Mass. legislative committee bows to BDS by killing anti-discrimination bills

A Massachusetts legislative committee squashed a pair of anti-discrimination bills filed a year ago that had drawn more than 500 people and seven hours of nonstop testimony at a contentious State House hearing last summer.

By deep-sixing the bills rather than forwarding them to the full Legislature, the 15-member committee made a strong statement on behalf of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts that not all discrimination merits unequivocal and swift condemnation. 

The real sticking point: The legislation would have prohibited state contracts with anyone who discriminates on the basis of Israeli national origin. Shelving the legislation handed a victory to the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions, or BDS, movement, whose supporters excoriated only Israel as they spoke against the bills at the hearing.

To understand the true nature of BDS, one can turn to Germany, where in December the city of Munich passed legislation outlawing public funds and space for the BDS campaign. Frankfurt Deputy Mayor and City Treasurer Uwe Becker initiated similar legislation.  

Calling BDS “a deeply antisemitic movement” that seeks “the delegitimization of the State of Israel," Becker said in a television interview that “they use the same language that Nazis used in the darkest chapter of German history, when they spoke about ‘Do not buy from Jews.’ Today they say, ‘Do not buy from Israel.’”  

But the Massachusetts Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight apparently didn't agree with Becker and gave the legislation “a study order,” which essentially killed the bills during this session. Doing so effectively barred the full Legislature from considering them, even though almost a third signed on as sponsors and the legislation enjoyed bipartisan support.

Patrick Walsh, the Joint Committee’s research director and spokesperson for Representative Jennifer Benson, the Committee chair, said, “State contracting is a huge business for some companies, and there was some uncertainty about how this could be applied and how people could get caught up in it. There’s been some reporting in other states of academics at state colleges possibly being caught up in similar things such as this. So those were all kind of concerns that the Chairwoman had.” 

Asked to name some specific concerns about the legislation, titled “An Act Prohibiting Discrimination in State Contracts,” Walsh said it could “have a chilling effect on the first amendment right to boycott.” 

It didn’t matter that free speech would not have been adversely affected, according to legal experts, despite assertions from opponents who latched onto that specious argument knowing that it would evoke strong emotion in anyone who does — and should — hold free speech sacred. The legislation concerned itself with business practices only. 

William Jacobson, a Cornell University Law School clinical professor and expert on BDS, said such legislation is similar to the federal Solomon Amendment, which conditioned aid to universities on providing equal access to military recruiters, a requirement upheld by the US Supreme Court in Rumsfeld v. Forum for Academic and Institutional Rights, Inc.

In that case, Jacobson said, “the Supreme Court unanimously held that there was no violation of free speech and association rights from conditioning federal aid on non-discrimination.” Jacobson pointed to the Supreme Court’s finding that “law schools remain free under the statute to express whatever views they may …. [T]he Solomon Amendment regulates conduct, not speech. It affects what law schools must do — afford equal access to military recruiters — not what they may or may not say. ”

And it didn’t matter that the legislation did not even mention Israel. It still couldn’t pass muster in this ultra-liberal state, customarily known as a trailblazer in all other matters of inclusiveness. Twenty-four other states have surpassed Massachusetts with laws similar to those that failed here, delivering unambiguous messages that discrimination will not be tolerated in their backyards.

The Massachusetts bills would have prevented the state from doing business amounting to more than $10,000 with anyone who discriminates based on “race, color, creed, religion, sex, national origin, gender identity or sexual orientation.” But that wording did not stop the bills’ detractors from ceaselessly castigating Israel throughout the hearing. 

“I see this as an organized effort to single out and discriminate against one country — Israel — and bring to bear a double standard against it,” said Eric Berke, an affordable-housing developer in Boston. “There are many other countries that are more deserving of boycotts that are just completely ignored. I think that Israelis are going to be discriminated against, and Jews are going to be by association.”

And it didn’t matter that opponents’ testimonies at the hearing were littered with all-too-familiar antisemitic canards and conspiracy theories involving Israel and  by extension, Jews — stunningly hateful language that committee members did not contest as inappropriate. Here’s a sampling of those odious accusations — many repeated several times:  

• A woman testified that she visited a Palestinian family in Hebron, whose home and grapevine she said were located “in close proximity to a Jewish settlement.” She recounted for the Committee the landowner’s assertion that “You can’t eat the grapes; they were poisoned by the settlers.” 

• “The real problem here is that this legislation is willing to compromise long-held protected first-amendment principles for short-term political gains for a foreign government,” a former executive director of the Massachusetts Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union stated.

• “The bill under consideration is a stealth attack by the Israeli government and its powerful… lobbyists and organizations,” said another speaker.

• Israel has “all the coercive power,” added another.

• “What this is about is intimidating people.”

• There is “a hidden agenda.” 

“Antisemitism is like Heinz — it comes in 57 varieties — but the one thing that links all the manifestations of antisemitism is the Jewish conspiracy plot of one form or another,” said Aaron Breitbart, senior researcher at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a human rights and Holocaust resource center that monitors international antisemitism. “The statements offered at the hearing are just new symptoms of an age-old animus.”  

Nor did it matter that the bills’ prime co-sponsors in the House of Representatives, Steven Howitt and Paul McMurtry, received postcards that contained a “Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions” logo as the return address and included a cartoon with an antisemitic image, which Howitt noted in his testimony was an attempt “to intimidate a legislator.”

And it didn’t matter that Israel repeatedly was called an apartheid state on par with South Africa’s institutionalized racial segregation and discrimination. It is a comparison that Olga Meshoe Washington calls “an insult” and “a lie that continues to be perpetrated, that continues to be used as a manipulative tool.” Born in 1981, Meshoe Washington spent a significant portion of her childhood victimized, along with her family, by the egregious injustices inflicted on black people under apartheid in South Africa. 

“We know what it is, and this isn’t it,” said Meshoe Washington, a South African lawyer enrolled in an M.B.A. program at Regent University in Virginia. “We saw how our parents struggled, we struggled, and for comparisons to be made with regard to our history as to what is going on in the Middle East — specifically Israel — is a mockery, it’s an injustice, and it trivializes the suffering that Black South Africans experienced, but it also takes away from the liberation movement itself,” said Meshoe Washington, the CEO of DEISI International, a South African-based nonprofit whose mission is to refute accusations that Israel is an apartheid state and that Zionism is racism.

Meshoe Washington takes aim at the BDS movement, which she says pressured officials of the coastal city of Cape Town, South Africa and the national government to reject Israel’s offer of technology and manpower to assist with its current water crisis, which is expected to leave that tourist destination dry by July. 

“Now, ordinary South African citizens are going to suffer because of politics, and this is also what is happening in the West Bank and Gaza,” she said. “Calls to boycott Israel are totally wrong. It’s going to impact food, it’s going to impact sanitation, it’s going to impact medical services.” 

No matter. Saving precious lives takes a back seat to the worthier ideal of demonizing Israel. 

And it didn’t matter what leaders of the BDS movement are saying about Israel, the only country with a Jewish majority. College English professor Peggy Shapiro attended a Modern Language Association conference in January 2014, at which the Delegate Assembly introduced an anti-Israel resolution urging the State Department to censure Israel. Omar Barghouti, a co-founder of the BDS movement, was an invited speaker for a panel discussion about the merits of an academic boycott of Israel. 

“Barghouti, at that time a graduate student at Tel Aviv University, made a statement I will never forget: ‘I, for one, propose euthanasia for the Zionist experiment.’ I am a child of Holocaust survivors, and those words sent shudders,” said Shapiro, the Midwest executive director and head of legislation education for StandWithUs, an international Israel education nonprofit.  “Even more horrifying was the lack of outrage by most of my fellow academics.”

Simon Wiesenthal’s Breitbart said “Barghouti does not exaggerate his feelings when he calls for the euthanasia of Israel.”

“BDS is out to bring Israel to its knees,” he continued. “It is not out to change Israeli policies. It does not favor a two-state solution — in other words, Israel must go. And if the Committee was unaware of all this, it was because they didn’t do their homework.”

In the end, none of this mattered. The Joint Committee killed the bills anyway and, on behalf of Massachusetts, bowed to purveyors of discrimination.

Of course, in this era of flash over fact, it didn’t help that those favoring the legislation did not continue to present their case in the months after the hearing, which allowed detractors to control the narrative. And communal organizations supporting the bills failed to mobilize advocates during that period—a lethargy that was not lost on Joint Committee members. 

Representative Mathew Muratore, a Republican Joint Committee member favoring the study order, said he heard mostly from the bill’s detractors. “They did their homework and went to individual legislators to sit down and talk and discuss their points of view on it,” he said.

Republican Senator Dean Tran, who assumed office in January after the Joint Committee’s hearing, voted against the study order in favor of forwarding the bills to the full Legislature but said that continuing support for such legislation in the future would hinge on hearing from proponents. “In this instance, I did not receive any advocacy from the supporting side,” he said, “and therefore, I didn’t make an attempt to reach out to any of my colleagues.”

And it didn’t help that representatives of the Boston Workmen’s Circle Center for Jewish Culture & Social Justice flaunted their group’s membership in the Boston Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) during their panel testimony, to give the appearance their views are mainstream in the Jewish community. They then proceeded to lambaste the legislation — which the JCRC had promoted — and the bills’ proponents.

According to the Workmen’s Circle testimony, “the bill’s motivation is to intimidate those who express opposition to Israeli government policy”; the legislation “is clearly intended as a political attack on people, including citizens of the Commonwealth,” who support BDS; and “it will add to a climate of fear and censorship that already exists.” 

JCRC, note this language.  

There are some courageous lawmakers who have refused to cave despite the enormous pressure to do so. It is noteworthy that four members of the Joint Committee who originally had sponsored the legislation backed away by either supporting the study order or abstaining.

Walter Timilty, Senate Chair of the Joint Committee was the only other Committee member who voted to move the anti-discrimination bills forward with “a favorable recommendation.” Timilty, a Democrat, said in a prepared statement, “I believe this legislation would allow the Commonwealth to affirm that all businesses seeking to procure a state contract are in compliance with all state anti-discrimination laws. We as a Commonwealth should reject discriminatory conduct in all forms, and I believe this legislation would be a firm step in that direction.”

Other standouts in this journey: Assistant Majority Leader Cynthia Stone Creem, a Democrat and the legislation’s prime Senate sponsor; and Howitt, a Republican, and McMurtry, a Democrat, prime co-sponsors in the House. 

“I’m disappointed that the Committee would not put it out favorably so that the Legislature could vote on it,” Howitt said. “It was an anti-discrimination bill and Massachusetts prides itself on being an open tent, so to speak, and this also would protect a trading partner such as Israel that puts so much money into the Massachusetts economy.”

Said Stone Creem: “I personally am committed to making sure that we recognize as strongly as we can the connection between Massachusetts and Israeli companies economically, culturally, etc. In my district there’s great economic development going on as a result of Israeli companies.”

Why would we ever support any company that discriminates, she asked. “Why would we ever do that?”

That’s a question Massachusetts must ask itself as it cements its legacy in all matters of inclusiveness. Exclusions for Israeli national origin will erode any trust that those efforts are free of discrimination.