Wednesday, February 8th, 2017...2:25 pm

Editorial: Minnesota Legislature debates Israel

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This week, some legislators at the Capitol in St. Paul paused from discussing the mundane issues of state government and heard arguments related to the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There’s no foreign affairs committee in either body of the Legislature, so the first hearing on the “No Boycott of Israel” bill (H.F. 400/S.F. 247) occurred in the House Government Operations and Election Policy Committee.

I worked at the Minnesota House of Representatives Public Information Office, prior to taking a job at the Jewish World, in 1995. And I recall one foray into foreign policy during my time at the Capitol, when a legislator brought forth a resolution related to support for Taiwan. There wasn’t much interest among the lawmakers in getting Minnesota involved in a foreign policy dispute concerning the Far East.

The same problems are likely to arise with H.F. 400, which concerns an intractable conflict in the Middle East, and aims to counter the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement opposed to Israel.

Actually, the bill has evolved since it was first introduced. The original version, the “No Boycott of Israel” bill, proposed that the State of Minnesota require any vendor to certify that it “is not currently engaged in… a boycott of Israel.” It would apply to any state contract with a value of $1,000.00 and more. The bill also specified that “boycott of Israel” referred to Israel and “Israeli-controlled territories.”

Roping in Israel with the occupied Palestinian Territories provoked an outcry from legislators and others, Jews and non-Jews, that oppose the military occupation of the Palestinians, which is now in its 50th year.

Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, called me to discuss the bill last week. He expressed three objections to the measure: 1) With the language about “Israeli-controlled territories,” it conflates Israel and the occupied territories — “We would codify in state law that there’s no difference between Tel Aviv and Kiryat Arba [a large settlement near Hebron, in the West Bank]”; 2) the bill could be unconstitutional in view of “free speech-related issues”; and 3) it’s unclear how the state could enforce provisions of the bill.

Hornstein said that the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas (JCRC) board voted to support the legislation, along with The Israel Project, a right-leaning national group lobbying for Israel. The Israel Project’s Midwest regional director is Jacob Millner, a former JCRC staffer, who is on the JCRC board, according to Hornstein.

In lobbying the Legislature on behalf of H.F. 400, Milner is joined by Ethan Roberts, director of the Twin Cities Jewish Community Government Affairs Program.

I also talked with Roberts last week, and he told me that in the interest of gaining “bipartisan support for the bill,” the verbiage about “Israeli-controlled territories” would be removed. As it happens, many people support Israel but draw the line at support for the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian Territories.

At the bill’s first hearing on Tuesday, chief author Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, introduced what is known as a “delete all” amendment, which essentially substituted completely new language. “Israeli-controlled territories” was removed from the legislation, which is now framed as an anti-discrimination measure.

In introducing his bill, Kresha said, “We’re not going to discriminate against Jewish people” or businesses. He also recalled a family “pilgrimage” to Israel five years ago, in explaining his desire to do something good for the “Jewish people” — he characterized H.F. 400 as a “feel good” measure.

The Gov Ops committee then heard opponents of the bill — mainly Jews, Arab-Americans and Palestinians — decry the proposal for the half-hour allotted by committee chair Rep. Tim O’Driscoll, R-Sartell. (After the 2016 elections, Republicans control both the state House and Senate.)

Craig Harris, a local Jewish musician and composer, said that his daughter is living in the Deheishe refugee camp, south of Bethlehem, and that he recently returned from a monthlong visit. He said, in response to Kresha’s comment, that the Palestinians don’t “feel good” about living under Israeli occupation.

Also testifying against the bill was Matt Scherer, spokesperson for the Minnesota Department of Administration. He said that his department had reservations about the bill, in terms of it possibly reducing competition for state contracts and increasing prices, and leading to an increase in “bid protests” by vendors challenging the restrictions in the bill.

And Bill Pentelovitch, American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota board chair, forthrightly told the committee members that “H.F. 400 violates the U.S. Constitution, there is no way around it.” He said that the Constitution specifies that “only Congress” can regulate foreign commerce, and the Legislature has no jurisdiction in this sphere.

The civil liberties issue, however, is what Pentelovitch called the “unconstitutional conditions doctrine, which holds that a government agency, a government body, cannot impose unconstitutional conditions as a condition of contracting with state government. This bill as currently structured prohibits boycotts to achieve political ends,” which are protected as free expression under the First Amendment.

Testifying for the bill was Steve Hunegs, JCRC executive director, who pointed out that Americans are overwhelmingly supportive of Israel and that “16 states have passed some variety of anti-BDS legislation.”

Hunegs said that he appeared before the committee “to reaffirm commitment to a two-state solution. One part of that is repudiating delegitimization of Israel, and not subsidizing bigotry or discrimination.” He also said that the JCRC “has tried very hard to strengthen the Palestinian economy.”

And Hunegs contended that H.F. 400 would not impinge on constitutionally-protected free speech by individuals or businesses, which “can hang a banner from their entryway that says, ‘Down with Israel,’ whatever they want to say.” And he quoted former Pres. Obama, speaking about some other legislation, as saying, “we’re not going to subsidize discrimination against Israelis or Jews.”

In trying to get a handle on H.F. 400 (which Rep. Kresha allowed is a “very complicated issue”), I talked with Lara Friedman, director of policy and government relations for Americans for Peace Now (APN). She had been tracking the Minnesota bill and other state-level anti-BDS measures.

Her organization opposes BDS targeting Israel and also opposes legislation “that seeks to outlaw boycotts or other forms of legal, nonviolent activism against Israel.”

On this point, APN’s website carries a quotation from former ADL director Abraham Foxman: “Legislation that bars BDS activity by private groups, whether corporations or universities, strikes at the heart of First Amendment-protected free speech, will be challenged in the courts and is likely to be struck down. A decision by a private body to boycott Israel, as despicable as it may be, is protected by our Constitution.”

It seems that H.F. 400, beloved as it is by the organized Jewish community, runs afoul of the First Amendment, which protects all manner of speech, including expressions of views we find personally despicable.

One final point: the JCRC and The Israel Project, along with their comrades in the Legislature — several Jewish lawmakers are co-sponsors of the anti-boycott bill — have managed to provide a forum for anti-Israel views to be aired at the Capitol. Tuesday’s committee hearing was the first airing of anti-Israel, or anti-occupation, sentiments in this legislative session. H.F. 400 opens this particular Pandora’s box, so to speak. It’s probably not what the bill’s proponents intended.

The Gov Ops committee sent the bill on to State Government Finance Committee, which will schedule the next hearing. Perhaps some Senate committees will have their turn to debate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, too.

— Mordecai Specktor / editor [at] ajwnews [dot] com

(American Jewish World, 2.10.17)

3 Comments

  • Thank you for your coverage of HF 400 (SF 247) which is thoughtful and fair. I do take issue however with the following “Tuesday’s committee hearing was the first airing of anti-Israel, or anti-occupation, sentiments in this legislative session.” As someone who attended the hearing and provided testimony, I didn’t hear anti Israel sentiments but rather sentiments critical of the policies and practices of the Israeli government, the consequences of these and what might ensue. When we criticize the policies and practices of the U.S. government, is this un-American?

    As ADL President Foxman stated “Legislation that bars BDS activity by private groups, whether corporations or universities, strikes at the heart of First Amendment-protected free speech.” Almost all of us who testified made the same point.

    This year marks the 50th anniversary of the occupation and many of us feel that the door to a two-state solution is all but closed. BDS is a “form of legal, nonviolent activism” to affect changes in policy. As I said in my testimony, those in the Jewish community leadership who support and promote this legislation don’t speak for me.

    “Jewish people” Rep Kresha, are not all alike, rarely do we think alike and among us the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a contentious issue. To suppress free speech doesn’t do any good for our community or the values we cherish in common as citizen’s of a democracy.

  • Thanks Barry for your excellent comments. I am another American Jew who believes that being willing to criticize a government (American or Israeli) is the essence of freedom.

  • Thanks for your thoughtful editorial. The growing success of BDS is made clear by the frantic rush to ban it, with these Minnesota Legislature bills, SF247 and HF400 just one small example of a large-scale national coordinated effort.

    Regardless of one’s views of the Israel/Palestine conflict, or of the wisdom of BDS, as a tactic fully grounded in nonviolence, it should be welcomed, not shunned by Minnesota’s legislators.

    How foolish it would be! How absolutely counter-productive it would be, in a region beset by such horrible violence for decades, to outlaw, obstruct or discourage the use of a nonviolent tactic!

    Yet that is exactly what the Minnesota Legislature bills under consideration seek to do.

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