Amid the rising number of hate incidents she has witnessed on Baltimore-area college campuses — from swastikas on buildings, false eviction notices on dorm doors of Jewish students to the vandalism of a Hillel — Taylor Ann Gonzalez felt the need to speak up.
Gonzalez, 28, of Baltimore, is an active community member and educator who believes the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement has given way to such incidents.
So on March 1, Gonzalez, a member of the Baltimore Jewish Council’s leadership development program, made the trek to Annapolis to testify at a state Senate hearing in favor of anti-BDS legislation (House Bill 949/Senate Bill 739) that has been proposed in the Maryland General Assembly.
“Everything we do here in Maryland and in the U.S. when it comes to anti-BDS impacts Israel,” said Gonzalez, a Jew of Cuban descent. “If there’s a piece of legislation that can help support Israel, that’s where I’m going to step in. I think if not me, then who? I think this is a bill that can snowball. If it isn’t passed, then what else can happen?”
That’s why Gonzalez supports the legislation that would prevent companies that participate in the BDS movement from investing in the state retirement and pension system; it would also prohibit them from securing state procurement contracts.
The legislation, introduced in early February, comes during a time when the BDS movement’s increasing visibility around the nation, especially among Palestinian sympathizers and left-wing Jewish organizations, has alarmed Israelis and many of their U.S. supporters.
It has garnered the support of many Jewish state lawmakers and pro-Israel groups such as the BJC and Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington (JCRC).
Opponents counter that the measure would infringe on constitutionally protected free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment and the right to peacefully protest.
Saqib Ali, 42, is a former state delegate and co-founder of Freedom2Boycott in Maryland, a coalition of state-based groups and individuals advocating for the right to support BDS.
During his testimony, Ali said that speaking out against Israeli policy favoring Jewish settlements — including outposts — on Palestinian-claimed land is one of the primary focuses of his coalition. Ali, a Muslim, specifically took issue with what he feels are the unjust conditions under which Palestinians are living in the Israeli-ruled West Bank.
“Israeli settlements are so pernicious because they are designed in a way to specifically prevent the existence of an independent Palestinian state,” said Ali, an American of Pakistani descent who testified at both the House and Senate hearings for the bill.
Abba Poliakoff, president of the BJC, said he hopes to see peace in the Middle East “as soon as possible” but has serious doubt that can be achieved as long as the BDS movement continues.
“How can we, on one hand, support Israel and the state’s relationship with [the country] and, on the other hand, programs that are dedicated to destroying this relationship?” Poliakoff asked.
A History of BDS
Launched by more than 170 Palestinian organizations in 2005, the international BDS movement declares itself a nonviolent movement to pressure Israel into altering its policies.
Specifically, the BDS movement implores companies, organizations and individuals to boycott Israel until it concludes occupations of all Arab lands, guarantees equal rights for Arab citizens and accepts the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to the former homes of their families who were displaced during the founding of the Jewish state.
Donald F. Norris, director of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, questions the constitutionally of measurements aimed at restricting the BDS movement.
“Ever since the Supreme Court ruled that corporations are persons and that money is speech — both really bad decisions as far as I am concerned — then laws that states pass to restrict otherwise permissible behavior will likely run afoul of constitutional protection,” Norris said via email.
In Maryland, as elsewhere around the country, support for Israel and anti-BDS measures is strong among both Democrats and Republicans.
Republican Gov. Larry Hogan said he “will stand strong against this disturbing movement,” Hannah Marr, his spokeswoman, told the JT via email.
She noted a letter Hogan penned to American Jewish Committee (AJC) regional director Alan Ronkin in July 2016 reaffirming the governor’s position to stand in solidarity with Israel. In addition, Hogan was among governors from 45 states to sign an AJC initiative last year condemning the practice of BDS.
While many supporters of Israel have sought to portray the BDS movement as anti-Israel and anti-Semitic, Sammy Alqasem took issue with that characterization.
Alqasem, 24, of Baltimore, volunteers with the Baltimore chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, a national advocacy group that, among other causes, seeks to end Israel’s presence in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Alqasem, who is also a member of Baltimore Palestine Solidarity, said the bill — if passed and signed into law — would do “nothing to protect Jewish Americans from the increasing anti-Semitic attacks in the United States.”
“We need all the help we can get to fight against fascism and ethno-nationalism,” Alqasem said. “But until then, we will continue to waste each other’s time with these bills.”
Sixteen states have implemented laws or executive orders aimed at stopping the BDS movement. In Maryland, lawmakers have grappled with the idea of anti-BDS legislation since 2014.
Del. Benjamin Kramer, the bill’s lead sponsor in the House of Delegates, successfully got language into the state budget three years ago that condemns BDS, making Maryland the first state to pass such a resolution.
He pointed to the 2008 Divestiture from Iran and Sudan Act, which prevents companies that make specific investments in those two countries from doing business with the state, as precedent for his current legislation.
In testimony before his House colleagues, Kramer, a Democrat who represents District 19 in Montgomery County, slammed Jewish organizations that are on board with the BDS movement.
He noted threats by Omar Barghouti, a founder of the BDS movement who has said on record, “We oppose a Jewish state in any part of Palestine. No Palestinian, rational Palestinian, not a sellout Palestinian will ever accept a Jewish state in Palestine.”
As a result, Kramer questioned how anyone could support such an effort that “is intended to delegitimize the democratic State of Israel,” as outlined in his legislation.
“The glaring hypocrisy of the BDS movement is simply blinding,” Kramer said. “A group with the name ‘Jew’ in the title or individuals who tout their Jewish ‘creds’ and support BDS does not make the movement any less hypocritical.”
Jodie Zisow-McClean, 40, of Baltimore, a volunteer with the Jewish Voice for Peace’s Baltimore chapter, told the JT she disputes Kramer’s notion.
“This is very deeply painful to me, especially all of the name-calling,” said Zisow-McClean, who testified at the Senate hearing. “I think we can be on different sides of the issue and not have people comparing us to Nazis for speaking out for human rights.”
She said she and her friends who support the BDS movement have been turned away by several undisclosed synagogues in Baltimore when they’ve tried to hold large-scale open forums on the subject.
Moreover, Zisow-McClean, who has been involved in social activism for more than 20 years, feels the state is attempting to silence her with the legislation.
“We don’t stay silent in the face of injustice,” Zisow-McClean said. “We speak out. We stand together.”
Economic and Policy Issues
If BDS supporters in Maryland want to protest against Israel and avoid doing business with the Jewish state, proponents of the legislation say they have the right to do so.
Officials from the BJC and JCRC argue the legislation would be a safeguard to protect the longstanding fruitful economic partnership that Maryland and Israel have developed in recent decades.
“Maryland has a number of economic programs with the State of Israel to enhance trade and commercial activity,” said Poliakoff, who spent eight years as chairman of the Maryland/Israel Development Center (MIDC).
Barry Bogage, executive director of the MIDC, said there are nearly 35 Israeli companies in the state that employ hundreds of residents. There are plans to bring more Israeli companies to the state, but Bogage fears that if the bill were to fail, it would be a major setback.
In 2016, the most recent year for which data is available, Bogage noted Maryland exported more than $220 million in products to Israel, doubling the total from each of the two previous years.
“Passing this legislation sends a strong message to Israeli companies that Maryland wants to do business with them,” Bogage said. “If Maryland does not pass this legislation, we are sending a message that Maryland is not a place welcoming them to do business.”
Sen. Bobby Zirkin, a Democrat who represents District 11 in Baltimore County and is the bill lead’s sponsor in the Senate, feels the BDS movement specifically was designed to do nothing more than undermine Israel’s economy.
“These are economic boycotts, and they are not protected forms of speech,” Zirkin said. “[The boycotts] are commercial activity.”
Along with Kramer and Zirkin, a number of other Jewish lawmakers have given their support to the legislation. Among Kramer’s colleagues and co-sponsors in the House are Dels. Sandy Rosenberg (D-District 41), Shelly Hettleman (D-District 11), Dan Morhaim (D-District 11) and Dana Stein (D-District 11).
Despite an overwhelming amount of support from Jewish legislators, not all are willing to give their seal of approval.
Del. Jimmy Tarlau (D-District 47A), the grandson of a rabbi, told the JT he supports Israel but is not “happy with the current policies right now” under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“If people want to protest Israel in the hopes of them changing what some may see as unjust policies, then I feel they should have the right to do so,” said Tarlau, who did not testify at either of the hearings. “Why should the state have the ability to get in the way of that?”
For other BDS supporters, they believe it isn’t the state’s place to intervene on international matters.
Kareem El-Hosseiny, a member of American Muslims for Palestine, deems the bill as putting “the interests of a foreign country ahead of American citizens,” something he staunchly contests.
“Not only is the bill unconstitutional, but it is offensive toward our values as Americans,” El-Hosseiny said. “This bill disrespects the education I received here [in the U.S.] that taught me the beauty of discourse, the power of a strong voice and the courage to speak out against injustice when I see it.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland has taken no position on the boycott itself, but the organization says it opposes the bill and questions the motives of state lawmakers.
“It is inimical to democratic principles,” the ALCU wrote of the legislation. “The bill penalizes a point of view deemed unacceptable by government officials. It would allow the state to assume the role of censor in matters of political controversy.”
Zachor Legal Institute, a nonprofit foundation that specializes in constitutional law, through written testimony challenged that sentiment. The think tank wrote that the bill would in no way infringe on Marylanders’ abilities to voice their opinions against Israel or avoid doing business with the Jewish state.
“House Bill 949 is simply an exercise of Maryland’s proprietary power to spend or invest state funds in a manner that reflects the moral and economic interests of the people of the state of Maryland,” Zachor Legal Institute wrote.
Outside the General Assembly, the bill has received strong endorsements from both locally and nationally elected officials. Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, Maryland U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin and state Comptroller Peter Franchot, all Democrats, each submitted written testimony to both the House and Senate urging favorable reports on the bill.
Sarah Mersky, director of government relations at the BJC, sees the bipartisan unity of support from Hogan, Franchot and Kamenetz as perhaps one of the biggest hallmarks of the legislation.
“What other bill this year can claim support from all three?” Mersky asked Senate Budget and Taxation Committee members at the hearing.