On March 24, 2016, the Georgia Senate passed SB 327, banning state contracts with businesses that boycott Israel. The bill passed 41 to 8, with support across party lines. The original bill would have also prevented county and municipal governments from contracting with companies that boycott Israel, but the House passed an amendment limiting the ban to state agencies. Republican state Senator Judson Hill, who authored the original legislation, accepted the compromise, stating, “It’s better to have half a loaf than none.”
A rash of state legislation targeting the Boycott Divest and Sanctions (BDS) movement continues to spread. A Georgia lawmaker recently introduced a bill that mirrors legislation pending in six other states in an effort to outlaw government contracts with businesses that boycott Israel.
Georgia State Senator Judson Hill introduced SB 327 with little fanfare earlier this month. The proposed law targets boycotts of Israel specifically, preventing the state from contracting with any entity that cannot provide, “a written certification that such individual or company is not currently engaged in, and agrees for the duration of the contract not to engage in, a boycott of Israel.”
“These bills exist because the BDS movement is growing in the U.S., and that’s making Israel’s fiercest advocates nervous,” said Rahul Saksena, an attorney at Palestine Legal, which has tracked anti-BDS legislation.
There isn’t exactly a robust BDS movement afoot in Georgia, but perhaps Hill recognizes that Georgia is an ample target for future BDS activism. In 2014, he authored a resolution affirming Israel’s right to exist, which passed the day after he introduced it, and which outlines the deep economic ties between the peach state and its purportedly sole Middle Eastern friend.
According to the resolution, “Israel is a top export destination for Georgia with exports totalling over $212 million.” Georgia imports over $337 million worth of goods from Israel. There are more than 45 Israeli companies in Georgia. And the Georgia Department of Economic Development even operates a trade office in Israel.
Hill’s resolution also noted the importance of the GILEE program, a Georgia-based exchange program for American and Israeli police, which activists have attempted to shut down in the past.
Hill’s current anti-BDS bill, and the ones it copies, fly in the face of the First Amendment, under which boycott is a protected form of freedom of speech. Now, federal lawmakers who oppose BDS are trying to get around that with a pair of bills introduced shortly after Hill’s landed in Georgia.
“It is time to go on offense against the BDS movement’s ongoing economic warfare,” said U.S. Representative Robert Dold (R-IL) when he introduced the “Combating BDS Act” in the House. His colleague, Mark Kirk (R-IL), introduced companion legislation in the U.S. Senate.
The bills seek to authorize state and local governments to divest from entities that boycott Israel and protect them from legal challenges to anti-BDS laws.
“The sponsors of this bill seem to be encouraging state lawmakers to pass laws that infringe on our constitutional rights,” Saksena said. “Our federal lawmakers should know that they cannot authorize state legislators to violate the constitution.”
Dold and Kirk issued a joint press release, citing their home state’s new law––the first in the nation––that explicitly punishes boycotts of Israel.
Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner signed the bill into law last July, mandating that the state divest its pension funds from companies that boycott Israel. At the time, Palestine Legal said it would look into challenging the law.
It’s not clear whether there is an ALEC-style bill mill churning out anti-BDS model legislation for state lawmakers to glom onto, though there are indicators of such coordination.
The American Jewish Committee (AJC) said that it “built support” for the Illinois law, and “is advocating passage of similar legislation in 49 more states.”
Hill, the Georgia Senator, participated in a delegation to Israel sponsored by AJC in 2011, and said that it was “rewarding to learn more of the economic and strategic relationships our state has and continues to develop with the people, businesses and government of Israel.”
AIPAC, the dominant Israel lobby group in the U.S., has not been as vocal regarding state-level legislation, but had a direct hand in crafting the federal Combating BDS Act
AIPAC has also been instrumental in construing BDS as “economic warfare,” language that has cropped up in numerous anti-BDS bills. This language is particularly outrageous when leveled at activists challenging a nation which imposes an economic blockade as a form collective punishment of millions of people.
Summing up the current proliferation of anti-BDS legislation, Saksena said, “Instead of engaging in a conversation about Israel’s brutal occupation, [lawmakers are] attempting to take steps to shut down the conversation by punishing activists.”