BDS on the run in state legislatures

It’s been a bad couple of months for supporters of the anti-Israel boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.  Their efforts to bring about the end of Israel’s very existence by economically isolating the Jewish state have been met with refusal to fund hate on both sides of the aisle.

There is no question that the effort has gained traction on universities and in academia.  The American Anthropological Association voted to boycott Israeli academic institutions.  A number of student governments – often blocked only by college administrations – have voted similarly.

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But state legislatures across the country are acting to block BDS before it gains real policy traction.

The trend began last year, when both Illinois and South Carolina virtually unanimously passed bills withdrawing state support for companies participating in BDS.  South Carolina’s bill wasn’t targeted towards Israel specifically, but prohibited state contracting with companies participating in boycotts based on race, religion or ethnicity.  Illinois’ bill was more direct – the state pension fund would divest from any companies refusing to do business in Israel or in the territories.

This year, however, the pace has picked up considerably.  First, Indiana passed a pension divestment bill that Gov. Mike Pence (R) signed this week.  Then, in February, Florida enacted a law prohibiting contracting and implementing divestment at the state and local levels, also irrespective of the Green Line.  Arizona passed a similarly strong bill.  And Colorado’s governor signed a law mandating pension divestment from BDS companies.

And still, the nightmare continues for the pro-BDS forces.  Georgia is currently considering a bill that would end state contracting with BDS companies.  Iowa and California are both hearing similar bills, and bills are likely to be introduced soon in other states, as well.

These bills have all had bipartisan support, and bipartisan sponsorship.  In some cases, that has led to unanimous or near-unanimous passage.  In Florida’s case, the bill netted fewer than five “no” votes in total during its journey through a variety of House and Senate committees and final passage in each chamber.

In other cases, bipartisanship has guaranteed passage in spite of significant Democratic opposition.  In Colorado, for instance, both the Senate and House sponsors came from both parties.  In both the Colorado Senate and the Arizona House, for instance, the respective bills passed overwhelmingly despite opposition from the majority of the Democratic caucus.  Leadership has never been interested in whipping the members into line on these votes.

What accounts for this trend?

Israel remains extremely popular in the United States at large, with roughly three times the number of Americans favoring the Jewish state over the Palestinians in their conflict.  Academia is often disconnected from the rest of society, and this issue is a glaring example.  An issue’s popularity on campus usually means the rational rest of the country will roll their eyes at the idea.

Indeed, BDS is to some extent a victim of its own ivory tower success.  In Florida, state representatives cited a vote by the University of South Florida student government to divest as reason for moving forward on its bill.  California Assemblyman Travis Allen cited “the growing trend of the BDS movement in California, including votes on several college campuses” as his motivation for introducing his bill.

A recent study by the anti-Semitism watchdog group AMCHA Initiative revealed that seven of the ten most anti-Semitic campuses are in California. Lawmakers learned from the survey that 99 percent of schools with BDS activity have experienced incidents of anti-Semitism.

Americans as a whole continue to admire and celebrate Israel’s success under duress and to recognize our shared values.   In many legislatures, the public is invited to testify on bills during committee hearings, and accusations of Israeli perfidy largely fall on deaf ears, and rightly so. 

The most effective arguments against these bills have been complaints that state contracting or investment ought not be driven by politics.  Even then, most lawmakers seem to understand that not pushing back against BDS means, in effect, making the state partners in economic attacks on a dear friend, close ally, and fellow proponent of liberty and democracy.

Indeed, many of those who want to steer the argument away from foreign policy in order to avoid openly taking sides at the state level in a foreign dispute, understand that BDS is both unlikely to promote peace and more likely to punish Palestinians seeking their own economic opportunities.

None of this is to be taken for granted, of course.  Support often seems rock-solid up until the moment when it starts to slip, and then it can slip quickly.  The willingness of many Democrats to vote against Israel, when most Jews identify strongly as Democrats, is a worrisome danger signal.

Currently, the willingness, even eagerness, of states to get out in front of the BDS movement and put the weight of their investment and contracting dollars behind countering it is heartening.  Still, very few lawmakers and even pro-Israel activists truly understand the danger BDS poses, and not just against the Jewish state.

Philanthropist Adam Milstein recently took to the pages of the Huffington Post to explain that “the BDS agenda threatens not only the Middle East’s one democratic state; it threatens the entire democratic world, and the U.S. is in the eye of its storm.” Milstein quotes BDS leader and Purdue University professor Bill Mullen:  “We can build a still-stronger BDS movement beginning in the name of Palestinian freedom and ending in a permanent blow against American empire.”

Lawmakers in state capitals have found themselves on the frontlines in a war they may not realize exists. But as long as enough constituents know what is at stake, elected officials can remain a force for good.

Sharf is a fellow with the Haym Salomon Center and head of the PERA project at the Independence Institute. Follow him @joshuasharf.

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