Arizona lawmakers are wading into the hot-button area of international politics with legislation to bar state and local governments from doing business with any firm that won’t do business with Israel.
House Speaker David Gowan said he wants to use the economic strength of the state to undermine the international Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement. Proponents of that are targeting Israeli policies ranging from settlements on the West Bank to claims of apartheid.
The Sierra Vista Republican, who also is running for Congress, said the BDS movement urges people to boycott companies that do business with Israel in hopes of convincing them to change their policies. Gowan told members of the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday he sees HB2617 as a counter.
“We want to take a movement here and make sure we push back on any effect like that,” he said. “Arizona and its governments would say ‘no’ to anything like that horrible way of using businesses in discrimination.”
Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, acknowledged Israel is “a strong, free, democratic state in a part of the world that doesn’t have many of those.” But he said it’s precisely for that reason that Arizona should not try to use its clout in this way.
He said HB2617 is built on the flawed assumption that all Israelis and all Jews support that country’s current policies. But being an “active, free-market democracy,” he said people thinking different ways.
Farley specifically cited Jewish Voices for Peace which has a mission of seeking an end to Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.
“It’s ironic that we are putting together the power of the state to coerce a business to not do business with someone they may want to do business with because we’ve decided politically that it’s not something we think is politically correct,” he said. “And we do this in the guise of a democracy defending another democracy.”
HB2617 specifically says public agencies cannot enter into contracts with any company unless the deal includes “written certification that the company is not currently engaged in, and agrees for the duration of the contract to not engage in, a boycott of Israel.”
It also requires the state treasurer and pension systems to sell off holdings in such companies.
Former Republican state Rep. Adam Kwasman lent his voice for the measure, calling Israel “an island of liberty in a sea of terrorism.” And Lisa Karlovsky called the BDS movement “economic terrorism.”
But Liban Yousaf, the civil rights director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations of Arizona, called the legislation to penalize companies that boycott Israel “a dangerous infringement on our free speech.”
“Boycotts hold a revered station in American history, from our forefathers boycotting the tyrannical policies of the British crown to the Montgomery (Alabama) bus boycotts,” he told lawmakers. He said the legislation seeks to punish companies “who refuse to become complicit in legitimizing unlawful settlements in Palestinian lands based on their valid moral and financial concerns.”
Sen. Steve Yarbrough, R-Chandler, said the logic of the argument escaped him. He said the legislation itself amounts to a boycott, the very thing that Yousaf is professing to admire.
Yousaf responded that misses the point.
“We shouldn’t be punishing people who want to engage in boycotts,” he said.
Farley had his own questions about the legislation.
“What I’m doubting is that it’s a good idea for government to decide to use its force to tell a private business who it can and cannot do business with,” he said.
“You have your vote,”’ Gowan responded.
Wednesday’s 4-1 vote sends the measure to the full Senate. It already has been approved by the House on a 46-14 margin.
A separate measure by House Majority Leader Steve Montenegro, R-Litchfield Park, would require the state to divest investments in any company that does business with the government of Iran. But that measure, HCR2040, has stalled amid concerns raised by some of the pension funds.