If you read the self-congratulatory messages from the anti-BDS lobby, you would think that they won a major victory against what they call “anti-Israel hate.” Here is a message that The Israel Project sent to their supporters.
Congratulations! You helped deal a major blow against the anti-Israel hate movement! In a precedent-setting vote, Illinois has become the first U.S. state to cut off any business that boycotts Israel — and you helped make it happen!
The statement is not only false about the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement being an “anti-Israel hate movement,” but it is also false that Illinois “cut off any business that boycotts Israel.” That last part is the wording of the original bill that was soundly defeated before it even got off the ground.
The original anti-BDS bill – HB 4011 – proposed in the Illinois legislature would have denied any business that supported a “boycott of Israel or in territories controlled by the State of Israel” a contract with the state. The anti-BDS lobby (made up of multiple pro-Israel groups including The America Israel Public Affairs Committee, American Jewish Committee, The Israel Project, Anti-Defamation League, StandWithUs, and others), Governor Rauner’s office, and the Democratic leadership of the House (including Michael Madigan as a co-sponsor) was attempting to amend the State Procurement Code to prohibit “a State agency from entering into a contract subject to the Code with a business that boycotts Israel.” With little to no publicity, the state code that governs all transactions with the state was going to be amended to satisfy the political views of pro-Israel lobby groups and the newly elected governor. The majority party in the state legislature, the Democratic Senators and Representatives, were all willing to endorse this plan.
Members of the Illinois Coalition to Protect Academic Freedom and Free Speech (members listed below) were made aware of this unconstitutional bill that all of our elected officials were fully prepared to vote for and sign into law. As the bill was whisking its way through the House Executive Committee and being readied to be voted on in the House with little to no debate, the state attorney general and other Illinois officials were made aware of the obvious unconstitutionality of this bill. The march to a vote was halted and the bill was quickly amended to apply only to the state pension systems. Now the bill read “Transactions prohibited by retirement systems; companies that boycott Israel, Iran-restricted companies, and Sudan-restricted companies…” So now the existing State of Illinois Procurement Code that already contains language-enacting U.S. Department of the Treasury restrictions on business with Iran and Sudan has now added restrictions on companies that boycott Israel. This addition is not U.S. government sponsored, but only the political opinion of the anti-BDS lobby and the Governor’s Office.
In fact, the part of the new law that includes companies that support “a boycott of Israel or in territories controlled by the State of Israel” (emphasis mine) is in violation of official U.S. policy. Any boycott of “territories controlled by the State of Israel” would be directed at the Israeli settlements that every U.S. administration and the majority of nations consider illegal according to international law. It is also the current policy of the Obama administration. Although all of the Democratic legislators voted for this bill, they seem to be at odds with the policy of the administration regarding settlements.
This vote also ignores the growing number of Americans, particularly young people and people of color, who are questioning U.S. support for Israel and promoting 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.
So beyond the hype of the anti-BDS lobby, what is the real impact of this bill?
The bill that passed unanimously in the House last week – SB 1761 – stops the state pension system from investing in any companies that support boycotts of Israel or the occupied territories. These would be companies that heed the Palestinian civil society call from 2005 for a campaign of boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel until it complies with international law and Palestinian rights. The BDS movement is a campaign that seeks an end to its occupation of Palestinian lands and dismantling of the Wall; recognition of the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194. All the legislators in Illinois voted to penalize any company who would decide to abide by this call from the Palestinian people to put pressure on Israel to live up to its international legal obligations. Ironically, the bill is an amendment to the state procurement act that supports the U.S. government boycott and sanctions against Iran and Sudan. So supporting boycotts as a method of pressuring a country to cease human rights violations is acceptable for other countries, but not for Israel.
Given that the current law already prevented companies from doing business with Iran and Sudan, it seemed logical for the Illinois legislators that the law could be amended to prevent companies from NOT doing business with Israel. If you haven’t gathered already, we are approaching the kind of Twilight Zone that could only happen in a state legislature. While the proponents of the bill are crowing that this is a great victory for the anti-BDS movement and will be a model for other states, the fact is that there are no companies that support “a boycott of Israel or in territories controlled by the State of Israel.” So the state pension system administrators will be spending their research and reporting time on companies that do not exist.
The focus of the BDS movement is to financially pressure companies that operate in the settlements or provide products that support the occupation to end those practices by boycotting their products and divesting from their stocks. Some targets of the BDS movement have been Caterpillar who supplies weaponized bulldozers used to demolish Palestinian homes; G4S who manages Israeli prisons and detention centers; and Veolia that operates a landfill and wastewater treatment plant exclusively for the use of illegal settlements. Even if these companies decided to end their business with Israel, they would not be doing so because they supported a boycott. The passage of this “anti-BDS bill” in Illinois will have no impact on the BDS movement and is simply a political grandstanding stunt by the Governor’s office and Illinois legislators to show they “support Israel” and are against the BDS movement. It is also an attempt by the anti-BDS lobby to discredit and mislabel the BDS movement as an “anti-Israel hate movement.”
In the toxic political environment of Springfield after the election of Governor Rauner, it is odd that no one appears to be questioning how a single bill on a topic unrelated to the state’s finances or concerns could be passed in every committee and in every session unanimously by both Democrats and Republicans. This occurred even after a two-week campaign by a coalition of groups that generated hundreds of calls, representative office meetings, and lobbying in Springfield in opposition to the bill.
It was very clear the bill was being pushed by the Governor’s Office when the first person to submit a witness slip in favor of the bill in the House Executive Committee hearing was Richard Goldberg, Deputy Chief of Staff for Legislative Affairs for Governor Rauner’s Office. The sponsors of the House bill were Sara Feinenholtz, Assistant Majority Leader; Michael Madigan, Speaker of the House; Daniel Burke, Assistant Majority Leader; and Lou Lang, Deputy Majority Leader – all the Democratic leaders of the House. Remember that this also was the bill that originally wanted to stop the state from doing business with any company that boycotted Israel. A very naive person would have to believe that there was not some agreement between the Governor’s Office and the Democratic leadership to promote this bill, no matter what opposition it generated.
The Governor’s Office confirmation that he would be signing the bill includes wording that reflects the position of the anti-BDS lobby:
Governor Rauner looks forward to signing the bill to make Illinois the first state in America to divest from companies that boycott Israel.
When the Governor gets ready to sign this bill and you listen to his praise of this demonstration of unanimous support for Israel and rejection of the BDS movement, just remember that the BDS movement continues to grow exponentially both internationally and in the U.S. and that this bill represents a back-office deal that ignores the wishes of the majority of citizens in Illinois. And, by the way, it also adds political busy work to a state pension system that is in a financial crisis.
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 voted for this bill this year.
The Coalition plans to organize their members to call and email Governor Rauner not to sign the anti-BDS bill into law.
Update July 23, 2015
On Thursday, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner signed the anti-BDS bill SB 1761 into law. Congressman Peter Roskam (IL-06), co-chair of the House Republican Israel Caucus and original sponsor of the federal anti-BDS law issued the following statement.
This is a great day for the State of Illinois and the ongoing battle against the insidious BDS campaign. Once again, Democrats and Republicans have joined together to stand up against those who seek to delegitimize and isolate our ally Israel. The momentum is now on our side. More and more states are taking bold action to condemn and outlaw economic warfare against Israel, and historic legislation taking action against the European BDS movement was passed at the federal level earlier this year. I want to congratulate State Senator Ira Silverstein, State Senator Sarah Feigenholtz, Governor Rauner, and all those who made this landmark accomplishment a reality.
Roskam fails to mention that both the Illinois bill and the anti-BDS provisions passed on the federal level will in reality have little actual impact on the continued growth of the BDS movement. The Illinois bill only applies to companies involved in state pension fund investment and requires proof that any blacklisted company is actively supporting a boycott of Israel.
Like the Illinois bill, the anti-BDS provisions in the Federal Trade Authority bill combines Israel and ‘Israeli-controlled territories” which means that it violates longstanding U.S. policy declaring the settlements to be illegal. For this reason, the Obama administration has indicated that it would make little effort to enforce the provision that would make it a U.S. objective to fight boycotts of settlement businesses.
The “momentum” that Congressman Roskam refers to is actually on the side of the BDS movement. The strength of this momentum is the reason these symbolic “anti-BDS victories” are so heavily celebrated.
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 Rights, CAIR-Chicago, Jewish Voice for Peace-Chicago, Palestine Solidarity Legal Support, Committee for a Just Peace in Israel and Palestine, Arab-Jewish Partnership for Peace and Justice in the Middle East, Friends of Sabeel: North America, United States Palestinian Community Network, Just Foreign Policy, American 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.