A trap is only a trap if it remains undetected

A new resolution from Rep. Ilhan Omar may be a political trap.

A political trap is being set for pro-Israel advocates. Unwittingly, some of us are digging it deeper.

As Congressman Brad Schneider was lining up bi-partisan support last month for his anti-BDS resolution (it passed 398-17), Congresswoman Ilhan Omar took lead sponsorship of what she and others - on both sides of the issue - labeled a competing, pro-BDS resolution.

Thing is, it isn't. Her resolution endorses cherished First Amendment principles … restating the unchallenged right of individuals to boycott whatever companies or countries they choose.

The resolution cites iconic examples of boycotts undertaken by individual Americans: of Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and apartheid South Africa. 

Our government didn't interfere with such individual boycotts and wouldn't today. Indeed, across America today individuals - with total impunity - can refuse to invest in Israeli companies or buy their products.

But Omar and other pro-BDS advocates besmirch anti-BDS legislation as criminalizing such individual boycott actions. That would be an obvious infringement of people's rights, and the courts and the newspapers would be filled with the cases. Of course, they aren't. That's because anti-BDS laws infringe on no one's individual's rights.

None of the anti-BDS measures adopted by 26 states or proposed federal legislation jeopardizes anyone's free speech or boycott rights. Among other normal activities, BDS advocates are entitled to disseminate their views in the media, on campus and to protest on public property. 

What then do those anti-BDS laws in fact do? They sanction corporations - not individuals - for engaging in BDS. They are the natural extension of laws that sanctioned corporations for trading with apartheid South Africa, assisting Iran's nuclear program or Sudan's genocide of Darfurians. If sanctioning corporations doing business with those rogue countries didn't imperil free speech, how does it suddenly do so (only) when those being sanctioned are boycotting Israel?

What then is the connection between Omar's resolution - which doesn't include the words "Israel," "Palestine" or "BDS" - and anti-BDS legislation?  Based on the text, nothing. But, as usual, subtext is everything.

Omar's resolution is a ploy to trick pro-Israel advocates into opposing a harmless, toothless paean to the First Amendment. Relying on her and others' false descriptions of the resolution as supporting BDS and knowing that some will automatically oppose anything with her name on it, Omar hopes to paint Israel's supporters and anti-BDS laws with an anti-First Amendment brush.

Omar said the "resolution … really speak[s] about the American values that support and believe in our ability to exercise our First Amendment rights in regard to boycotting and …explain[s] why we support BDS."

Unfortunately some fell for that spin:

The Forward wrote "Omar Introduces Pro-BDS Congressional Resolution," and U.S. News & World Report said "Omar Seizes Spotlight to Push Pro-BDS Resolution.

And while the major pro-Israel groups haven't given the resolution the oxygen it craves, others are neck-deep in the trap, baselessly claiming it is "antisemitic," "protects BDS," and "defies American values."

Omar's resolution will likely not even be called for a vote. Yet the fake war is fully underway over what it means and what it says about anti-BDS legislation. 

The pro-BDS side, aided by our community's overwrought reaction, is winning the argument with an important constituency: those who are neither passionate pro or anti-Israel Americans, the proverbial fence sitters, who care deeply about our constitution and are susceptible to misrepresentations that slander anti-BDS laws as unconstitutional.

Anti-BDS laws are constitutional. In politically polarized Washington, combating BDS stands upon uncommon common ground. It demonstrates solidarity with a strategic ally and aligns our nation's values with our government's corporate regulatory responsibilities.

Those in the media and our community echoing the misleading description of Omar's resolution as a brave First Amendment response to the evils of anti-BDS laws have fallen into the semantic trap set. That trap ensures a public relations and public opinion victory for BDS, regardless of the resolution's ultimate fate.

There is nothing to fear in Omar's 420-word resolution. The fate of the First Amendment and anti-BDS laws do not lie in the balance. Let's ignore the phony noise circulating around it and more knowledgeably advance anti-BDS public policies. There is real business to be done, further strengthening bipartisan support for the U.S. - Israel relationship and advancing the pursuit of peace. Anything else is a trap.

Jay Tcath is Executive Vice President of the Jewish United Fund of Chicago.

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