The Pennsylvania General Assembly has unanimously adopted a resolution condemning the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.
House Resolution 370, authored by Rep. Matthew Baker (R-68), was adopted on June 24, denouncing the BDS movement as “one of the main vehicles for spreading anti-Semitism and advocating the elimination of the Jewish state.”
“This was a great bipartisan, unanimous resolution,” Baker said in an interview.
The resolution, which was co-sponsored by several other legislators including Reps. Mark Cohen (D-202) and Dan Frankel (D-23), underscored Pennsylvania’s historical and unwavering support for Israel’s “right to exist and the right of self-defense.”
Similar resolutions and anti-BDS bills have been passed in New York, Tennessee, Indiana and Illinois.
While the resolution denounces the BDS movement, it does not have the impact of a law and mandates no consequences for any person or entity engaged in boycotting or divesting from Israel.
Still, Baker said, its passage “sends a strong message.”
“A copy of the resolution will be transmitted to the president, to the U.S. Congress and to the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C.,” Baker said. “It’s important for Pennsylvania to show its support for Israel because it has been a very, very good ally. It’s also important to continue to show our sentiments toward the BDS movement and to acknowledge and bring greater awareness of BDS activities in the Commonwealth.”
Some members of the House had no knowledge of the BDS movement prior to the introduction of the resolution, Baker noted. “We had to explain who the BDS leaders were and that their goal is the elimination of the State of Israel.”
The resolution, Baker explained, specifically recognizes the Jewish people as indigenous to the land of Israel. It additionally condemns BDS efforts to thwart academic freedom through boycotts of Israeli educational institutions.
“Those efforts are antithetical to the causes of peace, justice and democracy,” Baker said.
That the resolution passed unanimously is particularly noteworthy, observed Gregg Roman, director of the Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.
“When every single elected official from the four corners of Pennsylvania gathered together to pass this resolution, when they can’t agree on anything, is really significant,” he said. “This was an unequivocal message of support for the Jewish community and a strong message to supporters of the BDS movement, a movement that seeks to destroy the state of Israel and to delegitimize it.”
The resolution also serves to put BDS supporters on notice that other anti-BDS legislation is currently in the pipeline, Roman said.
That legislation is House Bill 1018, which, if passed into law, will bar colleges and universities in Pennsylvania that opt to boycott or divest from Israel from receiving any state funding.
“We [the Federation’s Community Relations Council] are supporting that bill and any other legislation that seeks to limit trade, or create prejudice and economic intimidation,” Roman said.
The fact that the resolution passed without opposition is “a clear indication that the legislature wants to take a stand in favor of Israel,” said Hank Butler, executive director of the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition, a lobbying arm of statewide Jewish federations. Butler sees the adoption of the resolution a positive indicator for HB 1018.
The bill is poised to be raised in the Education Standing Committee of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in the “near future,” according to Rep. Steve Santarsiero (D-31), the chief sponsor of the bill, which he introduced in May.
The bill as it is currently written, however, could face a First Amendment challenge.
It has already has come under fire from the American Civil Liberties Union, which claims the language of the bill “attempts to stifle constitutionally-protected speech.” In a letter to Santarsiero dated June 16, the ACLU joined with advocacy groups Palestine Legal and the Center for Constitutional Rights in condemning the bill.
The Anti-Defamation League has come out against similar legislation in the past on First Amendment grounds.
Santarsiero was surprised to get the ACLU letter, he said, because he had been trying to arrange a meeting with the organization to address the group’s concerns. The letter came before a meeting could be arranged.
Santarsiero was further surprised, he said, that the ACLU had decided to collaborate with Palestine Legal, a group that maintains a specific political agenda.
“It was disappointing to see the ACLU sign on to the letter with Palestine Legal,” Santarsiero said. “I don’t know Palestine Legal well, but their very title suggests they’re advocates for the Palestinian position. And that’s all right. They have the right to do that.”
A photo on the group’s website shows students holding signs reading, “No support for Israeli apartheid.”
Andy Hoover, legislative director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, defended the advocacy group’s condemnation of HB 1018.
“The ACLU has a well-earned reputation for defending the speech and expression rights of people regardless of our opinion of the underlying issue,” Hoover wrote in an email. “We have no position on the Israel-Palestine situation. It’s not in our mission. But we have a position in favor of free speech and free expression, and we’ll defend that right wherever it’s necessary.”
Santarsiero is satisfied that the current wording of his bill would pass constitutional muster, he said, and that the concerns raised by the ACLU and its co-signatories are without merit.
“It does not regulate speech,” he said. “It dose not attempt to regulate speech. That is not the intent of the legislation. What the bill would do is provide disincentive for governing bodies of schools to boycott or divest from Israel.”
The bill would have no effect on the ability of students, student groups, or faculty to continue to freely express their positions on Israel, he explained.
At least one constitutional scholar disagrees.
“I think the devil is in the details,” said Eugene Kontorovich, who researches and teaches in the field of constitutional law at Northwestern University School of Law. “In principle, it is possible for the state to do what it is trying to do, but the language is a bit broad and vague. It does look like they are interested in the political content of the speech, which is a problem.”
As written, the bill is unclear as to what activity it applies to, Kontorovich continued, which poses another problem.
“Look, the ACLU and Palestine Legal will say it’s no good no matter what,” he observed. “But a broken clock is still right two times a day. They got lucky.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.