Missouri legislators introduce anti-BDS bills

Missouri Capitol Building

By Eric Berger, Associate Editor

Missouri state lawmakers have again introduced legislation to bar certain companies from receiving state contracts if they engage in a boycott of Israel.

But in a change from similar 2018 legislation, two of the new bills stipulate that companies are not only precluded from boycotting Israel but also “territories under its control,” referring to West Bank settlements. A third bill does not make that addition.

The inclusion of boycotts targeting that territory has caused the Jewish state senator who cosponsored the legislation last year and the Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis to distance themselves from the two bills. JCRC is supporting the legislation that does not include language about the territories.

“The reason I haven’t signed on as a cosponsor is because it added the territories, and I think that just brings it to a new level of divisiveness that I’m not comfortable with,” said State Sen. Jill Schupp, a Democrat from St. Louis County. (She said she would also likely support the legislation that does not include the territories if it advances from the House to the Senate.)

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A bipartisan group of lawmakers and supporters such as Jewish Federation of St. Louis tried to pass similar legislation last year in response to the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, but the bill failed due to a filibuster from a Republican state senator.

Other changes between this year and last year’s legislation are related to the size of companies that would be subject to the law. 

Opponents of such legislation, including the American Civil Liberties Union, have said it violates individuals’ free speech rights. Supporters of the bill counter that the legislation targets companies, not individuals.

In response to the free speech concern and potential legal challenges, the sponsors said the law would apply only to companies with a value of more than $100,000 and at least 10 employees. Last year, the figure in an amended bill was $10,000. 

“We don’t want to infringe on individual rights,” said State Rep. Holly Rehder, a Republican from Sikeston, who sponsored the bill that does not include the territories. 

Rehder and other proponents of anti-BDS legislation said they were not aware of a company that had supported a boycott of Israel and tried to do business with the state.

Sen. Bob Onder and Rep. Ron Hicks, both Republicans from St. Charles, sponsored the other two bills. They did not respond to requests for comment. 

“The way I see it, BDS efforts are an attempt to harm America’s staunchest ally, and at worst, attempt to destroy the state of Israel,” Onder told the Forward. 

Rehder thinks the legislation has a better chance of passing this year than last year. Rob Schaaf, the Republican state senator who filibustered the bill last year, reached his term limit in 2018. 

“With anything that goes through these bodies, it takes a little bit of time — especially with new concepts — for people to understand,” said Rehder, who has traveled to Israel twice on trips sponsored by Jewish Federation and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). She said she proposed the legislation because of her experience in Israel “and understanding of the level of discrimination that they go through on a daily basis and the level of threats that they are under … I think it’s time for someone here in Missouri to tell their story.”

Twenty-seven states have passed anti-BDS laws, according to the Jewish Virtual Library. 

Traci Goldstein, co-president of St. Louis Friends of Israel, said she supported the move to change the bill to include the territories, which she referred to with the biblical names Judea and Samaria. 

The land “indigenously belongs to the Jewish people, and to leave that out creates confusion and puts their back against the wall, so there’s definitely a preference for the language to be all inclusive,” said Goldstein. 

The American Jewish Committee- St. Louis supports the new legislation, including the language on territories, Regional Director Nancy Lisker said. 

“The inclusion of language in some of the proposed legislation referring to territories currently under Israel’s control, does not address the question of what Israel’s borders will be when a peace agreement is reached. This is not what this legislation is intended for,” Lisker said. “The purpose of the anti-boycott legislation is to allow Missouri full access to a range of goods and services in the market place, and nothing more.”  

But the JCRC sees including the territories in the bill as the state potentially stepping into international relations, according to its Executive Director Rori Picker Neiss.

“When the legislations’ focus is on state contracts, I think that’s a place where the legislature has a very important role to play,” she said. “But when it starts making decisions on the status of territory that is contested and that hopefully will be resolved as part of an ultimate peace agreement, I think that becomes a lot more complicated.”

 JCRC still opposes the BDS movement, but has “become far more interested in finding ways that we can support investment in the region rather than opposing divestment,” Picker Neiss said. The organization is focusing on federal legislation to provide government support for a $200 million International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace, which would go towards “joint economic development and civil society projects,” according to the fund. 

The ACLU still sees the anti-BDS legislation as a violation of people’s First Amendment rights despite the change regarding the size of companies. Federal courts have blocked anti-BDS laws in Arizona and Kansas. The ACLU has also filed lawsuits in Arkansas and Texas

“It’s sort of like the old joke, ‘You can’t be a little bit pregnant; you either are or you aren’t.’ You can’t be a little bit violative of the First Amendment; you either do or you don’t,” said Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of ACLU of Missouri. “We can all agree or disagree on the actions of the Israeli government in the settlements, and whether or not we agree or disagree on the wisdom of the BDS movement, and whether or not we agree or disagree on what’s motivating the BDS movement. We can all agree that as Americans, the right to protest, the right to free speech, the right to engage in peaceful petitions of our governments, the right to engage in economic and political boycotts, are central to the right of being Americans.”

JCRC and the Center for Jewish Learning are hosting an event focused on anti-BDS legislation with Mittman, along with Stephanie Hausner, deputy director of the Israel Action Network, a Federation-funded initiative that aims to combat the BDS movement; and Elai Rettig, an Israel Institute teaching fellow in Washington University’s Department of Jewish, Islamic and Near Eastern Languages and Cultures. Deborah Price, a JCRC Board member, will moderate. The event is scheduled for 7 p.m. on April 1 at the Kaplan Feldman Complex, 12 Millstone Campus Drive.