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Kansas anti-BDS bill advances

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The Kansas State Capital building in Topeka.

A bill is moving through the Kansas Legislature that would prohibit the state from awarding contracts to any company engaged in an anti-Israeli boycott or adopting any policy that would support such a boycott.

The Kansas Senate amended and passed House Bill 2409 on June 3 by a vote of 28-9. The bill now returns to the Kansas House of Representatives, which had originally passed it on April 4 by a 116-9 margin. 

If the House approves the Senate’s amended version, then the bill will go to Gov. Sam Brownback and become law if he signs it.

The bill was proposed in response to the BDS movement — Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions — a Palestinian-led initiative intended to increase economic and political pressure on Israel.

If the current version of the bill becomes law, then the state would require written certificates from service, supply, IT and construction contractors that they aren’t boycotting the Jewish state. HB 2409 would authorize the Kansas secretary of administration to approve contracts or to “waive application of this section on any contract with any state agency if the secretary determines that compliance is not practicable or in the best interest of the state.”

Nineteen states have passed similar legislation, said Jacob Millner, who works with The Israel Project (TIP) and is based in Minneapolis. Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval signed a bill into law opposing BDS on June 2, and other states passed similar laws earlier this year. 

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order in June 2016 directing state entities to divest all public funds that support the BDS campaign against Israel.

TIP has been working on the Kansas legislation for about a year, Millner said. The organization, based in Washington, D.C., has been working on the issue nationally since the fall of 2015.

Proponents of BDS want “to destroy Israel, ultimately,” he said, “but they’ll tell you that their motive is nonviolent resistance.”

AJC issued a news release on May 17 saying that all 50 U.S. governors — including Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback and Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens — and the mayor of Washington, D.C., had joined the organization’s efforts “to affirm their rejection of the BDS … movement against Israel.”

“Governors across our country know very well the enormous value of the U.S.-Israel partnership in every sphere imaginable, and many have been central to nurturing their own state’s beneficial ties to Israel,” AJC CEO David Harris said in the release. “At the same time, our nation’s 50 governors, as well as the District of Columbia mayor, recognize the pernicious goals of the BDS movement, which singles out Israel from among all the nations of the world for relentless and undue criticism, and whose efforts undermine the prospects for advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace.”

Margie Robinow, owner of The Robinow Group and Israel Tradesource LLC, both based in Overland Park, said that she had been working to support the proposed Kansas legislation since February by seeking out legislators who were interested in opposing BDS and that she had been “working on the concept a long time.”

Robinow said she knew of no company that participated in BDS that Kansas was doing business with, but she said that opposing it was important for several reasons.

“We do a large amount of business, over $100 million of bilateral trade, with Israel,” she said, adding that when companies are boycotted “Kansas loses trade and jobs, and we can’t afford that.”

“I believe the boycott promotes anti-Semitism and anti-Israeli sentiments, too,” she said. “Our parents fought it, our grandparents fought it, and it’s important that we stand up to it, too.”

Kansas exported to Israel commodities worth $56.7 million and imported from Israel commodities worth $83.7 million in 2016, said David Soffer, director of marketing and research at the Kansas Department of Commerce. A law prohibiting the state from doing business with companies that support BDS would be more than ceremonial, he said.

“I think it sends a message that when (Israel-based) Teva Pharmaceuticals decides to make Kansas its home, we’re making sure they can conduct business accordingly, and we’re protecting them and their investments,” Soffer said. “Our goal in a perfect world would be that we’d never have to use this law, but it’s important that we send the message that we’re supportive of companies that make Kansas home and of Israel. It’s protecting any company that wants to do business here in Kansas and make sure they’re not being targeted because of where they come from.” 

Various people in the local Jewish community helped Robinow lobby Kansas legislators about the bill, including John Isenberg and Victor Bergman, who organized a letter-writing campaign, she said. Millner provided technical support. Christians United for Israel also provided support, and the Adam and Gila Milstein Family Foundation provided legal assistance.

Robinow said she hadn’t spoken with Brownback about the bill. The governor’s office doesn’t make statements about pending legislation, but Brownback “has repeatedly expressed support for Israel.”

“As long as it’s presented to him without any additions or changes, I think he’ll sign it,” she said. 

Robinow started Israel Tradesource in the fall of 2016 as a sole practitioner. According to its website, the company was founded “by a diverse group of friends to promote fair trade and peaceful coexistence based on mutual trust and a belief in the value of creativity. We provide global opportunities for people of all cultures, races and backgrounds to earn an income based on the quality of their work in a fair trade environment. Presently our focus is the people of Israel.”

Robinow also is president of the local chapter of the Republican Jewish Coalition, and she is a member of Congregation Beth Israel Abraham & Voliner.

“I did not approach the anti-BDS legislation as a Republican or Democrat but as an advocate for Israel and someone who believes this is a bipartisan issue and wants to organize support from all sides,” she said. “In a bipartisan way, I believe it’s important for Kansas to make a statement to the rest of the country about our support for the Israel.”