Md. legislators to push anti-BDS bill

Maryland lawmakers and Jewish advocacy groups are putting the final touches on a bill to ban companies that support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel from doing business with the state.

The bill, expected to be introduced in the next few weeks, would prevent the Maryland State Retirement and Pension System from investing in any companies that participate in the BDS movement.

It also would prohibit companies that support BDS from securing state procurement contracts. The bill would amend the 2008 Divestiture from Iran and Sudan Act, which prevented companies that do business with Iran and Sudan from doing business with the state, to include these measures.

Lawmakers are working with the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington and the Baltimore Jewish Council on the proposed legislation.

Sen. Bobby Zirkin (D-District 11), the lead sponsor in the state Senate, said the push to get Maryland on the record against BDS is part of an effort for the state to stand in solidarity with Israel.

“I just want to ensure that this ridiculous messenger movement against Israel never sees the light of day in our state,” Zirkin said.

The bill will use language similar to that of U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin’s anti-BDS bill, which defined BDS as “actions … intended to penalize or otherwise limit commercial relations” with Israel, said Sarah Mersky, director of government relations at the BJC.

Last September, in response to a request from Delegates Sandy Rosenberg (D-District 41) and Shelly Hettleman (D-District 11), a Maryland State Retirement and Pension System staff review found two companies, Denmark-based Danske Bank and Nordea Bank, would potentially be banned from participating in ongoing services. Danske Bank is the only one of two companies held directly within the pension system with less than $3.5 million, or 0.08 percent, of the market value of the system’s assets.

In addition to identifying companies that support BDS, the state’s pension system is also evaluating the risk to the system’s beneficiaries and how to address that issue.

Many feel the goal of the BDS movement is to delegitimize Israel and end the Jewish state’s existence. As a result, Rosenberg said, it is important for the state to have a firm approach regarding companies tied to BDS.

“In a state like Maryland, where we have an ongoing relationship with Israel economically and culturally, it’s important to send a message to businesses saying that if they support BDS, they can’t do business here,” Rosenberg said.

Maryland, which has one of the largest Jewish populations in the United States, was Israel’s 43rd-largest trading partner in 2015 with $145.1 million in product exports, according to Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s office.

Delegate Benjamin Kramer, a Democrat who represents District 19 in Montgomery County and is the bill’s lead sponsor in the House of Delegates, said he is confident the legislation can pass because of Maryland’s longstanding cultural and economic relationship with Israel.

“It would be ludicrous to have an entity receiving state tax dollars that would seek to undermine a declaration of cooperation that we have with Israel,” Kramer said. “So I think we have a very valid reason to ensure that Maryland’s best interests with Israel are protected and that we don’t allow our decades-long efforts with Israel to be undermined.”

Three years ago, Kramer and Sen. Joan Carter Conway (D-District 43) introduced a bill in the House and Senate that would have reduced state aid to universities that fund organizations that support BDS. Those bills were tied to the American Studies Association’s boycott of Israel and pitted those in favor of academic freedom against those who are anti-BDS.

The bills were amended, removing the threat of financial sanctions.

Instead, Kramer was able to successfully get language in the state budget that condemned BDS, making Maryland the first state to pass such a resolution.

Now, Kramer believes the precedent in part has laid the foundation to incorporate similar measures into state law on a larger scale.

“I would not be introducing this legislation if I did not feel that it’s meritorious,” Kramer said. “All I can say is that I’m hopeful, and that I’m working hard and putting forth my best effort to get this passed.”

Meredith Weisel, director of Maryland government and community relations at the JCRC, said all parties agree on the current proposal and that she expects no amendments will be added.

“We feel the structure of the bill is one of the best models anywhere and that it benefits the state of Maryland,” Weisel said. “Everybody is on board with it, and we feel we will be able to generate enough support for this bill.”

Opponents of the anti-BDS effort, however, argue that the bill violates free speech.

Last month, the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio called anti-BDS legislation in Ohio “an unwarranted attack on First Amendment rights as it severely restricts the right to speak out or take action based on political beliefs,” according to JTA.

“As long as our government sanctions foreign governments for engaging in behavior that we decide we do not like for some reason, the residents of this country have a right to organize and press the government to sanction particular countries and conduct that they find troubling,” ACLU of Maryland spokeswoman Meredith Curtis Goode said via email.

She added: “Those who oppose such sanctions have an equal right to express their opposition.

But neither side has a right to muzzle the other, or to prevent their view from being expressed or acted on.”

During last year’s legislative session, the BJC and JCRC decided to put plans for anti-BDS legislation on hold. At the time, BJC officials said, they didn’t feel the BDS movement garnered enough attention to pursue it.

Similar anti-BDS measures have been passed in 17 states, including Pennsylvania and Virginia, sparking optimism that Maryland could be the latest to join that list.

Del. Dana Stein (D-District 11) said the decision for Maryland to move forward in its continued backing of Israel is “symbolic.”

“I’m very happy to hear that this is going to be moving forward this session,” Stein said. “The BDS movement is pernicious in its attempt to delegitimize Israel and making the false claim that Israel is an apartheid state.” n

Justin Silberman is a staff reporter for the Baltimore Jewish Times.

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