NJ Governor shrugs off BDS, pushes to expand $1.5b trade with Israel

Murphy, who is a Democratic governor, has been a strong supporter of Israel at a time when concern has been raised about the growing anti-Israel sentiment in his party. 

 New jersey Governor Phil Murphy (D) prays at the Western Wall. (photo credit: TWITTER/@GovMurphy)
New jersey Governor Phil Murphy (D) prays at the Western Wall.
(photo credit: TWITTER/@GovMurphy)

Support for Israel must remain a bipartisan affair, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy told The Jerusalem Post after his trip to Israel earlier this month, during which he visited the Western Wall and sought to expand his state’s $1.5 billion trade with the Jewish state.

“A lot has been made over the past five or six years in particular that there is some amount of partisanship in our relationship with the State of Israel and its citizens: I don’t buy that,” Murphy, a Democrat, said in a Zoom interview.

“Beyond whether or not you are a Republican or a Democrat, there is a deep and abiding relationship and friendship with the State of Israel on both sides of the aisle,” Murphy said.

The governor has been a strong supporter of Israel at a time when concern has been raised about the growing anti-Israel sentiment in his party

He heads a state which has a Jewish population of close to 550,000. It's the second largest American Jewish community after New York, according to the Jewish Virtual Library.

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy and his wife Tammy with their newly planted tree in Yad Kennedy (credit: KKL-JNF)New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy and his wife Tammy with their newly planted tree in Yad Kennedy (credit: KKL-JNF)

Murphy, who has been in office since 2018, is considered a possible future presidential contender. His visit to Israel, which he made together with Delaware Gov. John Carney earlier this month, was his eighth trip here.

Visits to the Western Wall

A stop to pray at the Western Wall is something he has done in past trips and this one was no exception. Murphy tweeted a photograph of himself at the Wall, stating: “Blessed to have been able to take part in the sacred tradition of sending a prayer through the Western Wall in Jerusalem.”

The motivation for his Western Wall stops is largely religious, Murphy said. “It is very natural for me” to go there: “I don’t think twice about it.”

The first time he went to the Western Wall, Murphy said, he took a guided tour so he could learn its history, but since then it has been about prayer.

“The Wall is an incredibly sacred place; we place prayers there,” Murphy said. “My father-in-law died literally while we were en route to Israel in 2018, so we had a particularly solemn prayerful moment at the wall then.”

Every time he goes, even when it’s at 11 p.m., he is mobbed by New Jersey residents who happen to be visiting there at the same time, he said.

WHEN IT comes to the geopolitics of Jerusalem, Murphy said he supports former US President Donald Trump’s decision to relocate the US Embassy to the capital in 2018.

“You put your embassy where the capital is,” Murphy said.

“Jerusalem is the capital. I had always expected that Jerusalem would be the capital [of Israel] as part of the broad, two-state comprehensive solution that has been espoused since the Johnson administration, with some tweaks,” he said, adding that “I still hope fervently for a comprehensive two-state solution.”

He explained that he would similarly meet with Palestinian business people in east Jerusalem, although on this trip, his talks with Palestinians took place in Ramallah.

The most powerful moment during the visit, Murphy said, was his trip to Yad Vashem – the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, particularly given that he is a former US ambassador to Germany.

It was not his first visit to the museum, he said, but this one lasted over two hours.

Antisemitism in New Jersey

Murphy heads a state which, according to the Anti-Defamation League, had seen a 25% increase in antisemitic incidents in 2021 compared to the previous year. The ADL recorded 370 such incidents in 2021, up from 295 in 2020. The numbers are still less than the 34% hike in US antisemitism in that same period.

“I am very concerned,” the governor said.

NEW JERSEY is focusing on physical safety with law enforcement to protect Jewish community centers and schools, Murphy said. It is also battling antisemitism on the Internet, and educating children against prejudice, “so the future looks a lot better than the past,” he explained.

Murphy and his state have also taken a strong stand against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement. 

“I have been an outspoken opponent of the BDS movement – in part, not just because of my love of Israel, but because I don’t think it remotely achieves the objectives that the folks who support it expect it to,” Murphy said.

“We don’t just talk the talk: We took action in New Jersey based on a law that was signed before I got here, but I would have signed it had it come to my desk.”

There is a process that allows for divestment from companies that act against Israel, Murphy said, explaining that this process was used by New Jersey to divest from Unilever.

The company’s North American headquarters are in his state. Unilever is the parent company of Ben & Jerry’s, which decided to halt the sale of its ice cream in Israel by the end of this year to protest the country’s actions against the Palestinians.

Israel and the State of New Jersey have a strong economic partnership, Murphy said, explaining that the volume of trade between them reached $1.55 billion in 2021, up from $1.33b. in 2020, an increase of more than 16%. The state’s exports to Israel have grown by 41% from $327 million to $461 m. That is 10% more on average than in other countries, according to the governor’s office.

Israeli exports to New Jersey increased by 8% from 2020 to 2021, from $1.01b. to $1.09b.

“New Jersey maintained its second place rank of attracting foreign direct investment (FDI) from Israel in the Northeast,” his office said, adding that “Israel’s export rank from New Jersey moved from 24th to 22nd place.”

THE FOCUS of his Israel trip, Murphy told the Post, was largely economic, with an eye to growing that trade, although he did hold some political meetings, including with Prime Minister Yair Lapid.

“Our economies are very similar,” he said, adding that “Israel is such an important counterpart.”

The areas of joint growth for both his state and Israel are “bio, pharmaceutical, life sciences, tech, telecom and cyber,” he explained.

During the trip, he also advanced higher education initiatives between Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and the New Jersey Institute of Technology, as well as between Tel Aviv University and Rutgers University.

These are “not only great academic relationships but they will bear fruit in the real economy.”