Anti-BDS legislation passes Pennsylvania Senate and House

Anti-BDS legislation passes Pennsylvania Senate and House

Gov. Tom Wolf is expected to sign the bill.

Photo via Flickr by governortomwolf
Gov. Tom Wolf is expected to sign the bill. Photo via Flickr by governortomwolf

A little less than a month after California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill against the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, the Pennsylvania Senate passed a similar bill by a vote of 47 to 1.

After an affirmative concurrence vote in the House, Pennsylvania HB 2107 is now on Gov. Tom Wolf’s desk, awaiting his signature.

Should the bill be enacted, Pennsylvania would become the 14th state to pass anti-BDS legislation.

The prime sponsor of the bill is state Rep. Matthew E. Baker, a Republican serving Tioga County and parts of Bradford and Potter counties.

The bill — which also addresses questions regarding public access to procurement records and awarding a contract to a single source — contains anti-BDS language within the context of prohibited contracts.

The bill asserts that “Israel is America’s dependable, democratic ally in the Middle East, an area of paramount strategic importance to the United States” and that “it is in the interest of the United States and the commonwealth to stand with Israel and other countries by promoting trade and commercial activities and to discourage policies that disregard that interest.”

For that reason, a company contracted by the commonwealth is not permitted to be involved in a boycott — defined in the bill as “to blacklist, divest from or otherwise refuse to deal with a person or firm when the action is based on race, color, religion, gender or national affiliation or origin of the targeted person or entity.”

Matt Handel, chairman of the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition, which was instrumental in getting the bill passed, is optimistic that Wolf will sign it into law.

“We’re feeling very excited about the news,” said Handel, shortly after the Senate and House votes were announced. “I will say that Gov. Wolf has always been very supportive of the causes of the Jewish community, and we fully expect that he’ll support this.”

Handel said this is just the most recent example of Pennsylvania’s affirmative support for the state of Israel.

“This is part of a long-term trend from the government of Pennsylvania that basically supports Israel and these causes,” he said. “We’ve had terror-free investment that was passed several years ago. There’s been support for Holocaust education and support for terror-free procurement.

“We have a [state] government that has stated quite clearly that they don’t want to do business with potential enemies of Israel. They don’t want to procure from companies that potentially do business with the enemies of Israel. With this BDS statement, they’re taking the next logical step and saying, ‘We don’t want government funds used to target Israel unfairly.’”

Jacob Millner of the Israel Project — a national nonpartisan educational organization that has pursued anti-BDS legislation across the country — said he was also optimistic about the final passage of the bill.

“I feel good about it. I’m pretty confident, though I don’t like to count my chickens before they hatch. But Pennsylvania has a lot of organizations who have done a lot of good work on making this happen.”

Millner said the Pennsylvania bill was noteworthy because “it’s important that states make a statement on the right side of history, that they won’t invest their money or spend state money on companies that would engage in anti-Israel and anti-Semitic [activities].”

Millner called BDS “a form of economic warfare against the only Jewish state,” and added, “the state wouldn’t condone a company that would discriminate against African-Americans, women, or gays and lesbians, and discrimination based on national origin is similar. The state has to take a stand on that.”

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has voiced its opposition to the bill, which would make it possible for the state to defund universities that endorse on-campus BDS movements.

In a letter to U.S. Reps. Kay Granger and Nita Lowey, chair and ranking member, respectively, of the State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee, the ACLU’s director Karin Johanson and chief of staff/First Amendment counsel Michael Macleod-Ball wrote that “states should not be deciding with whom they should do business on the basis of ideological predisposition. This is especially true where the ideological position has no connection whatsoever with the business relationship at stake.”

Johanson and Macleod-Ball went further by saying, “Make no mistake: the underlying state bills discriminate solely on the basis of the viewpoint of those impacted.” There are many businesses and individuals who do no business with Israel, they noted, but “only those who affirmatively express support for the BDS movement are barred from state contracts and investments even though there are others who refrain to the very same extent. They are penalized solely because they choose to express their opinion and because their opinion is disfavored by the political class in the states in question.”

ACLU-PA Legislative Director Andy Hoover addressed the Pennsylvania bill specifically in a memo to the state Senate: “Boycotts can be a form of political expression and are recognized as expression under the First Amendment,” he wrote. “American history includes prominent boycotts that drew attention to important civil and human rights issues, from slavery to the civil rights era to apartheid South Africa. “

The ACLU has no stated position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But, Hoover wrote, “Our mission is to protect the constitutional rights of everyone.”

The Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition disagrees with the notion that the bill hinders free speech. “Any company can say, write or publish any statement against Israel they wish,” they noted in a statement. “Companies cannot formally perform a boycott, divestment or sanction against Israel if they wish to do business with the commonwealth.”

“This bill was really crafted to respect free speech,” Handel added, “but [also] to ensure that state funds are not used in a way that we consider to be discriminatory.”

Liz Spikol is the news editor of the Jewish Exponent, an affiliated publication of The Jewish Chronicle.