Senate Panel Moves Amended Proposal

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Senate Panel Moves Amended Proposal Aimed At Groups Boycotting Israel

Article reprinted from Gongwer News Servce.

Dozens of mostly opponent witnesses testified Wednesday on a bill that bars state agencies from contracting with companies involved in the movement to boycott or disinvest from Israel before it passed a Senate committee.

The bill advanced after several hours of testimony even though witnesses were limited to three minutes. While opponents questioned the constitutionality of the proposal, backers maintained the boycott movement was counterproductive and divisive.

It cleared the Senate Government Oversight & Reform Committee, but only after an hours-long delay created by a recess and then the beginning of the upper chamber's session.

Before the legislation was reported, a substitute version was adopted. It was broadened to cover any nation the U.S. conducts open trade with and does not apply to any nation with which the country has a trade embargo.

The panel rejected an amendment offered by Sen. Michael Skindell (D-Lakewood) that would have exempted any company with no overseas business that contracts with state agencies from signing a contract with the anti-boycott language.

However, Sen. Bill Seitz (R-Cincinnati) raised concern about the proposed amendment, saying that it could create a loophole through subsidiaries.

Critics of the measure largely characterized it as an infringement on free speech rights.

"Could or should the Ohio General Assembly forbid state contracts to those who refused to support Hillary Clinton for president? Or sever contracts with those supporting the Second Amendment? Or maybe those who opposed Roe v. Wade?" Gary Daniels, chief lobbyist of the ACLU of Ohio, asked the panel.

Chairman Sen. Bill Coley (R-Liberty Twp.) questioned whether Mr. Daniels' organization would oppose the measure if it was targeted at a boycott or disinvestment movement of any other nation.

"It's not the job of the state of Ohio to monitor what their contractors are doing," he replied. Eric Resnick of the Free Speech Coalition of Ohio and Northwest Ohio Free Speech Alliance said the goal behind the movement to boycott, divest and sanction Israel is to end human rights abuses against Palestinians.

"This is an attempt to use the power of the state of Ohio to silence those who seek justice for Palestinians, and who want Israel to end its abusive occupation and apartheid, and be held accountable for ethnic cleansing," he said. "Should you enact this bill, shame on you. History will judge you as it does those who aided and abetted the South African National Party, the Bosnian Serbs, and the Hutu extremists in Rwanda."

Amina Barhum, who told the panel that her work with children has inspired her to be "audaciously truthful," said the legislation has the potential to not only stifle speech, but also activism.

"The bill is a sorry attempt to silence those that seek justice against these injustices. Without this political voice, without this tool, what is their alternative? The alternative is violence. And for those that stand before me who seek to find peace for Palestinians and Israelis - who seek to end the perpetual conflict - this bill blatantly undermines this ability," she said. Pamela Beck of the United Church of Christ Palestine-Israel Network also told the panel that the bill is unconstitutional.

"If the State of Ohio blocks peaceful protest and free speech rights via HB 476, then the state of Ohio denies the rights of its own citizens and becomes complicit in the Israeli policies and acts of human rights abuses against Palestinians," she said. Others, however, took the opposite view, calling the movement to boycott, disinvest or sanction Israel an attempt to harm the Jewish state.

"It is more about animus towards the Jews and Israel than about rectifying the plight of the Palestinians," Austin Reid, president of the Capital Jewish Student Association, said.

Former lawmaker Eric Fingerhut, who now serves as the president and CEO of Hillel International, told the panel that the movement has had a negative impact on college campuses.

"In pursuing their harmful agenda on campus, they divide students and student groups from the other, they create a hostile environment for supporters of Israel on campus, and they foster an environment in which anti-Semitism on campus has become all too real a problem and is dramatically rising," he wrote.

The Cincinnati and Cleveland regional offices of American Jewish Committee told the panel in written testimony that the measure does not run afoul of the First Amendment, as some opponents claimed.

"The state of Ohio is not required by any provision of the U.S. Constitution to join in, support or reinforce the boycott of Israel," the groups wrote.

Benjamin Golsky, of the Cleveland Jewish Federation, briefed the panel on the Jewish community’s partnerships in the region and state. He said that while their opinions are diverse on a number of subjects, “They agree on this: the path to peace is not by boycotts, but connections.”

“Israel’s most ardent doves and her hardest right activists agree: BDS is wrong, it is immoral, and it is dangerous,” he said. “BDS hurts Ohio.

It hurts Israel. It hurts Israel’s Arab neighbors. And it pushes peace farther back.”

Following Mr. Golsky's testimony, Sen. Skindell and Sen. Coley exchanged words as the latter sought to rephrase a question from the minority member.

"It's not for you to understand the question. It's for the witness to understand the question," Sen. Skindell shouted, before adding, "You interrupt me all the time in these committees and I'm getting tired of it."

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