Colleges and universities in Pennsylvania that opt to boycott or divest from Israel will be barred from receiving any state funds if a new bill introduced last week in the state House of Representatives becomes law.
State Rep. Steve Santarsiero (D-District 31) of Bucks County is seeking support for House Bill 1018, “Stand with Israel,” a response to the pressure mounting on some campuses for administrations to stop any support of the Jewish state.
The bill has 36 sponsors so far, as well as wide bipartisan support, Santarsiero said at a news conference in Harrisburg last Wednesday.
Santarsiero pointed to a “disturbing trend on college campuses across the United States” to boycott and divest from Israel, a trend he said proceeds “from a false argument that Israel is engaged in discriminatory practices.”
“We do not want to see that trend continue in the commonwealth,” Santarsiero stressed.
Tennessee and Indiana both have enacted nonbinding resolutions condemning institutions that boycott or divest from Israel, Santarsiero noted, but his bill goes further and would impose serious consequences for such actions.
While resolutions can be a great first step, Santarsiero said, “what we need is action.”
He is hoping to get the bill passed and onto the governor’s desk for a signature before the end of the year.
“The State of Israel is the only dependable, democratic ally of the United States in the Middle East,” Santarsiero said. “As such, it is in the interest of
this commonwealth to promote America’s close ties with Israel.”
Pennsylvania recently enacted other legislation that protects U.S. interests in the Middle East, noted co-sponsor Rep. Dan Frankel (D-District 23) of Pittsburgh at the news conference. Those laws include the terror-free investing law — prohibiting public pension funds from investing in foreign companies that have significant business ties with Iran and Sudan — and the terror-free procurement law, which prohibits companies that invest in Iranian energy-related activities from entering into certain procurement contracts with Iran.
“This is another effort to put some teeth in the statement that the insidious effort to condemn Israel and isolate it is unacceptable and we won’t tolerate it,” Frankel said.
Frankel praised both Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh for responding proactively to boycott and divestment pressure by standing with the Association of American Universities in opposing a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.
But supporters of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement influence many other campus administrations across the country, noted Robin Schatz, director of government affairs for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
“What’s going on on campuses spills over into the realm of anti-Semitism,” Schatz said. She praised those representatives sponsoring the bill “for taking this strong stand.”
In response to an audience question regarding whether the new bill would stifle freedom of speech, Santarsiero stressed that the bill would have “no impact” on students’ ability to voice their opinions on campus. Rather, he said, it sends a clear message to the governing bodies of those institutions.
Santarsiero opined that while proponents of the BDS movement “are misinformed,” and any comparison of Israel to apartheid South Africa is “offensive,” a person still has the right to express such opinions.
Hank Butler, executive director of the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition, agreed with Santarsiero’s assessment of the bill. The fact that the bill’s sanctions only apply to an institution’s governing body, Butler said, “removes it from being an issue of freedom of speech.”
The PJC is working with the sponsors of the bill “to move it as fast as we can,” Butler added.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh strongly supports the bill, according to Gregg Roman, director of the Federation’s Community Relations Council.
“We support any effort to limit the ability for the BDS movement to sink its teeth into universities or publicly funded institutions to coopt student organizations, faculties, administrations or any other university official or university-affiliated institution or organization that will result in commercial or trade damage to Israel, Israelis or Israeli companies,” Roman said.
Another measure in support of Israel is set to be introduced in the state Senate by Sen. Stewart Greenleaf (R-District 12) in the form of a resolution condemning boycotts of Israel as well as incidents of anti-Semitism, according to a memorandum from Greenleaf to all Senate members.
Other states have been working on similar bills and measures to counter the effects of the BDS movement against Israel. Just last week, the executive committee of the Illinois state House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill that would prohibit state pension funds from including companies that participate in BDS. The measure has already passed in the Illinois Senate, and will soon go to the full House for a vote.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.