The Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA) expresses its strong opposition to the “Israel Anti-Boycott Act” (S. 720 and H.R. 1697), currently under consideration by Congress. If enacted into law this bill would impose criminal and civil punishment on individuals and businesses – and potentially other entities, including academic organizations – simply because they express a particular political belief, in this case advocacy of a boycott of Israel. It thus threatens the constitutionally protected right of free speech and has very dangerous implications for the academic freedom of faculty at institutions of higher education across the United States.
MESA was founded in 1966 to promote scholarship and teaching on the Middle East and North Africa. The preeminent organization in the field, the Association publishes the International Journal of Middle East Studies and has nearly 3,000 members worldwide. MESA is committed to ensuring academic freedom and freedom of expression, both within the region and in connection with the study of the region in North America and elsewhere.
This bill would amend the Export Administration Act of 1979 and the Export-Import Bank Act of 1945 so as to prohibit U.S. persons (including businesses) from supporting boycotts directed against Israel conducted by international governmental organizations such as the European Union and the United Nations. (The bill's provisions apply both to Israel within its 1967 borders and Israeli settlements in the Palestinian Occupied Territories.) Violators could be subject to up to 20 years in prison, a maximum criminal penalty of $1 million and a minimum civil penalty of $250,000. The apparent intent of the bill is to prevent U.S. individuals and businesses from participating in, supporting or complying with current efforts by the EU and some UN agencies to, for example, require products made in Israeli settlements in the West Bank – illegal under international law – to be labelled as such, and to compile information on companies doing business in or with these settlements.
As the American Civil Liberties Union noted in its July 17, 2017 public statement on this bill, a great many U.S. businesses and individuals do no business with Israel or its West Bank settlements for many different reasons. “Under the bill, however, only a person whose lack of business ties to Israel is politically motivated would be subject to fines and imprisonment – even though there are many others who engage in the very same behavior. In short, the bill would punish individuals based solely on their point of view. Such a penalty is in direct violation of the First Amendment.”
In addition to punishing persons who choose to exercise their constitutional right to free speech by supporting an international boycott in order to protest Israeli government policies, this bill poses a grave threat to academic freedom. It is not difficult to envision its provisions being used to punish faculty, students, student groups and/or academic organizations who advocate for some form of boycott of Israel, as well as the colleges and universities which house and partially fund them. It would thus have a chilling effect on the free and open exchange of opinions and perspectives at institutions of higher education and severely compromise their educational mission.
We therefore call on the members of the Senate and House of Representatives who have agreed to sponsor S. 720 and H.R. 1697 to immediately withdraw their sponsorship, and we call on all members of Congress to oppose this appallingly unconstitutional bill. We further call on the members of Congress to refrain from all legislative action which threatens the right of U.S. persons to exercise their constitutional right to free speech and political expression, including through advocacy of boycotts.