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Senate panel hears ‘No Boycott of Israel’ bill

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Legislation to counter anti-Israel BDS movement likely will be revised to address First Amendment concerns

By MORDECAI SPECKTOR

ST. PAUL, Minn. — The Israeli-Palestinian conflict came before Minnesota legislators again, Tuesday, Feb. 14, when the Senate’s State Government Finance and Policy and Elections Committee heard discussion on SF247, which first appeared as the “No Boycott of Israel” bill.

The measure has been recast as an anti-discrimination measure in respect to Israel. It would require that the State of Minnesota “not enter into a contract with a vendor that engages in discrimination against Israel.” It would apply to any state contract with a value of $1,000.00 and more.

The bill’s original draft referred to “persons or entities doing business in Israel or in Israeli-controlled territories.” The phrase “Israeli-controlled territories” has been stripped from the proposal.

Walid Issa (second from left), a Palestinian involved in business development in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, spoke in favor of the “No Boycott of Israel” bill before the Minnesota Senate State Government Finance and Policy and Elections Committee, Feb. 14. (Photo: Mordecai Specktor)

The state House companion bill, HF400, was heard Feb. 7 before the Government Operations and Election Policy Committee (Editorial, “Minnesota Legislature debates Israel,” 2-10-17 AJW). Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, is the House author; Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, is lead author of the Senate version of the bill.

At Tuesday’s committee meeting in the new Senate Office Building, Limmer introduced the bill. He was accompanied by Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, a co-author of the bill.

Sixteen states have passed legislation similar to SF247, according to Limmer, who added that 12 other states across the country are considering anti-BDS proposals.

Ethan Roberts, director of the Twin Cities Jewish Community Government Affairs Program, testified briefly in support of the bill. The measure is meant to counter the BDS movement — the acronym stands for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel.

“The goal of the BDS movement is nothing less than the destruction of the State of Israel,” said Roberts, who added that proponents of the legislation were conferring with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Minnesota, and trying to address the group’s concerns that the proposal infringes on free speech.

Bill Pentelovitch, board chair of the ACLU of Minnesota, previously raised the civil liberties objection at the Feb. 7 House committee hearing. He noted then that the bill “prohibits boycotts to achieve political ends,” which are protected as free expression under the First Amendment. Pentelovitch testified briefly at the end of the Senate panel’s discussion, and also noted that the bill might be modified.

Walid Issa, a Palestinian who grew up in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, also spoke on behalf of the bill. In written comments submitted to the committee, Issa expressed his opposition to both the Israeli occupation of Palestinian communities and the BDS movement, the latter of which he argues “doesn’t fit with the necessity of a two-state solution. It also doesn’t recognize that the Israeli people are a very diverse, textured community, including many who are pro-peace and are true partners.”

At least nine individuals testified against the bill at the Sept. 14 committee meeting.

Matt Scherer, representing the state Department of Administration, which would be tasked with implementing the certification of vendors under the bill, said that SF247, if it became law, could increase the likelihood of “bid protests” lodged by businesses that lost state contracts.

Arthur Serotoff, a member of Jewish Voice for Peace, objected that SF247 equated criticism of Israeli policies with anti-Semitism. “Israel’s behavior is the betrayal of Jewish values,” he told the committee, which is chaired by Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake. Kiffmeyer was Minnesota Secretary of State, from 1999 to 2007.

And Barry Cohen, of St. Paul, also spoke against the bill and the Israeli occupation, noting that “our community is divided on this issue.”

At the conclusion of testimony on the bill, the committee referred the measure to the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee.

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