July 24 (UPI) -- WASHINGTON -- Pro-Palestine and free speech advocacy groups are concerned that legislation to prohibit restrictive trade practices against Israel will have a chilling effect on businesses and advocacy groups that want to divest from Israeli investments over what they see as the Jewish state's continued occupation and colonization of Palestine.
The legislation, proposed by Sens. Ben Cardin, D-Md., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, has 45 co-sponsors in the Senate and is a legislative priority for the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee. The proposal would amend two laws, the Export Administration Act of 1979 and Export-Import Bank Act of 1945, to make it be U.S. policy to oppose "restrictive trade practices or boycotts fostered or imposed by an international governmental organization, or requests to impose such practices or boycotts, against Israel." It also states that "U.S. persons engaged in interstate or foreign commerce" would be prohibited from doing so.
The proposal also would insert language into the Export-Import Bank Act of 1945 which would make it consider "actions that are politically motivated" against Israel when determining if a company will receive credit from the bank.
Josh Ruebner, policy director at the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights, called the bill "unconstitutional on its face."
"While the possibility of someone getting thrown in jail, I think, is remote, ... that has the significant potential to depress corporations adhering to consumer demands not to do business with Israel or Israeli settlements," Ruebner said. "And it also has a broad chilling impact upon the broader civil society movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions with this threat hanging over everyone's head."
The American Civil Liberties Union also opposed the measure, noting civil penalties go up to $250,000 and criminal penalties go up to $1million and potentially 20 years in prison, in accordance with the International Emergency Economic Powers Act.
"The right to engage in a peaceful political boycott is squarely protected by the First Amendment, and a proud part of America's constitutional legacy," ACLU attorney Brian Hauss said in a post on the group's website. "Whatever Congress thinks about boycotts targeting Israel, it should reject any attempt to expand the scope of criminal laws targeting peaceful political activity."
Cardin and Portman disputed the ACLU argument, saying, "Any suggestion that this bill creates potential criminal or civil liability for these actions is false" and it does not "punish individuals or companies from refusing to do business with Israel based on their own political beliefs."
Ruebner didn't put much faith in their assurances.
"We still have our concerns because the legislation is so vague," he said. "The mechanisms through which this law would be enforced ... are not clear."
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., is a co-sponsor of the proposal. At a recent town hall, members of Jewish Voice for Peace, an advocacy group that supports boycotts, urged her to oppose the legislation.
"We have a different read of the specific bill language, however, due to the ACLU's concerns, the Senator has extended an invitation to them to meet with her and discuss their concerns," Glen Caplin, Gillibrand's senior advisor, said in an email addressing her views.
According to Ruebner, this proposal is a desperation play by Israel and those in the United States who support its policies in the West Bank.
"They are failing, and will continue to fail, in trying to defend Israel on its merits," he said.
A representative of AIPAC responded to an interview request with a link to Cardin and Portman's response. They did not respond to follow-up questions.