Anti-BDS legislation stalls in Senate

By Eric Berger, Staff Writer

The Democratic state senator who sponsored a bill that seeks to combat the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel said last week that it does not look as though the measure is “moving forward.”

According to the sponsor, that’s because a Republican lawmaker plans to filibuster the bill, which would require companies that receive state contracts to certify that they will not engage in a boycott of Israel. 

Opponents of the legislation, including the American Civil Liberties Union, have said it violates free speech rights. 

State Sen. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur, said she and her Republican co-sponsor have talked to Sen. Rob Schaaf, who is opposed to the legislation and plans to filibuster it, but “he doesn’t seem willing to back off that stance.” 

Schaaf declined to comment.

Proponents of the legislation include Jewish organizations such as Jewish Federation of St. Louis, and business groups like BioSTL, an organization that seeks to attract Israeli start-ups to St. Louis, and the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

They say that the legislation is necessary to fight efforts to destroy Israel and strengthen economic ties between Missouri and Israel. Twenty-four states have approved similar legislation. 

“We are trying to become one more state that says we will not support economic policies that undermine our Democratic friend and ally, Israel,” said Schupp, who is Jewish. Proponents of the legislation said they are not aware of any company that has promoted a boycott of Israel and tried to receive a state contract.

The House approved the legislation by a 111-35 vote, with a majority of Democrats voting against the legislation.

State Rep. Deb Lavender, D-Kirkwood, said she was opposed to the bill because she thinks it violates the First Amendment. She also said she sees the anti-boycott effort as a matter of foreign policy.

“And I don’t think as a state representative of the Kirkwood-Glendale area that I have been given any powers at all to create foreign policy,” said Lavender. “Israel is an ally and I have a great respect for the people of Israel — both in Israel and the United States.”

State Rep. Sue Meredith, D- St. Louis County, voted in favor of the legislation because she said Israel is surrounded by “four countries that really don’t like them….I think we do need to support Israel.”

On the ACLU’s opposition, Meredith, who is Jewish, said, “I hadn’t given it any thought. Sometimes I think they are spot on and sometimes, I think, ‘Huh?’ ”  

In January, a judge in Kansas ruled in a lawsuit filed by the ACLU on behalf of an educator that the state cannot enforce a similar law because it violates the plaintiff’s First Amendment rights. The organization has also filed a lawsuit against an anti-boycott law in Arizona. 

Schupp said she did not think the bill “would draw the kind of controversy that it has, but here we are, and we are going to keep trying to move this legislation forward.”

Supporters of the legislation say the bill does not target individuals that seek to boycott or promote a boycott of Israel but rather just companies. Therefore it does not violate a person’s First Amendment rights. 

Despite Schupp’s prognosis, Jenny Wolkowitz, one of the St. Louis residents promoting the legislation, said proponents still think the bill could gain senate approval. (Wolkowitz is a past president of the Jewish Light.)

She said supporters are sending transcripts to senators of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ speech in which he said the Jews caused the Holocaust with their “social behavior” and claimed that Jews have no historical connection to the land of Israel. 

The aim, Wolkowitz said, is to “give further evidence that this bill is specific to Israel and just about anti-discrimination because Israel is targeted by Abbas and all its detractors.”