Maryland lawmakers and Jewish advocacy groups are in the process of putting the final touches on a bill that would ban companies that support the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel from doing business with the state.
The bill, which is expected to be introduced in the next few weeks, would prevent the Maryland State Retirement and Pension System from investing in any companies that participate in the BDS movement and also prohibits companies that support BDS from securing state procurement contracts. The bill would amend the 2008 Divestiture from Iran and Sudan Act, which prevented companies that do business with Iran and Sudan from doing business with the state, to include these measures.
Lawmakers are working with the Baltimore Jewish Council and Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington (JCRC) on the legislation.
Sen. Bobby Zirkin (D-District 11), the bill’s lead sponsor in the Senate, said the push to get Maryland on the record against BDS is part of an effort for the state to stand in solidarity with Israel.
“I just want to ensure that this ridiculous messenger movement against Israel never sees the light of day in our state,” Zirkin said.
The bill will use language similar to that of U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin’s anti-BDS bill, which defined BDS as “actions … intended to penalize or otherwise limit commercial relations” with Israel, said Sarah Mersky, director of government relations at the BJC.
This past September, in response to a request from Dels. Sandy Rosenberg (D-District 41) and Shelly Hettleman (D-District 11), a Maryland State Retirement and Pension System staff review found two companies, Denmark-based Danske Bank and Nordea Bank, would potentially be banned from participating in ongoing services. Danske Bank is the only one of those two companies held directly within the pension system with less than $3.5 million, or 0.08 percent, of the market value of the system’s $46-plus million in assets.
In addition to identifying companies that support the BDS movement, the state’s pension system is also evaluating the risk to the system’s beneficiaries and how to address that issue.
On its surface, many feel the goal of the BDS movement is to delegitimize Israel and end the Jewish state.
As a result, Rosenberg said it is critical for Maryland to have a firm approach when it comes to combatting companies tied to BDS.
“In a state like Maryland, where we have an ongoing relationship with Israel economically and culturally, it’s important to send a message to businesses saying that if they support BDS, they can’t do business here,” Rosenberg said.
Maryland, which has one of the largest Jewish populations in the United States, was Israel’s 43rd-largest trading partner in 2015 with $145.1 million in product exports, according to Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s office.
Del. Benjamin Kramer, a Democrat who represents District 19 in Montgomery County and is the bill’s lead sponsor in the House of Delegates, said he is confident the legislation can pass because of Maryland’s longstanding cultural and economic relationship with Israel.
“It would be ludicrous to have an entity receiving state tax dollars that would seek to undermine a declaration of cooperation that we have with Israel,” Kramer said, referring to the 1988 Maryland-Israel Exchange. “So I think we have a very valid reason to ensure that Maryland’s best interests with Israel are protected and that we don’t allow our decades-long efforts with Israel to be undermined.”
Three years ago, Kramer and Baltimore City Sen. Joan Carter Conway (D-District 43) introduced a bill in the House and Senate that would have reduced state aid to universities that fund organizations that support BDS. Those bills were tied to the American Studies Association’s boycott of Israel and pitted those in favor of academic freedom against the anti-BDS crowd.
But those bills were amended, removing the threat of financial sanctions.
Instead, Kramer was able to successfully get language passed in the state budget that condemned BDS, making Maryland the first state to pass such a resolution.
Now, Kramer believes this precedent in part has laid the foundation to incorporate similar measures into state law on a larger scale.
“I would not be introducing this legislation if I did not feel that it’s meritorious,” Kramer said. “All I can say is that I’m hopeful, and that I’m working hard and putting forth my best effort to get this passed.”
Meredith Weisel, director of Maryland government and community relations at the JCRC, said all parties are in agreement with the current proposal and that she expects no amendments to be added.
“We feel the structure of the bill is one of the best models anywhere and that it benefits the state of Maryland,” Weisel said. “Everybody is on board with it, and we feel we will be able to generate enough support for this bill.”
Opponents of the anti-BDS effort, however, argue that such bills violate free speech.
“As long as our government sanctions foreign governments for engaging in behavior that we decide we do not like for some reason, the residents of this country have a right to organize and press the government to sanction particular countries and conduct that they find troubling,” American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland spokeswoman Meredith Curtis Goode said via email. “Those who oppose such sanctions have an equal right to express their opposition. But neither side has a right to muzzle the other, or to prevent their view from being expressed or acted on.”
During last year’s session, the BJC and JCRC had discussed pursuing similar anti-BDS legislation before ultimately deciding to put those plans on hold. At the time, BJC officials said, they didn’t feel the BDS movement garnered enough attention to pursue legislation.
BJC executive director Howard Libit said the timing now couldn’t be better, especially with Hogan having just completed a fruitful weeklong trade mission to Israel in late September.
Libit said while he doesn’t give predictions on pending legislation, he said “there is a strong case that the legislature will be supportive” of the bill.
“I don’t want to sound overconfident, but I believe the state’s strong record of support [of Israel] will demonstrate to lawmakers the importance of passing this legislation,” Libit said.
Anti-BDS resolutions have already been passed in 17 states, including Pennsylvania and Virginia.
Del. Dana Stein (D-District 11) said the decision for Maryland to move forward in its continued backing of Israel has “both symbolic and practical impacts.”
“I’m very happy to hear that this is going to be moving forward this session,” Stein said. “The BDS movement is pernicious in its attempt to delegitimize Israel and making the false claim that Israel is an apartheid state.”