Discrimination and free speech were strong buzzwords at a Massachusetts State House hearing Tuesday, where lawyers, legislators, faith leaders, and organizers testified both for and against a proposed bill which could chill and even penalize a state contractor’s right to boycott. The bill, titled “An Act prohibiting discrimination in state contracts,” is a thinly-veiled guise to penalize supporters of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which uses nonviolent economic practices to protest the Israeli occupation and mistreatment of Palestinian peoples.
Proponents of the bill—including members of the Jewish Community Relations Council, who introduced the legislation—argued these claims of boycotting are discriminatory, particularly against Israeli-American Jews. The opposition—led by a coalition including Massachusetts Peace Action, Jewish Voice for Peace, and the Alliance for Water Justice in Palestine—brought light to the fact that the BDS movement targets Israel’s policies, not their people, and anti-discrimination laws are already present in Massachusetts, making this bill a moot point. Additionally, the bill threatens a contractor’s First Amendment right to boycott.
Supporters of the bill included many Israeli-Americans who claim to have faced discrimination in the business world due to anti-Semitism rooted in the BDS movement. Testifiers also included a 90-year-old Holocaust survivor and a 16-year-old high school student concerned for her future. While those pushing for the bill played on these emotional testimonies, the opposition brought facts.
"The BDS movement targets Israeli, not Jewish, organizations," said Joseph Levine, a department chair at UMass Amherst. "It has to do with targeting a state for its policies… I do think [this bill] is being mislabeled and misused."
Katherine Franke, a professor of law and representative from the Center for Constitutional Rights, said this bill is "a solution in search of a problem" and the discrimination that was noted in the day's testimonies is already prohibited. "There is no gap in the law," she said.
Many other testifiers on the opposition noted the Israeli occupation's gross mistreatment of the Palestinian people, explaining the BDS movement's value as the only nonviolent option for the world to defend Arab-Palestinians. This included Jewish representatives, Israeli-Americans, and a Palestinian-American.
Tali Ruskin, organizer for the Boston chapter of the Jewish Voice for Peace, spoke of her own Jewish upbringing and her travels to Israel. "What I have witnessed has led me to support the Palestinian struggle for liberation through the nonviolent means of BDS," she said. "I ask you to join me in this struggle for justice by rejecting this legislation."
State Senator William Brownsberger and Representative Mike Connolly spoke against the bill, saying while discrimination is a problem, this bill does not address it properly and free speech needs to be protected. Many senators and representatives testified in favor of the bill, saying taxpayers' dollars should not be used to discriminate and this bill will help reinforce Massachusetts's stance against discrimination. One representative claimed this bill "is not about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," provoking laughter and jeers from the audience.
The Joint Committee for State Administration and Regulatory Oversight, the ultimate deciders of the bill, listened to testimonies all day, from 11am to late evening. Newly elected Chairwoman Jennifer Benson consistently questioned proponents about the difference between a boycott and discrimination, calling it a "murky issue." Representative Denise Provost had many questions about the need for this bill, and voiced concerns over Section B, which essentially states discrimination is acceptable if it is complying to federal or state sanctions. These and other members examined how the implementation of the bill would function alongside already-existing anti-discrimination laws.
After a long day full of testimonies ranging from fact-checked and educated to overly passionate, the hearing concluded around 6:30 pm. The verdict now rests with the joint committee, who must decide by March 2018 if they will join the list of states who have voted to chill constitutionally-protected boycotting.