MARCH 8, 2018 – BOSTON – A joint legislative committee failed to approve a proposed law that would have prevented discrimination in Massachusetts state contracts based on national origin, including Israel, voting instead to refer the bill for further study.
The vote disappointed its supporters, led by the Jewish Community Relations Council and including the Massachusetts chapter of the Israeli-American Coalition for Action, a nonpartisan national group that advocates on behalf of the pro-Israel sector.
The bill, filed in January by state Senator Cynthia Creem (D-Newton) and state representatives Paul McMurtry (D-Dedham) and Steven Howitt (R-Seekonk), faced strong opposition from a coalition of Palestinian rights groups and clergy led by the Jewish Voice for Peace Boston and the Alliance for Water Justice in Palestine. The Massachusetts chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union submitted a letter against the bill, cautioning it would prevent constitutionally protected boycotts.
While the proposed bill does not specifically refer to Israel, the law would require a person seeking a contract for $10,000 or more with any state agency to certify compliance with the state’s antidiscrimination laws based upon race, color, creed, religion, sex, national origin, gender identity, or sexual orientation.
The bill has often been referred to as anti-BDS legislation, the acronym for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement aimed to force Israel into accepting Palestinian demands.
“JCRC is deeply disappointed by the decision … to refer [the bill] to study,” Jeremy Burton, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council in Boston, said in a statement following the vote.
“It was an uphill battle all the way,” he said in a phone interview, noting that there are thousands of pieces of legislation filed in every session and it’s not unusual for a committee to refer a new measure for study.
Ten legislators on the review committee voted in favor of referring the bill for study, with two dissenting and three abstaining. State Senator Walter F. Timilty (D-Milton), who voted to approve it, views the legislation as affirming compliance with 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,” he said in an email to the Journal.
Representative RoseLee Vincent (D-Revere), a cosponsor of the bill, said she fully supports what the bill seeks to achieve but voted to refer to study because “… the Committee’s reasoning was based in the broadness of the language and concerns about the legality and constitutionality of the legislation as written,” she said in an email.
Representative Jennifer E. Benson (D-Lunenberg), who voted for further review, said much of the debate took place in the shadow of a national backdrop of anti-BDS bills. Some 24 states, including New York, North Carolina, Nevada, and California, have adopted some version of similar legislation, with some states specifically prohibiting contracts with anyone who boycotts Israel.
On Jan. 31, a federal court suspended implementation of a Kansas anti-BDS law, raising constitutional concerns about the law’s infringement on free speech.
While the language of the Massachusetts bill differs from the Kansas law, Burton is certain the ruling played some role in the committee’s caution, he told the Journal.
There’s some comfort having these laws adopted in so many states, said Robert Mayer, an Israeli-American business founder, who advocated for the state law on behalf of the Massachusetts chapter of the Israeli-American Coalition for Action.
Massachusetts has been a very good state for Israeli businesses. Citing a study by the New England Israel Business Council, Mayer noted in 2015, Massachusetts companies with ties to Israel contributed more than $9 billion to the state’s economy.
“But we do want to feel more secure and comfortable,” he said. “You would like to practice your business freely and not be penalized just because you are Israeli.”