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U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa’s town hall turned testy Tuesday as she was confronted by constituents who criticized her support for a popular but controversial pro-Israel bill.
Their efforts may have paid off — the congresswoman’s chief of staff said Wednesday she is reconsidering her support.
Waving signs and chanting, critics of Israel’s expansion of settlements on the West Bank called on Hanabusa to abandon her co-sponsorship of HR 1679, the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, saying it would threaten opponents of Israel’s policies with hefty fines and prison terms.
Supporters of a pro-Palestinian group known as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement, shouted “No Attacks on BDS!” in unison as the town hall came to a close. Many audience members in the auditorium at Kaimuki High School applauded loudly when people speaking at the town hall questioned the measure.
Supporters of the bill say it is designed to prevent foreign organizations or countries or foreign-based corporations from imposing boycotts on Israel and Israeli-based firms and companies that do business with them.
Opponents, including the protesters at Hanabusa’s town hall, say it threatens free speech and prevents the implementation of the kind of boycotts and embargoes that have been used in the past, particularly against South Africa, to force oppressive and racist countries to change their ways. They say sponsors of the bill are succumbing to pressure from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, an influential pro-Israeli lobbying group.
The legislation is near the top of AIPAC’s legislative wish list.
On Wednesday, Hanabusa said she was consulting attorneys, reviewing files on the legislation and reconsidering her support for the measure, which has generated controversy around the country. Her chief of staff, Mike Formby, said in an email that while she has fully supported the measure until now, she has been influenced by what she has heard since returning to Hawaii.
“The complexity of this issue is encouraging her to do more fact-finding,” Formby said in an email.
If Hanabusa changes her mind, she won’t be the first. Similarly confronted by protesters at town halls in New York, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand decided last month to withdraw her support for the bill.
But for Hanabusa it would be a noticeable turnaround from what she said Tuesday and at a town hall in Kapolei last week.
At both events, Hanabusa staunchly defended the measure as an appropriate step to take to protect America’s ally, Israel, from being unfairly targeted by political opponents, adding that the original sponsors of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement were 22 Arab nations that want to destroy Israel.
“The United States has not taken a position against Israel; Israel has been an ally,” she said in Kapolei last Thursday. “It is blacklisting, that’s what a boycott is.”
She said the boycott could complicate international relations, noting that Israel is participating with about a dozen firms, including some in the United States, in the development of the F-35 fighter jet.
Hanabusa said that opponents of the measure were oversimplifying complex legislation and exaggerating the risks.
Hanabusa was the only member of the Hawaii congressional delegation to agree to co-sponsor the measure, which has 252 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives and 48 in the Senate. Two other members of the delegation — Sen. Mazie Hirono and Sen. Brian Schatz — did not respond to requests for comment. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard is doing her annual training with the Army National Guard and was unavailable.
The House bill, and its companion measure in the Senate, is an amendment to the Export Administration Act of 1979, which was enacted to protect companies from being pressured to join anti-Israel boycotts organized by Arab nations. It prohibited firms from complying with the boycotts or providing information about whether they had complied or not.
The text of the measure starts by denouncing the United Nations Human Rights Council as a government entity that has “long targeted Israel with systematic, politically motivated assaults on its legitimacy designed to stigmatize and isolate Israel internationally.” It says that on March 24, 2016, the council “targeted Israel with a commercial boycott, calling for the establishment of a database, such as a ‘blacklist’ of companies doing business with Israel, including in East Jerusalem.”
It likens the recent UN action to the Arab League boycott, which was intended to harm Israel and companies that do business with Israel, including American firms.
But the amendment would also prohibit companies from taking action they may want to take. It bans American entities, including corporations, from taking part in a foreign-organized boycott, including those organized by the United Nations.
The bill might also be interpreted to apply to third parties that seek to publicize other organizations’ dealings with Israel or with “any charitable or fraternal organization which supports the boycotted country.”
Section 5 of the Act would amend the Export-Import Bank Act to take steps to make it easier for the bank to act against “politically motivated” boycott actions against Israel.
Officials of the American Civil Liberties Union think the legislation is a bad idea.
“The bill’s chilling effect would be dramatic,” wrote David Cole and Faiz Shakir, in an op-ed in the Washington Post on July 24. They said it would undermine a basic tenet of democracy in America, from opposition to the Stamp Act, to the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott to the campaign for divestment from South Africa.
“Precisely because boycotts are such a powerful form of expression, governments have long sought to interfere with them — from King George III to the police in Alabama, and now to the U.S. Congress,” they wrote.
In a rebuttal letter, Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, and Sen. Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican, said critics are misconstruing the bill, which they say does not restrict free speech by individuals but is narrowly targeted at international commercial activity, something Congress has the right to regulate.
They said the amendment would prevent international government organizations, such as the United Nations agencies or the European Union, from requesting information from American companies about their financial ties to Israel or Israeli-controlled territories.
Many in Congress have come to believe that some international organizations are discriminating against Israel. In April, all 100 senators joined in a letter to the United Nations saying that they believed the New York-based organization was treating Israel unfairly and demonstrating anti-semitic bias. In the letter, they said the UN’s human rights panel includes many of the world’s “worst human rights violators,” but focuses much of its attention on denouncing Israel.
But the legislation’s language criticizing the United Nations Human Rights Council was jarring to Javier Ocasio, a constituent of Hanabusa who ran against her in the 1st Congressional District race last year. He questioned her closely at the Kapolei town hall.
“You can’t merely say you are trying to help an ally,” Ocasio said. “How can anyone defend that bill?”
In an email to Civil Beat the morning after the Kaimuki town hall, Hanabusa said she has been influenced by what she heard from constituents.
“Upon hearing of the concerns to H.R. 1697 while in Washington, D.C., I wanted to come back to District and meet with and hear my constituents at my two town halls before further reflecting on my support of the bill,” Hanabusa said in an email.
“I appreciate those that came to my town halls and expressed their opinions on the issue, as well as those who stopped by my office and wrote me emails/letters,” she wrote. “While I firmly believe the Export Administration Act of 1979 (EAA) and H.R. 1697 apply to United States persons “with respect to … activities in the interstate or foreign commerce of the United States” and not to individual speech, I do want to make it clear that I would never support a bill that infringes upon constitutionally protected individual freedom of speech rights under the First Amendment. I look forward to further conversations with the community as I deliberate on H.R. 1697.”