Illinois Becomes First to Approve Anti-BDS Legislation

“Every light was green,” Illinois Sen. Sara Feigenholtz told the Chicago Jewish Star after her legislation aimed at stopping an economic boycott of Israel was approved 102-0 by the Illinois House.

The Associated Press reported she also said the unanimous vote following bipartisan Senate approval sent a message that Illinois’ support for Israel is “strong and growing stronger.”

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) used Twitter to promise to sign the legislation that will make his state the first in the nation to require state pension funds to divest from companies that are backing an international movement to force Israel to pull out of Palestinian territories through boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS).

It would also bar taxpayer-funded groups from doing business with any country that supports what are defined as “rouge states” such as Iran or Syria.

"Looking forward to signing #SB1761 making IL [Illinois] first in the nation to fight BDS against Israel,” Rauner tweeted.

The Indiana and Tennessee legislatures have taken similar action. But since they are only non-binding resolutions, they don’t fall into the same category of the new Illinois law.

SB1761 was approved by the Illinois House on May 18 after receiving bipartisan support in the Senate.

The BDS movement in question is modeled after the effort to use the weapons of boycotts, divestment and sanctions to erase apartheid in South Africa. Close to 200 Palestinian groups started using a similar strategy in 2005 to persuade Israel to pull out of Palestinian territories.

"At the core of the BDS movement is a quest to delegitimize Israel as a sovereign, democratic and Jewish state," said Jewish United Fund president Steven B. Nasatir. "This bipartisan legislation sends a strong message that Illinois will not tolerate such efforts.”

B’nai B’rith International said it “applauds Illinois citizens and their representatives for taking such a strong stance against a movement rooted in anti-Semitism that ultimately impedes the peace process by opposing constructive dialogue between Israel and Palestinians.”

The Connecticut Jewish Ledger reported the Illinois Coalition to Protect Academic Freedom and Free Speech opposed the bill. Among the groups participating in the coalition are CAIR-Chicago, Jewish Voice for Peace-Chicago, Palestine Solidarity Legal Support, Committee for a Just Peace in Israel and Palestine, and Arab-Jewish Partnership for Peace and Justice in the Middle East.

But even with that opposition, Nasatir hopes the Illinois legislation will become a model for similar action in other states and on the federal level.

That is exactly what the pro-BDS movement fears, according a statement from Jewish Voice For Peace-Chicago.

The heart of the problem, according to a letter signed by more than 250 members of the JVP advisory council, is the feeling that to be critical of Israel is to be anti-Semitic.

The letter takes issue with provisions in the U.S. State Department definition of anti-Semitism that refer to “demonizing,” “delegitimizing,” and “applying a double-standard to the state of Israel.”

Simona Sharoni, an Israeli-American professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at SUNY Plattsburgh, said, “Such prohibitions are so vague that they could be, and have been, construed to silence any criticism of Israeli policies.”

A spokesman for Palestine Solidarity Legal Support, which documents what the organization sees as attempts to silence activists for Palestinian rights, said 60 such incidents occurred on U.S. college and university campuses in the first four months of 2015.

Jewish Voice for Peace is also watching legislation in California that would turn the State Department definition into state law.

“Anti-Palestinian activists intend this law to be used to silence supporters of the movement to hold Israel accountable for its treatment of Palestinians,” according to a JVP press release.

Illinois also has a connection to an effort to oppose the BDS movement against Israel on a federal level.

Illinois Congressman Peter Roskam and Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) were able to win committee approval for an amendment to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership legislation that would require the U.S. to lobby its European trading partners to oppose the BDS movement.

"This is nothing short of a historic win for the U.S.-Israel relationship and a hammer blow to the BDS movement -- a campaign solely dedicated to the delegitimization and isolation of our ally Israel,” said Roskam after the amendment was approved by the Senate Finance and House Ways and Means committees.

“I strongly support free trade negotiations with the EU, but we must also confront the disturbing, rising tide of BDS activity from countries across Europe,” he added.

But J Street, an organization that opposes the BDS movement, has also spoken out against the Roskam-Cardin amendment.

“While J Street does not participate in such targeted boycott or divestment initiatives, we do not believe it is productive or appropriate for the United States government to spend time and resources preventing or reporting on such efforts,” wrote a J Street spokesman on the organization’s blog.

“(It could) actually put the U.S. in the awkward position of making it easier -- by reducing potential liabilities -- for companies to conduct commercial or related activity in occupied territory that is expanding and deepening the very settlement enterprise that the U.S. opposes.”