning of the vote. “Parents who experienced being stripped of their human rights, the right to freedom of travel, equal treatment. So 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. I love our country’s freedom of speech, Madam Speaker. Dissent is how we nurture democracy.”
Omar agrees. The first-term congresswoman unsuccessfully tried to quell the resolution before the Foreign Affairs Committee, of which she is a member, last week, and then introduced her own resolution to defend the pro-Palestinian movement. While her resolution doesn’t mention BDS, Israel, or Palestine explicitly, it states that the House affirms “that 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,” Omar’s office said in a statement.
“We’re going to propose some amendments and make sure first that it doesn't get a vote and second see what we can do to set the course in trying to make sure people can exercise their First Amendment rights,” Omar said ahead of the committee hearing, calling the resolution divisive.
“I don’t think people fully understood when they signed onto the bill,” Omar told BuzzFeed News to explain the overwhelming show of support before the committee vote.
Both Omar and Tlaib are part of a four-person team in Congress now dubbed “the Squad,” which also includes Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who voted with Omar and Tlaib, and Rep. Ayanna Pressley, who broke with the rest of the group and voted for the anti-BDS bill Tuesday.
Last Tuesday, the House came to the defense of the four first-term lawmakers by adopting a resolution that condemns President Donald Trump’s racist comments after the commander-in-chief singled out the four women by telling them to “go back” to their countries. Tlaib is a Palestinian American born in the US, and Omar became a US citizen nearly a decade ago after fleeing civil war in Somalia.
Ocasio-Cortez said Tuesday that BDS is "a tough issue, especially for constituencies back home," but told BuzzFeed News that "ultimately it comes down to protecting free speech. And my concern with being overly punitive on nonviolent forms of protest is that it forces people into other channels and I would hate to be a part of, you know, paving that kind of path."
But Ocasio-Cortez said she wasn't disappointed by how few Democrats voted with her, saying, "I don't think so. ... I saw how those votes were going."
Supporters of the bill, including Engel, remained confident it would pass the committee stage. “No bill of this magnitude passes unanimously. This one though has so many people supporting it,” Engel said when asked if he was concerned about the opposition.
“We have over three-quarters of the House on the bill,” Engel said.
Ultimately, just 16 Democrats opposed the bill: Omar, Tlaib, Ocasio-Cortez, and Reps. Earl Blumenauer, André Carson, Debbie Dingell, Jesús García, Raúl Grijalva, Pramila Jayapal, Barbara Lee, Betty McCollum, Gwen Moore, Chellie Pingree, Mark Pocan, Bobby Rush, and Bonnie Watson Coleman.
In a statement on Twitter Tuesday, the Palestinian BDS National Committee called the bill a "McCarthyite, anti-Palestinian measure" that is "based on lies and aims to to demonize peaceful resistance to Israel’s military occupation and apartheid."
Rep. Grijalva, one of the Democrats who opposed the bill Tuesday night, said he voted against it “because of my constant and very strong belief in free will expression. You know, this is not the first time I've taken that vote."
Asked whether he believes the Democratic consensus on the issue will change, Grijalva said, "I think, you know, everybody knows we had our differences on this piece of legislation. They’re historic as to how we approach this."
But, he added, he doesn't think the disagreement over BDS will have the same "lingering aftereffects" as the Democratic divide on a recent bill providing funding for the border that led to a public argument between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and members of the Squad.
Rep. Brad Schneider is the resolution's initial sponsor. An earlier version of this post misattributed the sponsors to two people.