Last year, activists in Massachusetts were able to defeat an unconstitutional anti-BDS bill before it got off the ground. State Representatives Steve Howitt (R) and Paul McMurtry (D) had filed Bill H.1685 in 2017 with help from the pro-Israel Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC). The legislation would have barred states agencies from entering into contracts with companies that carry out boycott actions “based upon such other person’s race, color, creed, religion, sex, national origin, gender identity or sexual orientation.”
Although the bill didn’t mention the BDS movement, its sponsors left no doubts about its intentions. “This is a proud moment where the legislature can stand together in support of Israel” said Howitt after introducing it, “This bill clarifies to businesses that either support BDS or who boycott Israeli-owned businesses and products that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts will not engage in commerce with them. I look forward to its quick passage.”
In response to the bill, over 100 local organizations created a coalition called Freedom to Boycott. Activists involved in the opposition testified about the dangers of the legislation at a hearing that was held that summer. In the end, Bill H.1685 was referred to “study” by the oversight committee and seemingly died at the end of the legislative session.
The victory turned out to be short-lived. Howitt has reintroduced the same exact bill (in the form of Bill H. 2719 this time), but it lacks the institutional support that the first one possessed. A community member, who testified against the new version at a November 19th hearing, told Mondoweiss that the only local group who has returned to support the bill seems to be the Israeli-American Civic Action Network. The group’s website encouraged residents to submit testimony to the State Administration and Regulatory Oversight committee in support of the bill and supplied them with talking points. “As Israeli-Americans, American Jews, Christians, or anyone who chooses to freely associate with Israel, we face multiple forms of discrimination: anti-Semitism, anti-immigrant bias, color-based prejudice, and national origin discrimination,” claims their website.
In addition to Bill H. 2719, Howitt has also introduced a piece of companion legislation: Bill H. 2722. The companion legislation would amend Massachusetts’ debarment law in order to penalize companies that boycott sovereign nations. If a company is debarred, it ends up on a list of entities that are legally prohibited from contracting with the state. A subsection of the proposed bill allows state officials to determine whether or not a company deserves to be added to the list, regardless of whether or not it broke any state laws.
At the November hearing, former ACLU attorney Sarah Wunsch provided an example of how the debarment legislation could potentially be used. “Put aside Israel for the moment, consider a company that joins a boycott and refuses to buy Saudi products to protest the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi,” said Wunsch, “It could be debarred and denied state contracts under H. 2722 because the US recognizes Saudi Arabia as a sovereign nation. It cannot be left to a state official to decide which boycotts are good and which are not in creating a debarment list.”
Bill H. 2722 is actually the fourth anti-BDS bill that Howitt has introduced. In addition to the three previously mentioned, he also introduced “An Act Relative to Pension Divestment from Companies that Boycott, Divest, and Sanction the State of Israel” in 2015. That legislation died before receiving a hearing.