Rep. Joe Kennedy III ‘reviewing’ controversial Israel anti-boycott bill he supports following ACLU concerns

Quincy, MA -- 7/17/2017 - Congressman Joe Kennedy speaks at an MBTA mechanics campaign kick off event to support public transit workers who are opposed to privatization. (Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)

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Rep. Joe Kennedy III speaks at a rally against MBTA privatization Monday in Quincy. –Jessica Rinaldi / The Boston Globe

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Following concerns from civil liberties advocates, Rep. Joe Kennedy’s office says he is reviewing an anti-boycott bill he cosponsors.

Kennedy is among 63 Democrats and 174 Republicans supporting a House bill, which currently would make supporting a movement to boycott Israel over its treatment of Palestinians a felony punishable by up to a $1 million fine and 20 years in prison, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

A similar bill has been introduced in the Senate, where it also has received bipartisan support. The ACLU has called the bill a “direct violation of the First Amendment.”

Kennedy is one of two Massachusetts congressman listed as cosponsors of H.R.1697, the Israel Anti-Boycott Act. The other is Rep. Richard Neal, whose office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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Emily Kaufman, a spokeswoman for Kennedy, said the congressman was reviewing the legislation in light of the ACLU’s concerns, though she reiterated his opposition to the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement against Israel.

“Congressman Kennedy firmly opposes the BDS movement which seeks to isolate and undermine one of our closest global allies,” Kaufman said in a statement. “He takes the concerns raised with this particular bill extremely seriously and is reviewing the legislation.”

Both the Senate and House versions of the bill were introduced March 23. However, the legislation was brought to the fore this week after the ACLU sent a letter Monday urging members to oppose the bill.

According to the group, the bill would broaden two existing laws to make support of the Israel boycott subject to “a minimum civil penalty of $250,000 and a maximum criminal penalty of $1 million and 20 years in prison.”

Citing that steep punishment, the ACLU said the bill would expressly discriminate against certain political beliefs:

We take no position for or against the effort to boycott Israel or any foreign country, for that matter. However, we do assert that the government cannot, consistent with the First Amendment, punish U.S. persons based solely on their expressed political beliefs.

This bill would impose civil and criminal punishment on individuals solely because of their political beliefs about Israel and its policies. There are millions of businesses and individuals who do no business with Israel, or with companies doing business there, for a number of reasons.

[The bill] aims to punish people who support international boycotts that are meant to protest Israeli government policies, while leaving those who agree with Israeli government policies free from the threat of sanctions for engaging in the exact same behavior.

As The Intercept reported Wednesday, several of the bill’s supporters appeared unaware of the potential punishments for violators, should the legislation, as currently written, become law.

Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat who introduced the Senate version, told the outlet that he didn’t believe the bill criminalized participation in the Israel boycott and suggested he would support rewriting the language if it did.

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According to Cardin, the bill was intended to deal with United States participation in international organizations. But the ACLU and others say the current language would make boycotting Israel a felony under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act.

“We’re very sensitive to people having different views,” Cardin said. “We’re not trying to weigh in at all on the differences between the Palestinians and the Israelis. What we’re trying to do is make it clear that the United States is not doing to participate in boycotts.”

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency, an international news wire service, reported Tuesday that the legislation was drafted with help from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, which included passage of the measure in its 2017 lobbying agenda.

Last December, 14 of the 15 United Nations Security Council member countries reaffirmed the view that Israel’s settlements in Palestinian territory are a “flagrant violation of international law.” The United States was the sole member abstaining from the resolution.