WASHINGTON – A bipartisan bill intended to combat the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel advanced in the House of Representatives on Thursday.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee unanimously approved the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, which would shield Israel and Israeli businesses by criminally penalizing US citizens seeking to participate in international boycotts against them. The legislation is now cleared for a full vote on the House floor.

The bill is the most significant federal effort to legislate against the BDS movement, following on a model adopted by several US states – including New York, Texas, California and Florida – to prohibit discrimination on the basis of national origin.

It was drafted in 2017 in response to a decision from the United Nations Human Rights Council to “blacklist” companies operating in the Palestinian territories, defined by that body as all territory beyond the pre- 1967-War Green Line.

A companion bill has been introduced in the Senate.

If passed, this new act would amend the Export Administration Act of 1979 – originally written to protect US companies from Arab League sanctions on Israel – to shield Israeli businesses from international boycotts of virtually any kind.

Democrats successfully pushed for edits in the spring to insure free-speech protections amid concerns from civil rights groups that the bill would infringe on the constitutional right to protest.

The bill, sponsored by representatives Peter Roskam of Illinois (R) and Juan Vargas of California (D), “prohibits US companies from participating in boycotts promoted by international organizations, like the UN, that target US partners, like Israel,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce of California (R) said in a statement.

Democratic Representative Eliot Engel of New York, who is a co-sponsor of the act, said at the vote that the bill “is an important legislative fix to bring our anti-boycott statutes into the 21st century.

“Current law already prohibits US companies from participating in state-sponsored boycotts of countries friendly to the United States,” Engel said. “This legislation simply adds boycotts by international government organizations to that law.

“This bill does not infringe on free speech,” he added. “It makes it clear that this prohibition only applies when a person is acting in an official capacity and if the intent was to comply with the international government organization’s boycott. Individual, personal speech remains protected – period.”