It’s been a BDS year for the anti-Israel BDS movement — bad, difficult and substandard.
The once-potent Boycott, Divest and Sanctions campaign has suffered a series of setbacks in state legislatures, where bills to penalize companies that target Israel are garnering bipartisan support.
Anti-Israel groups condemn these bills, which they see as violations of free speech.
“We have witnessed some major boycott defeats this year,” said Peggy Shapiro, Midwest director of the pro-Israel group Stand With Us. “It seems that they are starting to realize that boycotting Israel is bigoted, unfair and not conducive to peace.”
Even President Obama, not necessarily Israel’s biggest defender, signed last month the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act of 2015, which includes anti-BDS protections for Israel, although he irked the bill’s supporters by saying the provisions would not extend to Israeli settlements.
“I have directed my Administration to strongly oppose boycotts, divestment campaigns, and sanctions targeting the State of Israel,” Mr. Obama said in his Feb. 24 signing statement. “As long as I am President, we will continue to do so. Certain provisions of this Act, by conflating Israel and ‘Israeli-controlled territories,’ are contrary to longstanding bipartisan United States policy, including with regard to the treatment of settlements.”
The state legislative drive kicked off last year with the passage of bills in Illinois and South Carolina. This year, another 20 states are considering similar legislation. Bills already have reached the desks of three Republican governors: Arizona’s Doug Ducey, Indiana’s Mike Pence and Florida’s Rick Scott.
While state legislatures in the past have approved resolutions condemning the BDS movement, the latest wave of legislation has teeth. The bills prohibit the state from engaging in business transactions with companies that participate in boycotts of Israel or Israeli companies.
Mr. Scott signed legislation last week that would prohibit both state investment in and procurement from companies that boycott Israel and its settlements, saying, “the state of Florida will not waver in our support of Israel, one of our greatest allies and friends.”
“The Boycott, Divestment and Sanction movement is fueled by anti-Semitism, and has no place in Florida or any part of the world that values freedom and democracy,” the Florida governor said in a statement.
In May, the Illinois state legislature unanimously approved a bill that bans state pension funds from investing in businesses that participate in such boycotts. A South Carolina bill passed in June forbids state agencies from contracting with companies that discriminate on the basis of “national origin.”
“What they’re saying is the state will not do business with these companies,” Ms. Shapiro said. “The BDS movement is engaging in so much pressure on companies like Motorola that do business with Israel. They’re trying to create an anti-Israel atmosphere, and this legislation helps businesses say, ‘We’re going to make decisions on what’s good for our business and not succumb to pressure from a movement that wants to destroy Israel.’”
Those behind the BDS movement argue that the bills violate the First Amendment by attempting to suppress criticism of Israel. At least one group, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, has written to Mr. Scott urging him to veto the Florida bill.
The measure sets “a very dangerous precedent,” said Laila Abdelaziz, CAIR legislative and government affairs director in Florida.
“As a civil rights and civil liberties organization, our primary concern is that the state is creating a black list of companies based on their constitutionally protected free speech,” Ms. Abdelaziz said.
In California, CAIR officials denounced last week bills introduced by Republican Assemblyman Travis Allen that would require the state pension fund to divest from companies that participate in the Arab League’s boycott of Israel and prevent state agencies from doing business with such entities.
“These bills are designed to counter and undermine boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) efforts that protest unlawful Israeli settlements in Palestinian land,” CAIR said in a Feb. 29 statement.
The California bills would “alienate a growing number of businesses, major church denominations, charitable foundations, university student governments, labor unions, and investors who have called to boycott or take other economic measures against companies and institutions complicit in Israel’s human rights abuses,” said the CAIR statement.
Mr. Allen, meanwhile, described the BDS movement as a “pretext for the expression of anti-Israel bigotry.”
“Boycotts of countries often derive from ethnic, religious, racial, or nationality discrimination, which directly contradicts the values of California citizens,” Mr. Allen said in a Facebook post. “I look forward to ensuring California continues to stand with Israel as a vital ally and economic partner.”
The BDS movement is still a force to be reckoned with, particularly at universities. In the 2014-15 academic year, 19 U.S. campuses took votes on BDS nonbinding resolutions, most of which failed, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
Anti-Israel weeklong programs such as Israeli Apartheid Week and Palestine Awareness Week “continued to wane in popularity among anti-Israel students over the past year — as indicated by fewer schools participating and less general buzz around these programs,” said the Anti-Defamation League.
France and Canada have taken official positions in the past few months in opposition to the boycotts. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau criticized McGill University in Montreal, his alma mater, after its student body on Feb. 22 passed a nonbinding pro-BDS resolution.
“The BDS movement, like Israeli Apartheid Week, has no place on Canadian campuses,” Mr. Trudeau said on Twitter.
Anti-BDS legislation has drawn bipartisan support, with opposition coming mainly from anti-Israel and left-wing groups. The Colorado Green Party, for example, has joined End the Occupation and other efforts to derail legislation that would divest the state pension fund from companies with economic sanctions against Israel.
“BDS is a human rights movement with a goal to advance freedom, justice, equality and self-determination for Palestinians,” the Colorado Green Party said in a statement. “From the Boston Tea Party to the Montgomery bus boycott, Americans have inspired this campaign.”
Even so, the Colorado measure passed the Democrat-controlled House last month by a vote of 54-10.
Other bills have garnered lopsided support in state legislatures. The Arizona bill was approved Tuesday by the House on a 42-16 vote after sailing through the Senate by a vote of 23-6. Republicans control both chambers.
The Arizona bill has been described as the toughest of the anti-BDS measures: It prohibits the state from doing business with companies that boycott Israel and requires those that contract with the state to certify that they don’t participate in such actions.
Among those who voted against the measure was state Sen. Steve Farley, a Democrat who told Arizona’s Politics, “I don’t think it is the role of government to control who a private business should do or not do business with.”
The Indiana bill, introduced by House Speaker Brian Bosma, was approved by the Republican-controlled House on a vote of 93-10 and by the Republican-held Senate on a 47-3 vote. The measure is now on the desk of the Republican governor, who is expected to sign the bill.
“Gov. Pence has long believed Israel to be our most cherished ally, is grateful to the General Assembly for affirming Indiana’s support for the state of Israel and will give the bill careful consideration,” Pence spokesman Matt Lloyd said.