This bill must die

Lately there’s a Russian under every rock if not every bed. We’ve also been seeing some new bipartisan frenzy over Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. Senators keep heaping sanction after sanction on America’s many enemies, including Russia, and there is revived interest in the registration of foreign agents. “People should know if foreign governments, political parties or other foreign interests are trying to influence U.S. policy or public opinion,” says Iowa Republican and Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, Chuck Grassley.

Indeed, people should know who is trying to influence U.S. policy and public opinion.

And they should also know who the worst offender is.

AIPAC, the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, is unique in bending U.S. policy and public opinion to a foreign government’s will. Try to imagine a ChinaPAC, a SaudiPAC, or a RusskyPAC operating with as much impunity, introducing whatever federal legislation it wants on a regular basis, sending hundreds of congressmen on junkets to Moscow every summer recess, establishing Russian trade delegations in every state, letting Russians decide how we interrogate terrorists, giving a major voice to Russia on our foreign policy in Eastern Europe. It’s shocking when our relationship with Israel is described like this, but It’s especially shocking that Israel gets away with it because neither political party objects.

AIPAC is only a slice of an Israel lobby that spans dozens of organizations, but it is the largest of the Israel attack dogs, and it has teeth. As FORTUNE magazine put it, “if a congressman from Kansas gets a call from an AIPAC lobbyist, he and his constituents may not think much about about Israeli affairs, but voting with the lobby is politically beneficial. Voting against them, meanwhile, gives that congressman a powerful enemy.” Plus, the money and junkets are great.

Unlike lobbyists who represent China, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Russia, the Ukraine or other foreign interests, AIPAC seems free to flaunt FARA, the 1938 Foreign Agents Registration Act. Indeed, this week, in the middle of discussions on Russia, Senator Lindsay Graham asked [rhetorically] whether AIPAC should be required to register: “They come up here in droves: lobbying Congress to do things, in their view good for the U.S.-Israel relationship. I know they have a lot of contacts in Israel. Should somebody like that be a foreign agent?”

If they’re not representing Israel, who does AIPAC really represent? Although it frequently claims to speak for American Jews, Jewish Voice for Peace rabbi Joseph Berman would beg to disagree: “they don’t speak for the Jewish community.” Poll after poll shows that American Jews are, first and foremost, Americans who believe in religious plurality, do not believe in ethno-religious government, and support diplomacy with Iran rather than reckless provocation. There are already plenty of lobbyists for a strong defense and muscular foreign policy so, once again, who does AIPAC really represent? In the words of Middle East expert Juan Cole, “the only logical possibility is that AIPAC is acting on behalf of the Likud government of Israel.”

In 2005 AIPAC Policy Director Steve Rosen and AIPAC Senior Iran Analyst Keith Weissman were fired after the FBI became suspicious the two had passed classified information to Israel. The stolen information was provided by Larry Franklin, who served a 12 year sentence for espionage. And though the two AIPAC employees were plainly operating in Israel’s behalf, because of the belief that American and Israeli interests are synonymous the prosecution claimed it could not prove that passing stolen information to Israel had actually harmed the United States.

AIPAC is involved with many linked organizations, including the American Israel Education Foundation (AIEF) — which operates out of the same building and sent almost all freshmen Congressmen to Israel in 2015 — and Islamophobic groups like Citizens for a Nuclear Free Iran (CNFI). As the INTERCEPT reported, AIPAC’s political beneficiaries are bi-partisan. Four ostensibly “liberal” Democrats, for example, advise CNFI, which in turn finances some of Frank Gaffney‘s work. AIPAC has gotten Democrats to suppress the BDS movement at both legislative and executive levels. New York governor Andrew Cuomo wrote an executive memo to establish an anti-BDS blacklist. And Hillary Clinton’s AIPAC speech made it clear that her party would fight BDS for Israel in the halls of Congress. And AIPAC was grateful when Republican David Friedman became the U.S. ambassador to Israel.

But the only party AIPAC really cares about is the Likud.

For the moment, however, AIPAC continues to pretend that it represents a domestic constituency and not a foreign government. But, like ALEC, it has numerous legislators willing to sponsor its Israel-friendly bills. And the legislation just keeps on coming.

Back in March AIPAC sponsored Senate bill S.722, “Countering Iran’s Destabilizing Activities Act of 2017,” designed to promote Israel’s foreign policy goals regarding Iran.

In May the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously passed H.R.672, “Combating European Anti-Semitism Act of 2017,” which makes the United States responsible for Israel’s interests in Europe. The bill accused European leaders who have voiced even tepid criticisms of Israel, including Angela Merkel, of anti-semitism.

More recently the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, also sponsored by AIPAC, appeared in both House and Senate flavors and has been roundly denounced by civil liberties and progressive organizations.

The “Israel Anti-Boycott Act” joins the federal Combating BDS Act of 2017 and last year’s Anti-Semitism Awareness Act in trying to outlaw the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement in the United States. It also joins legislation filed by Israel’s lobbyists in 35 states, and enacted in 19, which outlaw the use of anti-Israel boycotts, a First Amendment right affirmed by the Supreme Court’s 1982 ruling in “NAACP vs. Claiborne Hardware” that tested the legality of peaceful advocacy of a politically-motivated boycott.

Despite its dubious constitutionality, the proposed law would make support of the BDS movement a felony, slapping $1 million dollar fines and imposing 20 year prison sentences on critics of Israel. It specifically goes after BDS supporters by suppressing political opposition to the Israeli government. The text of the bill reads: “The term ‘politically motivated’ means actions to impede or constrain commerce with Israel that are intended to coerce political action from or impose policy positions on Israel.”

And this is what the 46 Senate and 249 House co-sponsors really oppose — the political right of their constituents to pressure for change in Israel.

Because the “Israeli Anti-Boycott Act” is so vaguely-worded, it could be interpreted quite extremely. For example, suppose a consumer, before deciding to boycott an individual Israeli product, wanted to know if SodaStream machines, Naot shoes, or Ahava cosmetics are made in Israel proper or in the occupied West Bank. According to the ACLU, posting even an inquiry on social media could theoretically cost a citizen 20 years of freedom or $1 million for his exercise of free speech. defends the right to use boycotts, “regardless how you feel about BDS,” as a Free Speech issue. As well it is.

Another defect of the bill is that, while it was clearly written specifically for Israel’s benefit, it contains ambiguous language punishing anyone who boycotts any “country friendly to” the United States, or who joins, supports, or echoes support for a foreign boycott of that country. This could also have unintended consequences because the United States has many dubious friends — including the Saudi dictatorship, Egypt’s dictator, Philippine dictator Duterte, Pakistan, Afghanistan’s kleptocracy, Uzbekistan, Bahrain, Azerbaijan, Honduras, Qatar, Kyrgyzstan, Djibouti, Kazakhstan, Turkey, and many others.

“Friends” of the United States also include several new European members of NATO that are in the process of shedding their democracies, including Poland and Hungary. And Thailand, a SEATO member, is a government currently under dictatorship. No citizen should feel safe criticizing a repressive foreign regime with a toxic combination of vague, anti-democratic legislation and our present authoritarian president.

Brand Israel has successfully sold itself as the “only Democracy in the Middle East.” Yet the government’s public relations campaign rings as hollow as anything to come out of the Trump administration. Israel has much in common with South Africa’s Apartheid regime in maintaining a cruel, repressive occupation over a people denied their civil rights. And Israel just celebrated its fiftieth year of occupation. As Israeli historian Ilan Pappe puts it, Israel is not a democracy, nor with an occupation could it ever be. “What we must challenge here, therefore, is not only Israel’s claim to be maintaining an enlightened occupation but also its pretense to being a democracy. Such behavior towards millions of people under its rule gives the lie to such political chicanery.”

Israel is no longer recognizable as the spunky little nation of friendly kibbutzniks. Over the years it has transformed into an extreme right-wing settler state and has instituted a series of anti-democratic laws of its own. Israel has cracked down on domestic human rights advocates like B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence. Like our own president, Israel treats its own press as enemies. Journalism is frequently censored in Israel and, like Saudi Arabia, the government is now trying to shut down the Jerusalem office of Al Jazeera. Despite wide support for so-called “shared values,” the more Americans learn about Israel the more its reputation in the United States suffers. Shutting down the BDS movement is not a shared value but a desperate attempt to shut down criticism within a nation that is Israel’s most useful enabler.

A few weeks ago, on a tour of Eastern Europe, Israeli prime minister Netanyahu was caught lecturing leaders of Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech republic — xenophobic nations that oppose resettlement of refugees — that Israel was a bulwark in the defense of “Judeo-Christian” values against Muslim hordes and that European concern for Palestinians was “crazy.” Netanyahu sounded precisely like American white supremacist Richard Spencer and an awful lot like Donald Trump in Poland last week. “Don’t undermine that one European, Western country that defends European values and European interests and prevents another mass migration to Europe,” Netanyahu told his fellow right-wing Islamophobes.

BDS activists say that a boycott is a legal, peaceful way to keep pressure on Israel so long as its Palestinian occupation continues and land thefts persist. Only a few days ago 100 armed settlers invaded the home of the Abu Rajab family in Hebron and forcibly ejected them into the street. Speaking for the government, Israel’s Agriculture Minister, Uri Ariel, defended the home invasion: “The entry into the home is another step in strengthening the natural connection of the Jewish people to its land. In the last few days in which Jerusalem has been under incessant incitement, I am glad that the people of Israel continue to establish themselves in the City of the Patriarchs.” Another government minister, Tzachi Hanegbi, threatened Palestinians with a “third Nakba” (more ethnic cleansing).

These were voices of the government speaking and, curiously, Ariel used the word incitement, which is frequently deployed when talking about BDS or making any appeal for Palestinian rights.

Sponsors of the “Israel Anti-Boycott Act” should have known a backlash was coming. Democratic Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland says now that his bill was misinterpreted by the ACLU. But the ACLU’s David Cole and Faiz Shakir stood by their reading in a Washington Post editorial:

“Whether one approves or disapproves of the BDS movement itself, people should have a right to make up their own minds about it. Americans engage in boycotts every day when they decide not to buy from companies whose practices they oppose. Students have boycotted companies that sold clothing manufactured in sweatshops abroad. Environmentalists have boycotted Nestlé for its deforestation practices. By using their power in the marketplace, consumers can act collectively to express their political points of view. There is nothing illegal about such collective action; indeed, it is constitutionally protected.”

Cardin has since offered to tinker with the bill’s wording. But regardless of how it is phrased or re-phrased, the bill ultimately has only one purpose — to make political action by Americans illegal if it offends Israel.

This practically defines the phrase “un-American.”

Voters must let Senate co-sponsors and House co-sponsors of this bill know in no uncertain terms that this bill must die. Here in Massachusetts that includes Reps. Richard Neal and Joe Kennedy who once again sullies the family name.

In addition, Congress must ensure that the AIPAC lobbyists at 251 Massachusetts Avenue in Washington D.C. all follow what their colleagues Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, Monica Farley, John Podesta, and thousands of others have been forced to do — register with the Justice Department under the 1938 FARA Act as agents of a foreign country.

A Better Deal?

The newly-announced Democratic strategy for 2018 will be neither good for progressives nor for centrist Democrats. A terminally ill party has chosen to forego a direction that might save it. It has chosen a strategy that justifiably skeptical voters will reject in the midterms, one sure to alienate progressives and Republicans alike, in the earnest conviction that walking straight down the middle of the road at midnight is the safest way to move forward. The new strategy also demonstrates that a marriage between party centrists and progressives is untenable.

Yesterday Senate minority leader Charles Schumer and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi stood in the sun in rural Virginia and announced the Democratic Party’s “Better Deal” for Americans. Their message was completely economic: “First, we’re going to increase people’s pay. Second, we’re going to reduce their everyday expenses. And third, we’re going to provide workers with the tools they need for the 21st-century economy.”

The Democratic campaign was crafted by Madison Avenue but symbolically launched in Berryville, Virginia, population 4,185, 85% white, a Southern town where Hillary Clinton led in the 2016 election. The slogan actually reads: “A Better Deal: Better Jobs, Better Wages, Better Future” but GOP hecklers noted similarities with the Papa John’s slogan “Better Ingredients, Better Pizza” and brought their own pizza boxes ridiculing the Democrats. THEWEEK echoed skepticism of the campaign’s ham-handedness: “Congrats on getting a new slogan, Democrats. It might just be dumb enough to work.”

The Democrats’ new strategy seems to embrace the ideas of Clinton strategists Mark Penn and Andrew Stein, whose piece in the July 6th New York Times advised “Back to the Center, Democrats.” POLITICO noted that the new strategy “sidesteps” social issues, appearing to further reject so-called “identity politics,” a direction recommended to the DNC in a November 2016 op-ed in the New York Times by Mark Lilla, a Libertarian. Furthermore, the DNC now seems to be chasing rural white voters, a strategy Amanda Marcotte sees as doomed.

But the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune saw the launch as a smashing success, calming a “restive left” in the party’s ranks. David Atkins at Washington Monthly sounded a “mission accomplished” note by declaring that the party had learned its lessons and now the “healing” could begin. John Stoehr saw the party learning how to be “populists” again. McClatchy News claimed the announcement made progressives delirious with joy at the “left-leaning” agenda. Centrists, wrote the friendly pundits, had moved as far to the left as possible, and now love was in the air.

But when one parses the new economic strategy, it reads exactly like the old economic strategy: economic and wage adjustments, public-private partnerships, and training for the New Economy du jour. But, this time, with tax credits for employers doing the training. The New Republic argues that the DNC emphasis on worker retraining will resonate as poorly with those like the Carrier worker in Elkhart whom Obama lectured during a town hall last June. CUNY Political Scientist Corey Robin points out that public-private worker training schemes are rarely successes and observes that, if this is the best the DNC can come up with, it must have a death wish:

“It’s true that Schumer offers other proposals, including a $15 minimum wage, but for anyone with a memory, the devotion of one sentence, much less a paragraph, of precious column space to this synecdoche of the bipartisan political economy of the last four decades—well, it’s enough to make you think this is a party that wants to die but can’t pull the plug.”

Liberal WaPo columnist Eugene Robinson sees the new Democratic strategy as timid and uninspiring. “I’m still waiting to hear the “bold solutions” that Democrats promise. I can think of one possibility: Why not propose some version of truly universal single-payer health care?”

Writing on Bill Moyers & Company, UC Berkeley law professor Ian Haney Lopez wrote that the new Democratic strategy is everything that’s wrong with the party: Wall Street connections; an over-emphasis on marketing; a party turning its back on minorities by focusing now on whites; and a “boring party with limited ambitions.”

A list of twenty organizations including Our Revolution, Democracy for America, and Progressive Democrats of America wants Democrats to support seven pieces of progressive legislation. It’s been a remarkable litmus test for the party’s willingness to actually move in a progressive direction. Not surprisingly, Democrats have rejected the progressive agenda. Forget the Blue Dogs and Red State Democrats for a moment and look at the Massachusetts Congressional delegation.

Not one in the entire delegation supports the Massachusetts Democratic platform’s call for free college education. Only two are willing to tax investment income. Only two are willing to get rid of private prisons. Only three support healthcare as a human need and not a profit center. Only three support automatic voter registration (Democratic Secretary of State William F. Galvin is even appealing a State Judicial Court ruling that bars the state from forbidding people from voting unless they registered 20 days prior to an election).

It seems clear where all this is headed. Does anyone really expect hundreds of midnight conversions to progressive politics from Bay State Democrats? This is a party that has learned nothing from its loss in 2016. Democrats, both centrist and progressive, need to admit that efforts to reform the DNC have failed. There will be no new direction, no recalibration — only a further slide to the right as Democrats try even harder to play the Republican game.

2018 Midterms

Midterm elections will be here in fifteen months. Every seat in the U.S. House of Representatives and a third of all Senate seats will be up for grabs. The state Democratic primaries will be here long before that, but nobody seems to be worried — except maybe the worry-warts and Cassandras who see disaster unfolding.

Democrats are divided on moving right or moving left, so instead the party has chosen “we’re against Trump” as its anthem. Massachusetts Democrats heard a five-hour preview of this song at the June 3rd convention in Worcester. But merely opposing Trump has limited appeal to Republicans, unenrolled voters, and progressives. Instead, voters are asking: What have you done for me lately? And: What do you really stand for?

Democratic leaders say they are working on something great (sounds like Trump) but they’re in no rush to let American voters in on their secret. When Democrats finally do come up with a new platform, as POLITICO points out, even if it is progressive, centrist Democrats say they’ll chart their own political course. Words are cheap. Platforms apparently are even cheaper.

Democrats face not only apathy and division but a demographic crisis. According to the non-partisan Voter Participation Center at Lake Research, the “Rising American Electorate” (millennials, unmarried women, and people of color) are more likely to stay home for 2018 midterm elections or remain unenrolled than in 2012. In Massachusetts the net loss is expected to be 12.7%, while in states like New Mexico it may be as high as 29.6%. A total of 40 million Americans will drop out of the electoral process. And unfortunately they won’t be Trump voters.

If Democrats cannot agree on a platform, they should at least make voting rights and voter registration a major effort. But so far it’s been radio silence from both the DNC and MassDems.

Among the races coming up in Massachusetts and our slice of the SouthCoast:

  • Elizabeth Warren is up for re-election but her victory is far from assured.
  • All nine U.S. Congressmen seem likely to run unopposed in the primaries as they did two years ago, although in 2012 Sam Sutter challenged Bill Keating (9th Congressional district) in the Democratic primary and got a surprising 40% of the vote.
  • Republican Governor Charlie Baker is up for re-election and any Democrat who wants to take on the telegenic and personable (but nevertheless Republican) governor really needs to emerge as a strong challenger long before the March primaries.
  • William Francis Galvin ran unopposed for Secretary of the Commonwealth in the 2014 primaries, and we’ll probably see a repeat of this in 2018.
  • Popular Attorney General Maura Healey is clearly running an aggressive re-election campaign, taking no chances.
  • Treasurer Deb Goldberg had two primary challengers in 2014 and squeaked by with 55% of the vote in the 2014 general election. Republicans will be gunning for her job again this year.
  • Auditor Suzanne Bump won with 57% in the 2014 general election and ran unopposed in the primaries.
  • Governor’s Council member Joseph C. Ferreira (1st district), who ran unopposed in both the 2014 and 2016 primaries and also unopposed in both general elections, will likely run for his campaigning-free $36K a year job.
  • State Senator Mark Montigny (2nd Bristol and Plymouth), who has generally run unopposed in both primaries and general elections since 1992, will be up for re-election.
  • State Representative Christopher Markey (9th Bristol) is up for re-election. Markey has had periodic challengers (Alan Garcia, Patrick Curran, Joe Michaud, Russel Protentis, Robert Tavares, Raymond Medeiros) but the conservative Democrat has somehow clung to his $75K part-time job.
  • In 2014 Bristol County Commissioner John Saunders was challenged in the primaries by Daniel Dermody but ran unopposed in the general election.
  • In 2014 Sam Sutter ran for Bristol County District Attorney and had no challengers in either the primary or the general election.
  • In 2016 Thomas M. Quinn ran for Bristol County District Attorney and had no challengers in either the primary or the general election.
  • A couple of bland part-time positions offer six-year terms, nice salaries, and generally few challengers:
  • Mark J. Santos has run unopposed for the last 18 years as Bristol County Clerk of Courts. There have been no primary or general election challengers in all this time for his $110K job.
  • In announcing his retirement last March, Mark Treadup, a former school board member, former city councilman, former state representative, former county treasurer, former county commissioner, and former member of the Governor’s Council, bequeathed his most recent job as Career Democrat to Susan A. Morris, but it was given instead to fomer New Bedford mayor Fred Kalisz to finish out Treadup’s term.

At this late date Democrats are unlikely to get their act together. Careerism, apathy, and division can’t be cured overnight. And voter trust remains the critical issue. A party’s actions will always speak louder than platforms and promises.