ROCKVILLE – Protesters assembled outside a town hall to voice their opposition to legislation sponsored by Sen. Ben Cardin.
"There's a long track record of Cardin, among other people in Congress, of supporting policies that don't recognize the humanity of Palestine," said Benjamin Douglas, 33, who led the protest.
The protest was part of the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction (BDS) movement which aims to change Israel's West Bank settlement and embargo policies through international pressure. They gathered Thursday at a town hall focused on health care with Sen. Cardin at the Johns Hopkins Rockville campus.
Douglas, who works as a lawyer, said he was there to specifically protest a bill primarily sponsored by Maryland's senior U.S. Senator.
"The specific catalyst is Senator Cardin's role as a primary introducer and primary sponsor of the Israel Anti-Boycott Act which actually seeks to criminalize certain forms of boycott, divest, sanctions movement," Douglas said. "The intent is to intimidate civil society and promote investment even in things the U.S. government considers illegal like settlement in the West Bank," he added.
“What brings me out here is this backwards thrust to try to make the issues of boycotts illegal when that has been a tool used historically to fight for justice,” said Rev. Graylan Hagler, a senior pastor at the Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ in Washington, D.C. “Many of us stood with Cesar Chavez to bring decency and justice to farm workers rights, we were there pushing for the boycotts in South Africa to bring justice for the South African people,” he added.
Hagler explained that Israel-related boycotts are similar to sanctions the U.S. imposes on other countries.
“We talk about sanctions against Cuba, against Venezuela, against Iran, against other countries in this world, which is a form of boycott, and all of the sudden when it comes to Israel, somehow folks decide that they’ve stepped over the line whey they’re talking about boycotting Israel or a boycott of those companies and business that continue to advance the occupation,” he said. “We haven’t stepped over the line, this is part of what we do as a country, we do it governmentally and we do it from a citizen’s perspective.”
The Israel Anti-Boycott Act, also known as S.720, currently has 48 cosponsors and has not yet been debated in committee. Records show Sen. Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) initially supported the bill but later withdrew her support.
Samira Hussein, 62, immigrated to the country from the West Bank after the Six-Day War in 1967 after being forced out of her village.
"When I was 12 years old in 1967, we were forced out by the Israeli occupation army in the middle of the night," she said after the event. "Barefoot, in our pajamas, they told us wait for a few hours and you come back but we never had the opportunity to return and we lost everything," she added.
Hussein, who currently resides in Gaithersburg, added that she and her family were not given the opportunity to return or gather any of their possessions as their village was demolished to make way for an Israeli settlement.
She attended the event as part of the protest and had the opportunity to ask the Senator about S.720.
"When I heard about this bill, I just couldn't comprehend why I have to go to jail for 20 years and pay a million dollar fine just because I don't want to buy Israeli products that are made in the illegal Israeli settlements that sit on my land," Hussein said. "I've been penalized as Palestinian there, I was somebody and then became nobody in refugee camps, and when we moved to Maryland we faced hate crimes for at least 20 years," she said.
Shervan Sardar, 45, a lawyer from D.C., traveled to Palestine twice in the last year.
"What I saw was a lot of communities under stress, I saw the impact of 700,000 settlers in the occupied West Bank that are taking Palestinian land," he said.
Sardar explained he saw villages populated by Palestinians under seizure and demolition orders.
"Palestinians are under constant assault and constant attack in violation of international law, in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, and this is clear from every human rights organization that's looking at this," he said. "Instead of holding the stronger power, Israel, accountable to the rule of law, what we have is Senator Cardin holding any initiative that Palestinians can come up with to try to put some accountability on the occupation and the Israeli policies in the West Bank," he added.
"If the U.N. puts out a list of companies that are involved in settlement profiteering, then anybody who follows that list and boycotts Israel because of that list could go to jail for 20 years," said Saqib Ali, 42, a software engineer and former state delegate, who organized the protest.
When responding to questions on S.720, Sen. Cardin reiterated that the bill would not criminalize activities of individual citizens.
"I think I clarified it, those who are familiar with the bill, I think understand it, I think there's people who do not, but the bill is a pretty straightforward bill," Cardin said after the event. "For whatever reasons things that have been said about it just aren't accurate," he added
The protesters remained unconvinced by the Senator's responses.
"He can talk as much as we wants, the United States needs to make a commitment to cut the financial aid to Israel. There is not peace that will ever exist because Israel knows they can get away with it," said Hussein.
"They're disingenuous because he insists that the bill doesn't do what it so clearly does on its face," said Ali. "It's like a tragic-comic situation but it's sad and really outrageous," he added.
During the town hall, audience members who raised questions on the legislation were repeatedly shouted down. "This is hijacking the conversation, this is supposed to be about health care," a man shouted across the room.
Responding to those who attempted to shout him down, Ali affirmed his intentions to continue. "I'm going to speak, it doesn't matter, if people don't like what I have to say, I'm going to speak for free speech."
Judy Brilley, 68, from Frederick attended the event independently from the protest and believed the shouting was out of place. "When people tried to shout them down, I wanted us to be kind to each other," she said.
County Council member Marc Elrich (at-large) said he was not surprised with the questions related to S.720. “He’s got to explain that bill which I think has got a lot of people really nervous,” he said. “If we can’t sit in a room and have a discussion, something is seriously wrong,” Elrich added.