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State lawmakers set to debate anti-BDS bill

Journal Correspondent

The Celebrate Israel Festival for 2017 was held on June 11 in Watertown. Photo courtesy of CJP

JULY 13, 2017 – BOSTON – A bill backed by Jewish communal organizations that would prohibit the state from doing business with companies that discriminate based on national origin, including Israel, will have a legislative hearing on Tuesday, July 18 before the Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Affairs.

The bi-partisan bill, “An Act Prohibiting Discrimination in State Contracts,” was filed last January by state Senator Cynthia Creem (D-Newton), and state Representatives Paul McMurtry (D-Dedham), and Steven Howitt (R-Seekonk). The proposed bill is supported by more than one-third of the legislators including Representative Lori Ehrlich, a Democrat who represents Swampscott, Marblehead and a section of Lynn.

While the bill does not specifically refer to Israel, if adopted, the law would prevent companies that boycott Israeli businesses from having contracts with the Commonwealth.

The bill would “strengthen existing anti-discrimination laws and ensure that the state does not unwittingly use taxpayer funds to subsidize discriminatory conduct,” according to Aaron Agulnek, director of government affairs for the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, a proponent of the proposed legislation.

To date, Governor Charlie Baker has not taken a position on the proposed bill. “The administration will carefully review all legislation reaching the governor’s desk,” said Baker spokesman William Pitman.

The bill has the support of the area’s major Jewish organizations including Combined Jewish Philanthropies, the Anti-Defamation League of New England and J Street, a liberal group that advocates for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The bill is a reflection of the state’s values, according to Ehrlich.

“This bill is particularly relevant to the Jewish community, many of whom are concerned about the impact of the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions (BDS) movement on Israel and on college campuses, though BDS is not specifically identified in the bill,” Ehrlich said in an email. She noted that Massachusetts is not alone in addressing this issue.

Over the last few years, as Israeli companies have been targeted by the BDS movement, the initials for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, more than 20 states have adopted so-called anti-BDS laws including Kansas, which passed legislation in early June. The most recent is North Carolina, where a bill adopted in late June by the General Assembly awaits the signature of Governor Roy Cooper.

But the Massachusetts bill differs from other states in that it does not specifically mention Israel, Agulnek told the Journal.

Economic bonds between Massachusetts and Israel continue to be a robust part of the state’s economy. In 2015, Israeli-founded businesses with ties to Massachusetts contributed more than $9 billion to the state’s economy, according to a report last June from the New England Israel Business Council.

But Agulnek cautioned that as other states, including California, adopt measures against BDS, Massachusetts could lose out as in the highly competitive business climate to attract new Israeli companies as they look to establish themselves in the US.

A group of some 100 organizations opposes the legislation including Jewish Voice for Peace, a national organization with an active Boston chapter that calls for an end to an Israeli presence in the West Bank and supports the BDS movement, as well as the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. On its website, JVP Boston says that BDS boycotts do not target companies because of national origin but to lawfully impact Israeli policies towards Palestinians.

While on its face, the proposed law does not interfere with a person’s right to boycott, the bill’s supporters and some of its sponsors have stated that the bill’s intent is to curb BDS campaigns, which would be unconstitutional, according to Sarah Wunsch, deputy legal director of ACLU Massachusetts. Wunsch said that the US Supreme Court has found that the right to engage in peaceful boycotts is protected by the First Amendment.

“This does have a chilling affect,” Wunsch said. The ACLU plans to testify against the bill, she said.

But Agulnek and Ehrlich reject this assertion and say it is an inaccurate characterization of the bill.

“This does not stop anyone from doing what they please with their own ideas and resources. It simply says that the state will not support you financially if you engage in discriminatory acts,” said Ehrlich. “Free speech does not mean consequence-free speech.”

In addition to Ehrlich, other North Shore legislative cosponsors include state Senators Joan Lovely, Barbara L’Italien, and representatives Daniel Cahill, Brendan Crighton, Bradford Hill, Paul Tucker, and Donald Wong.

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