As Illinois quashes Israel boycotts, some see watershed in fight against BDS

A day after landmark legislation passes Illinois legislature, pro-Israel activists say winning formula can work in other states

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

Illustrative photo of signs calling for the boycott of Israel at an anti-Israel protest in San Francisco, April 2011 (CC BY-dignidadrebelde, Flickr)
Illustrative photo of signs calling for the boycott of Israel at an anti-Israel protest in San Francisco, April 2011 (CC BY-dignidadrebelde, Flickr)

WASHINGTON — The passage of a landmark bill against Israel boycotts in the Illinois legislature Monday will likely serve as a turning point for ensuing attempts at the state level to combat efforts to delegitimize Israel, opponents of the BDS movement said Tuesday.

The groundbreaking Illinois legislation, passed unanimously by the house and senate, provided a workable model that is already being examined by opponents of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement targeting Israel in other states.

“We are already hearing from students from campus who are interested in pursuing similar efforts in other states. This will inspire similar pro-Israel activism through the legislatures,” said Jacob Baime, executive director of the Israel on Campus Coalition, an organization deeply involved in supporting the Illinois initiative. “Illinois has shown that states have the ability to stand up and reject the shameful BDS movement.”

The Illinois legislation will prevent the state’s pension fund from investing in companies that boycott Israel. Gov. Bruce Rauner has already pledged to sign the bill, the first of its kind to be enacted in the United States.

“I expect to see this strategy replicated in other states,” continued Baime, whose organization is among those at the forefront of combating pro-BDS activism on campuses. “This legislation attaches a cost to engaging in behavior that is contrary to America’s interest and America’s support for peace in the Middle East. This is a strategy we’re likely to see more of.”

Earlier attempts at legislating against BDS proved unsuccessful at both the national and state levels. Bills in Congress, as well as in Maryland and New York foundered against critiques that they limited academic freedom and individuals’ right to free speech.

“Because of Illinois it will be easy for other states to pick it up,” said Peggy Shapiro, StandWithUs’s Midwest director. “The legal research here is meticulous. It in no way denies anyone freedom of speech or expression, but is based on the same rationale as when the US decided in the 1970s during the Arab oil embargo against Israel that the US will not go along with the destruction of an ally. Other states can follow suit easily and I hope that many will.”

Shapiro noted that the bill’s passage defied the partisanship that has wracked the Illinois legislature.

“The fact that it passed in Illinois showed that it is not a partisan, right-wing or left-wing issue,” she said. “Illinois is a solidly blue state and some of the most progressive voices were supportive on this issue. The fact that it came from a legislature that is passionately divided on these issues, makes it clear that it is the right move to make.”

Illinois has been a focal point in recent BDS-related activity. Chicago’s DePaul University was at the vanguard, passing a pioneering campus-wide BDS referendum in 2014. The referendum strategy was attempted at another seven universities in the recent academic year, although only DePaul’s passed.

According to data gathered by the Israel on Campus Coalition, there have been 136 unique instances of anti-Israel activity on 11 Illinois campuses in comparison to 122 in the previous year.

The Midwest region, the organization noted, has seen a sharp increase in anti-Israel activism that exceeds the national average.
Data gathered by the ICC indicates that Chicago has become an important hub for anti-Israel activity – a nerve center alongside New York, Boston and San Francisco which transmits waves of influence to other areas through tactical know-how and financial support.

The Illinois legislation came after Tennessee and Indiana adopted resolutions, though not laws, opposing BDS.

In early April, Tennessee became the first state legislature to pass a resolution condemning BDS. The General Assembly’s resolution condemned both the BDS movement as well as the worldwide increase in anti-Semitism.

The resolution tied the two together, describing the BDS movement as “one of the main vehicles for spreading anti-Semitism and advocating the elimination of the Jewish state,” and saying that BDS seeks to “undermine the Jewish people’s right to self-determination, which they are fulfilling in the State of Israel.”

In late April, the United States Congress also passed carefully crafted legislation to discourage European Boycotts of Israel, tying it to negotiations over a historic trade deal with the EU.

The amendment discourages BDS actions by marking efforts to combat anti-Israel activity as a principal objective for US envoys in the talks with Europe to the authorization for negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.

In addition to intense campaigning by BDS opponents, pro-BDS groups mobilized supporters to campaign against the legislation.

Before the bill’s passage, pro-BDS American Muslims for Palestine warned that the legislation “could have a hugely negative impact on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.”

The organization complained that the bill would “punish companies that protest Israel’s human rights and international law violations.”

“Apologists for Israel’s abuses are so desperate, they’re even willing to politicize our pension system to stop the boycott,” the organization complained in a message to supporters. “If the bill gets out of committee and passes, Illinois retirement systems will have to spend valuable resources to blacklist and withdraw investments from companies that choose not to do business with Israeli companies — including those based in the Occupied Palestinian territories — because of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.”

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