On Feb. 5, 2019, the U.S. Senate passed SB-1, the Strengthening America’s Security in the Middle East Act of 2019, in a bipartisan vote of 77-23. Jack Reed voted against this bill, while Sheldon Whitehouse voted with the majority.
Sen. Reed’s vote came as a surprise to Rhode Island’s pro-Israel community who, even in spite of his ill-advised 2015 vote to support the Iran Deal, traditionally see Reed as a friend of Israel. According to Ted Nesi of WPRI, Reed spokesman Chip Unruh said “the senator’s vote was not a sign of wavering support for Israel. Senator Reed opposes the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement and any other efforts to isolate Israel.”
But Reed’s vote clearly supported the very BDS movement that his spokesman claims Reed opposes. Anti-Israel groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), and lobbying organizations of questionable intent such as J Street that also opposed SB-1 celebrated the fact that 23 Senators voted against it. JVP has declared this “the BDS Congress”.
How did Whitehouse and Reed explain their opposing positions on the vote? As Whitehouse explained to Ted Nesi: “Ninety percent of this bill was noncontroversial and there was a bipartisan alternative that was 100 percent noncontroversial … Leader McConnell decided to play a political game in the way he structured this legislation … I chose to vote aye as an expression of support for our ally, Israel.”
Whitehouse’s answer raises these questions: What was so controversial about the bill, and what was the “political game”? According to Congress.gov, the bill “… authorizes assistance and weapons transfers to Israel, and extends defense cooperation with Jordan. It establishes additional sanctions related to the conflict in Syria, and allows states to divest from entities boycotting Israel.”
That “controversial” anti-boycott provision was the problem for Whitehouse and left-leaning “Progressive” Democrats. Pro-Israel Democrats support anti-BDS legislation, since the stated goal of BDS leaders is the destruction of the Jewish state. Progressive Democrats ignore that reality, choosing to mask their general distaste for Israel by suggesting that the bill limits freedom of speech. That disingenuous position is fully refuted by mainstream legal scholars and by existing federal legislation enacted in 1977 against Arab boycotts of Israel.
The “political game” referred to by Whitehouse was the decision to include that anti-BDS provision in the overall SB-1, thus reducing the chances that it would go down to defeat if voted on separately. Still, Whitehouse voted “Yes”. What could Reed have felt was more important than “choosing to vote aye as an expression of support for our ally, Israel”?
Since 2016 Rhode Island has had H-7736 on the books, forbidding the state from contracting with companies that participate in boycotts of our allies, including Israel. Why vote to prevent other states from doing the same thing?
The inescapable conclusion lies in the 2020 Senate elections. Rhode Island’s Progressive Democrats are on the rise, and they staunchly support the BDS movement. Whitehouse, not up for re-election for another six years, apparently feels he can generously vote to support SB-1 as long as he gives lip service to opposing “controversial” anti-BDS legislation.
In a recent interview on public radio, Sen. Reed expressed a desire to remain in the Senate indefinitely. A career politician, Reed is predictable: he does what he thinks he needs to do to stay in office.
Reed, already feeling the heat of the Progressives in 2020, would like to avoid a strong primary challenge. Voting against SB-1, in effect opposing anti-BDS legislation, may be understood as a step to appease his potential opponents.
Reed’s decision raises a red flag for pro-Israel supporters. As President Harry S. Truman observed. If you “want a friend in Washington, buy a dog”. In Israel- (and anti-Semitism-) related issues coming our way, Jack Reed may no longer be the friend he has been in the past.
Howard Brown is the executive director of the Rhode Island Coalition for Israel (RICI).