State lawmakers are wading into the conflict in the Middle East as they consider legislation that would put Maryland squarely on the side of Israel against critics who would boycott the Jewish state.
Companies that take part in an international movement to refuse to do business in Israel or its occupied territories could be denied state contracts and pension fund investments under legislation filed this week in the General Assembly.
Proponents say the legislation is aimed at thwarting the Palestinian-led Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which they portray as an effort to destroy Israel. Opponents contend the measure is an effort to squelch constitutionally protected free speech and nonviolent political organizing.
Donald F. Norris, director of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said both sides are pushing action "to feel better about themselves."
"It's one side trying to make headlines that hurt the other — knowing full well that it would possibly have no impact other than symbolically," Norris said.
The Maryland legislation is part of a national effort by pro-Israel groups to marginalize a movement that has won support from a broad coalition, ranging from advocates for the Palestinians, to mainstream Protestant organizations, to left-leaning Jewish groups that oppose the policies of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
More than a dozen states have adopted laws or executive orders targeting the BDS movement, which has gained only modest traction in the United States.
Del. Benjamin F. Kramer, the chief sponsor in the House of Delegates, said the bill's chances are good in a legislature where pro-Israeli sympathies are strong. It has bipartisan sponsorship in both the House and state Senate, where the Republican leaders have joined senior Democrats in signing on.
"There's a very good possibility once the members of the body have a better understanding what the issue is, what the relevance is and why this is the appropriate action to take," said Kramer, a Montgomery County Democrat.
"For those who assert their right to boycott, it would be hypocritical for them not to recognize that there is still that same fundamental right to boycott the boycotters," Kramer said.
Gov. Larry Hogan will take "a very close look" at the legislation, said Doug Mayer, his spokesman. He pointed to a statement issued by AJC: Global Jewish Advocacy that was endorsed by Hogan and two-dozen other governors condemning the BDS movement's "pernicious goals."
But Saqib Ali, a former state delegate who founded the group Freedom to Boycott, said the issue is using state power to demonize his point of view.
"This is really about punishing those who support Palestinian human rights," he said.
Ali, an American of Pakistani descent, said companies taking part in the boycott are primarily expressing their opposition to Israel's policy of building settlements in the disputed West Bank. While the U.S. government does not recognize Israeli sovereignty over the occupied land, the legislation explicitly applies to companies that boycott or divest from businesses in the Israeli-occupied territories.
In its preamble, the bill declares that the BDS movement is "intended to delegitimatize the democratic state of Israel."
It's a view endorsed by Howard Libit, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council. The council is lobbying for passage of the legislation.
"We don't want to be doing business or spending our state procurement dollars with companies that are participating in a movement to destroy Israel," Libit said.
Ali disputed Libit's premise.
"It's ridiculous. I don't want to destroy Israel. They have no evidence," he said. "How can the claim to know my motivations when I am stating very clearly that I support the existence of Israel as a democracy?"
According to its website, the international BDS movement was launched in 2005 to urge companies and organizations to avoid doing business with Israel, to refuse to invest in Israeli entities and to support sanctions against the country. It bills itself as a nonviolent campaign to pressure Israel to change its policies.
Its demands include an end to Israeli settlements in the West Bank and equal treatment of Israeli citizens of Arab descent. But the one that alarms Israel and its backers is the so-called "right of return" for Palestinians displaced during the founding of the Jewish state. To many Israelis, that right would permit a Palestinian influx that could fundamentally alter the Jewish character of the nation.
For some BDS supporters, however, changing Israeli policy favoring Jewish settlements on Arab-claimed land is the primary goal.
Susan Kerin is a member of the Catholic peace group Pax Christi. She traveled to Annapolis to work against the bill, and saying that policy change is her aim.
"We want to use nonviolence to promote peace and we think the settlements are thwarting peace," she said. "We're trying to accomplish an end to settlements and put leverage on Israel to come back to the [negotiating] table," she said.
The legislation has significant support among Jewish lawmakers, in addition to Kramer. Among his House co-sponsors are Dels. Sandy Rosenberg, of Baltimore, and Shelly Hettleman, of Baltimore County, both Democrats.
Its Senate sponsor is Sen. Bobby Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat who chairs the Judicial Proceedings Committee.
But not all Jewish lawmakers are on board. Del. Jimmy Tarlau is a Prince George's County Democrat and grandson of a rabbi. Tarlau said he supports Israel, but opposes many of the government's policies.
"I feel that companies boycotting Israel in order to change their policy is a legitimate way to protest," he said. "This is not the right issue for the Maryland legislature to get involved in."
Proponents say there is precedent for Maryland's intervention in Middle East affairs. They point to the state's adoption of sanctions barring state investments in companies doing business in Iran.
There is one key difference, however. The Iran sanctions bar companies that make specific investments in that country. The BDS sanctions would penalize those that decline to invest in Israeli interests but only if — as Kramer acknowledged — they publicly identify themselves as supporters of the BDS movement.
That is where the bill stumbles over the First Amendment, said Rahul Saksena, a staff attorney with the Chicago-based advocacy group Palestine Legal.
"The state cannot engage in this type of viewpoint discrimination," Saksena said. "They're singling out those companies that have taken a First Amendment political position on this issue."
Kramer denies the legislation would infringe on the rights of boycotters. He pointed to the strong economic relationship forged through Maryland's Declaration of Cooperation with Israel.
"There is nothing unconstitutional about saying we do not want to use taxpayer funds that would undermine state policy," he said.
Norris questioned whether that logic will hold up in court.
"Now that the Supreme Court has told us money is speech, it will have First Amendment implications, which would make it unconstitutional," he said.