NEW YORK – Jewish and pro-Israel groups have been increasingly focused on finding ways to counter what some say is perhaps the biggest threat to the State of Israel today: the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.
On college campuses across the United States, the movement’s presence has caused much controversy after clashing with Jewish students in incidents that sometimes even turned violent.
Just last month, the Graduate Student Union at New York University made the decision to join BDS and passed a resolution calling on the institution to divest from Israeli companies and close its program at Tel Aviv University.
While Jewish student groups have taken it upon themselves to try and push back the movement on campuses, policymakers across the US have decided to take the fight to the state level.
Legislatures have introduced anti- BDS bills in 20 states, including New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, California, Massachusetts, Indiana and Ohio.
In seven of the states, the bills have been signed into law: Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, South Carolina, and recently, Iowa.
The bills prohibit the states and their public entities from doing business with companies that engage in the boycott of Israel. In some states, like Colorado, the legislation also requires the state’s pension fund to create a blacklist of for-profit entities that boycott Israel and to divest from blacklisted entities.
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post in November, Democratic New York State Senator Michael Gianaris, who introduced such a bill in his state, said, “The goal is to make a strong statement that New York stands with Israel and that any efforts to undermine the legitimacy of [the US’s] strongest ally in the region will not be successful.”
“When one scratches the surface of the movement, it can be exposed for really being an effort to undermine the nation of Israel around the world,” he said.
“The BDS movement is something we need to make a statement about before it becomes too widespread.”
Standing up for Israel is, according to most legislators, the main goal of the bills.
“If we’re going to consider ourself an ally of Israel, we should follow through with action,” Sen. Larry Crowder of Colorado, where the bill (HB 1284) became law, told the Post in a recent phone interview.
“The way the world is today, anytime we invest in a company and the proceeds of that company are used in a way that is detrimental to Israel, it is also detrimental to all free people of the world and to the United States,” he added.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper signed House Bill 1284 into law on March 18. It calls for the State’s multibillion- dollar pension fund, the Colorado Public Employees’ Retirement Association, to divest from companies with economic prohibitions against Israel. If the fund already has investments in companies boycotting Israel, it has until January 1, 2017, to withdraw from those investments.
In Georgia, Republican Sen. Judson Hill, who has also been involved with efforts to divest his state’s funds from countries who sponsor terrorism, told the Post that when the opportunity to introduce an anti-BDS bill came along, he “frankly just jumped on it.”
“I think it’s right to do for a variety of reasons,” he said.
“It’s the right thing for the taxpayers of Georgia. We, as a state, need to always have access to world-class technology and services, much of which comes out of Israel. To limit our ability to access those technologies is not wise.”
“Moreover, if we can make a strong public statement for the people and nation of Israel, I’m more than interested in helping,” Hill said.
The Georgia senator added that he is “strongly supportive” of the US government adopting strong measures to support Israel in all 50 states on a federal level.
“Israel is one of our greatest and strongest allies in the world. I believe that our common heritage and faith unites us in a unique way, especially in the challenging global times we live in,” he told the Post.
Republican Sen. Joe Negron, who introduced the bill in Florida, also said “it is important for political leaders at all levels to strongly support Israel.
“I certainly hope that our next president will be a strong and dependable ally of Israel,” he added.
Florida signed the bill into law at the beginning of April. The state will now create a blacklist of companies that support politically motivated boycotts of Israel, prohibit public entities from entering into contracts with blacklisted entities, and prohibit state pension funds from investing in companies engaged in the BDS movement. “Our state will always stand with Israel and we will strongly oppose any groups or organizations that attempt to weaken Israel financially,” Negron told the Post.
“I think the citizens of Florida are very strongly in favor of our friendship and alliance with Israel and we don’t want to do business with companies that discriminate against it.”
Negron and Hill said they encountered some opposition when they first introduced the draft legislation.
In Georgia, Hill said groups of pro- BDS activists who came to lobby lawmakers to vote against the bill were “very aggressive” and “organized.” In Florida, Negron also had to face similar opposition, but in the state’s senate there was “overwhelming bipartisan support for the initiative.”
“They are very vocal and aggressive, but I’m certainly not going to be intimidated away from my support of Israel,” Negron said.
“Ironically, we allow freedom of expression in our country and we encourage dissenting viewpoints, but many of the governments that BDS proponents support don’t give the same rights to their citizens.”
Hill added that “there is a movement to portray Israel as the aggressor and some people believe that.”
“Many in the national and international media speak poorly against Israel and have for years,” he told the Post.
“People buy into the argument that Israel is unfairly taking over the areas of Middle East that don’t belong to them and are abusive in doing so, which I can say from personal experience is not true.”
Similar anti-BDS draft legislation is pending in several US states; the latest to sign it into law was Iowa, on April 28.
Iowa’s passage of SF2281/HF2231 was applauded by The Israel Project (TIP), a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that aims to educate the press, the public and policymakers about Israel and the Middle East.
Over the past years, TIP has been active in the process of introducing and passing anti-BDS legislation in a number of US states.
“What we are really focused on doing is helping coordinate the efforts,” Jacob Millner, Midwest regional director and senior policy analyst of the organization, told the Post in an interview prior to the Iowa decision.
“It means educating legislators, educating the community. In some cases it is coordinating with the organized Jewish community on the ground and helping people wherever we can: with resources, with media, with legal advice, whatever it is that we can provide for them so that we can help make these efforts successful in as many states as possible,” he said.
Millner explained that TIP became involved in the Iowa initiative after local Jewish community members reached out to the organization.
“We took it upon ourselves to provide them with talking points, one-pagers, help them craft language that they wanted to see in a bill in Iowa,” he explained.
“I think it’s important for states to take a stand when comes to discriminatory efforts. The BDS movement, at its core, is discrimination – just like there is racism and gender discrimination in this country.”
The BDS movement “is fundamentally not inclined towards peace” and contains “anti-Semitic undertones,” he added.
“What the states are doing right now is effective because (a) it puts obstacles in front of the BDS movement, and (b) it’s a stand; the states are calling it out.”
However, Millner pointed out that “it is important to keep in mind that this legislation isn’t meant to solve the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
“These bills aren’t a discussion on whether settlements are legitimate or whether or not [Yasser] Arafat should have rejected [Ehud] Barak. It’s really a discussion on movements that discriminate,” he explained.
Although the anti-BDS bills have passed in many of the states that have been considering them, pro-Palestinian activists have managed to halt the efforts in states such as Virginia and Maryland.
The organization Palestine Legal, which describes itself as “dedicated to protecting the civil and constitutional rights of people in the US who speak out for Palestinian freedom,” wrote on its website that the wave of anti-BDS bills is “the result of a campaign to suppress Palestine human rights activism in the US.”
The site continues, “Israel’s interest in restricting this activism should not override our right to advocate for change.”
The organization contends that “the right to engage in boycotts related to Israeli human rights abuses and to advocate for BDS is protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution.”
Palestine Legal also wrote that the bills should be of concern not just to pro-Palestinians, but to everyone because they “threaten the right to take collective action to address injustice.” US citizens should be “alarmed that a foreign government, Israel, is lobbying US politicians to restrict [US citizens’] rights.”