Illinois law would force state to boycott companies accused of boycotting Israel

Illinois law would discourage even initiatives to boycott goods from Israeli settlements built on occupied territories in violation of international law.

Shadi Hatem APA images

Illinois lawmakers are expected to vote Friday on two bills that civil rights defenders say will severely curtail the constitutionally protected right to engage in boycotts.

According to the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), Illinois House Bill 4011 and Senate Bill 1761 contain a provision that requires state pension funds to “create blacklists of companies that boycott Israel because of its human rights violations, and mandates that they withdraw their investments from these companies.”

The measure passed on the House floor and in the Senate judiciary committee on Tuesday.

CCR says that these bills “must be opposed in order to protect the right to engage in boycotts that reflect collective action to address a human rights issue, which the US Supreme Court has declared is protected speech and associational activity.”

The draft law defines a “boycott” of “Israel” as “engaging in actions that are politically motivated and are intended to penalize, inflict economic harm on, or otherwise limit commercial relations with the State of Israel or companies based in the State of Israel or in territories controlled by the State of Israel.”

This means that the law would even discourage initiatives to boycott goods from Israeli settlements in occupied territories including the West Bank and Syria’s Golan Heights that are considered illegal under international law even by longstanding US policy.

In an action alert aimed at Illinois residents, CCR says that “it was through strong collective action to address human rights issues, through boycotts and otherwise, that the civil rights and anti-apartheid struggles were successful in effecting change.”

“Don’t make it state policy to condemn this form of protected speech and association,” CCR urges.

The bill is sponsored by State Senator Ira Silverstein, a Democrat from Chicago. Last year, Silverstein sponsored unsuccessful legislation condemning the academic boycott of Israel.

Silverstein has long been a hardline opponent of Palestinian rights and in 2011 publicly opposed President Barack Obama’s endorsement of a Palestinian state “based on the 1967 borders.”

Growing efforts to outlaw BDS

The Illinois bills are the latest among a slew of measures intended to legislate against the increasingly visible boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.

This week, the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation also issued an “urgent” action alert about an “anti-BDS amendment” introduced in the US Senate by Maryland Democrat Senator Ben Cardin.

According to the action alert, Cardin’s bill would make it a “principal trade negotiating objective of the United States” to “discourage politically motivated actions” that “limit commercial relations” with Israel and Israeli businesses, including those operating in occupied territories.

In a Baltimore Sun op-ed, US Campaign executive director Yousef Munayyer writes that the amendment “is aimed at silencing and mitigating actions taken by some European states alongside the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel.”

The Obama administration is currently negotiating the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the EU, which would create a major free trade area.

Munayyer also points out the hypocrisy of Cardin’s stance given that “it was only a few months ago that Senator Cardin himself praised boycotting as a tactic in nonviolent struggle” in the US civil rights struggle.

Last year, Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the US and now a member of Israel’s parliament, urged US legislatures to pass laws to suppress the boycott movement.

In January 2014, Israel’s then economy minister Yair Lapid warned that if the boycott movement was left unchecked it would hit every Israeli “in the pocket.”

Update, 25 April

The measure was passed by the Illinois Senate on 22 April by a vote of 49-0. It did not come to a vote in the House on 24 April, the last day it could pass in the current session, but was referred to the Rules Committee – a procedural step that can allow bills that run out of time to be brought back in the following session.

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Comments

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The biggest problem is that hardline right wing zionists have been successful at getting their followers elected under the radar.

They don't reflect most dems and their views on these issues are stealth views until they are elected. Then the press doesn't cover their atrocious record. They have also been successful at getting board positions in corporate America.

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Why aren't Arab-Americans running for public office and raising the issue of creating the Palestinian state? It seems that few, if any, are raising the issue of conducting negotiations and making the necessary compromises needed to bring it into existence!

Check out the American Task Force on Palestine at: www.americantaskforce.org

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Nothing in either the Federal, or Illinois legislation precludes boycott advocates from continuing to speak out and urge individuals to boycott, if they so choose, but they cannot assert a right to "freedom of speech only for me, but not for thee." They must accept the reality of "pushback/payback" and that there will be certain costs in terms of loss of funds from Federal and Illinois funding for their efforts. What's sauce for the goose, is sauce for the gander!" "What goes around, comes around!"

Ali Abunimah's picture

The government does not subsidize efforts to boycott or divest from Israel. What the law proposes is to for the federal or state governments to financially penalize only certain viewpoints. Isn’t that a violation of the First Amendment?

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Ali -- do you not see the irony of advocating a boycott but at the same time complaining that you are being boycotted?

If a company is boycotting Israel, that is not speech. It's action, and the government has the right to move against actions it deems harmful to its interests (whether or not such a judgment is correct is, of course, another story). If the government were cutting off funding to a particular university because of something an administrator said, then we'd be getting into issues of free speech.

The wisdom of this legislation is doubtful. It's constitutionality is not.

I'm not sure it could be challenged in court though seeing as only a corporation would have standing to pursue a case against it. It's unlikely that a corporation would choose to do so -- easier to just ignore the Palestinian activists and stay on good terms with the State of Illinois, which has a $700 billion state GDP.

Ali Abunimah's picture

So you are arguing that corporations must and may only conduct business in countries and with entities where the government orders them to do so? So much for Freedom!

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Would businesses in the Palestinian territories, particularly those which export to Israel, be allowed to oppose the boycott, where it is injurious to their businesses and compliance is demanded by the Palestinian Authority! If the P.A. can enforce the boycott against Palestinian exporters, Illinois and other states can enface boycotts against those who support them. Everyone must comply with their nation's laws on trade and boycott questions!

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I wouldn't have marked you as a such vocal champion of corporate rights!

Suppose it were reversed and Illinois wanted to boycott companies doing business in Israel. I don't expect that you'd be opposed to such measures, though they'd restrict companies' freedom to do business. This is the reverse -- if you avoid Israel you suffer-- but in principle it's really the same. The legislature is using the weight of the state economy to advance certain political interests.

This is really a brilliant move from the pro-Israel lobby. Palestinian solidarity activists are hoping to make doing business in Israel "just not worth it." That is, they hope that companies will move to skirt controversy and just steer clear of Israel.

This legislation provides a mighty counterweight to that.

It passed yesterday by the way and now just needs the governor's signature, which has already been secured.

Ali -- Illinois has a very large Arab-American population. It seems strange to me that IL would be the first state to enact this. Any explanations?