Nothing says support like the financial kind.
With the unanimous adoption of a resolution introduced back in May by state Reps. Matthew Baker (R-District 68) and Mark Cohen (D-District 202), Pennsylvania joins a growing group of states in passing resolutions opposing the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.
House Resolution 370, “condemning economic, social, cultural and other boycotts of Israel and growing incidents of anti-Semitism” was introduced on May 12. It sailed through passage in the General Assembly on June 24.
Other states with simialar resolutions include Tennessee, New York, Indiana and Illinois.
“I am proud to know Pennsylvania has joined the growing number of states recognizing BDS is not only wrong, but is detrimental to Israel,” Naomi Adler, chief executive officer of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, said in a statement.
The passage of the resolution is a significant statement by the House of Representatives, said Hank Butler, executive director of the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition.
“The mere fact that it was introduced by Matthew Baker and Mark Cohen, a Republican and a Democrat, shows bipartisan support and to move as fast is it did showed the House of Representatives being willing to take a stand in support of Israel,” he said. “It’s a major victory for the supporters of Israel. It shows elected representatives of the people are not at all sympathetic to the BDS movement.”
The resolution, though, does not carry the force of law and is more of a statement, said Robin Schatz, director of government affairs for the Jewish Federation. Still, she continued, “we are appreciative of the House that they feel so strongly about BDS that they’d choose to make such a strong statement.”
Baker said that 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.”
“It’s important for Pennsylvania to show its support for Israel because it has been a very, very good ally,” he said. “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.
Another piece of legislation gaining momentum is the introduction of 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.
This bill is facing opposition, however, due to language discrepancies. It currently could be challenged as a violation of the First Amendment, which was not its intent, said Butler.
The bill is poised to be raised in the state House’s Education Standing Committee in the “near future,” according to Rep. Steve Santarsiero (D-District 31), the chief sponsor of the bill, which he introduced in May.
It has already 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.
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 the bill.
“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.
“What the bill would do is provide disincentive for governing bodies of schools to boycott or divest from Israel,” he said, adding that it would have no effect on the ability of students, student groups, or faculty to continue to freely express their positions on Israel.
Cohen, who is co-sponsoring the bill, said he does not believe the legislation deals with individual expression, adding, “It doesn’t stop anyone from saying, ‘I boycott Israel.’ ”
He said he will see that whatever passes is as effective and strong as it can be.
“The resolution indicates the legislation is on very fertile ground,” he said. “The battle will be to have the legislations be as strong as possible.”
Schatz said some people she has talked to suggested following in Illinois’ footsteps in regards to legislation fighting BDS. Its House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill in May that would prevent the state’s pension fund from investing in companies that boycott Israel, which she said Pennsylvania is unlikely to do.
Violating freedom of speech is not the intention of the bill, Montgomery County Board of Commissioners Josh Shapiro wrote in an email. Rather, he explained, it “enhances the opportunity for an honest dialogue on college campuses rooted in fact.”
Not all scholars agree. Dr. Ian Lustick, a University of Pennsylvania professor who teaches many courses on Middle Eastern politics, said in an email that it is “unfortunate but understandable” that state houses should issue this kind of “blunderbuss manifesto.”
Concerning the bill, he wrote that he does not believe it violates anyone’s freedom of speech but is rather unbalanced.
“The depictions of the effects of the BDS movement on college campuses with respect to an atmosphere of intimidation are, frankly, ridiculous, and clearly were written by advocates out to harness politically vulnerable legislators for their own narrow agendas,” he wrote.
He added that campus activities such as lectures and conferences that “depicted the Palestinians as ‘not a people’ and not deserving of a state, did not create an atmosphere of intimidation against Palestinian students that warranted special legislative pronouncements.”
But the bill could still remain a force in stopping the BDS movement for Pennsylvania, according to the officials who support it.
Said Shapiro, “The BDS movement is a real threat as it fosters lies about Israel which in turn undermines Israel’s security. … Support for Israel should be a bipartisan issue.”
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