Activists in Illinois and nationally are part of a growing movement to divest from companies that support human rights violations by Israel. Meanwhile Illinois lawmakers are busy voting to force state pension fund administrators to blacklist companies that boycott Israel or businesses that operate in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The target of these bills is the international Boycott Divestment Sanction (BDS) movement directed at the Israeli government for its repeated violations of Palestinian human rights and international law. Two virtually identical bills, HB 4011 and SB 1761, are making their way through the House and Senate. These bills are burdening the beleaguered pension system with politically motivated investigations. This is being done at a time when Illinois has the lowest credit rating and worst-funded pension system among the 50 states. Servicing of pension debt is a major financial crisis. SB 1761 passed unanimously out of the Senate last week and HB 4011 is still being considered by the House.

In this time of financial crisis, state legislators want to put an additional and costly burden on state pension administrators to identify investments in companies that support a constitutional and legal form of expression – boycotting a country because of their human rights and international law violations. These illogical actions are the result of pressure from the pro-Israel lobby. Illinois legislators seem more concerned with supporting government  policies of Israel than taking care of the Illinois financial crisis. Ironically, these bills are amendments to the state procurement act that supports boycotts and sanctions against  Iran and Sudan. Members of the Illinois legislature are rushing to enact legislation to protect Israel from the BDS movement – even at the expense of the rights and needs of Illinois citizens – while also supporting boycotts and sanctions against other countries in the region.

These bills in Illinois reflect similar activity at the US Congressional level. There have been two different bills proposed by members of Congress seeking to legislate measures against the BDS movement. They include the U.S.-Israel Trade and Commercial Enhancement Act introduced in the House by Congressmen Peter Roskam (R-IL) and Juan Vargas (D-CA) – (Senate version here) and the Boycott Our Enemies, Not Israel Act. With little notice on Wednesday night, the Senate Finance Committee approved amended language to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, an important trade agreement with the European Union. Anti-BDS directives were injected into this “Fast Track” legislation that passed the Senate Finance Committee, despite opposition to the bill, giving the Obama administration authority to push though “free trade” deals. The amendment states that, as a principle of trade negotiations, the U.S. should put pressure on other countries not to engage in BDS against Israel of any kind, including refusal to do business with settlements.

These Congressional bills would discourage and punish foreign companies, particularly Europeans ones, that support BDS. American companies will be forced to certify that they do not participate in BDS in order to be eligible for government contacts.  There is also a call for state and federal agencies to divest from U.S. companies that honor BDS guidelines. These efforts, which are being spearheaded by the pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC, follow previous attempts to use legal means to suppress BDS in the U.S., in particular on college campuses. Recent divestment efforts at universities in the Chicagoland area, including DePaul, Loyola, and Northwestern University have attracted opposition from the Consulate General of Israel to the Midwest office and from pro-Israel groups like StandWithUs.

Whether we are talking about members of Congress or our local Illinois state representatives who support measures like these, they are increasingly out of step with US public opinion. A growing number of Americans, particularly young people and people of color, are questioning US support for Israel and joining alternative approaches like BDS to resolving the conflict. Activists see that BDS has been successful in similar past conflicts such as in Apartheid South Africa. A poll conducted in November 2014 found that 39% of Americans think that the U.S. government should impose sanctions on Israel over the construction of settlements on occupied Palestinian land. This number will only increase after the newly elected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised he would never allow a Palestinian state if he was reelected. There is little doubt that the US-sponsored “peace process” is now dead.

On Wednesday, the Illinois Senate voted to punish companies that boycott Israel’s human rights abuses by requiring Illinois retirement funds to expend resources blacklisting, monitoring and withdrawing funds from such companies. The House adjourned on Friday without calling its own identical bill that had already been voted out of committee. The Senate Bill will now go to a House Committee for hearings before it goes to the whole House for a vote.

The Illinois Coalition to Protect Academic Freedom and Free Speech (member organizations listed below)  was formed in response to this anti-boycott legislation introduced in the Illinois State Senate. This same coalition defeated bills in the Illinois legislature last year that sought to penalize Illinois higher education institutions, teachers, and other academics if they supported the
Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. Many of the same Illinois senators and representatives that voted against these anti-boycott bills in committee last year have voted for these bills this year.

The Coalition plans to organize their members over the coming weeks to call their legislators, visit them in their district offices, call committee members, submit witness slips in opposition, and testify in Springfield. The coalition member groups will be publishing Action Alerts to their members as these bills progress through the Illinois legislature.

The Illinois Coalition to Protect Academic Freedom and Free Speech was formed in response to anti-boycott legislation introduced in the Illinois State Senate.  The Coalition includes The Center for Constitutional RightsCAIR-ChicagoJewish Voice for Peace-ChicagoPalestine Solidarity Legal Support,  Committee for a Just Peace in Israel and PalestineArab-Jewish Partnership for Peace and Justice in the Middle EastFriends of Sabeel: North AmericaUnited States Palestinian Community Network, Just Foreign PolicyAmerican Muslims for Palestine, Chicago Area Code Pink, and Muslim American Society Public Affairs and Civic Engagement – Chicago.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Chicago Monitor’s editorial policy.