Local Politician Works to Craft a Statewide Response to BDS


A Bucks County state lawmaker has introduced legislation in Harrisburg that would ban state funding for any university or college that decides to boycott or divest from companies that do business with Israel. 

A Bucks County state lawmaker has introduced legislation in Harrisburg that would ban state funding for any university or college that decides to boycott or divest from companies that do business with Israel. 
The bill put forth by state Rep. Steve Santarsiero of Lower Makefield, a Jewish Democrat who is running for U.S. Congress, is believed to be the first state legislation proposed nationwide that specifically targets college campuses, which have seen an increase in anti-Israel activity in recent years.
In pushing the legislation and criticizing President Ba­rack Obama’s policy toward Israel in an interview with the Jewish Exponent, Santarsiero, who is aiming to replace Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, a Republican in the 8th District, appears to be positioning himself to run with strong pro-Israel credentials at a time when there is a divide in the Democratic Party over U.S. policy toward Israel.
It is not yet clear whether the proposed legislation will get widespread backing from Jewish organizations or what kind of support it will receive among lawmakers in the General Assembly. 
Leaders of several Jewish organizations in Pennsylvania, including the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition, say they support the idea behind the measure in principle, but have not yet decided whether to officially back it. 
Despite widespread concern over the growth of the BDS movement, no governing body of a Pennsylvania institution of higher learning has considered whether to support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, known as BDS, which aims to put economic pressure on Israel and force it to change its policies toward the Palestinians. Others wonder if the state legislature has the legal right to prevent schools from spending money how they wish and if such legislation would withstand a court challenge on constitutional grounds.
The increase in anti-Israel activity on college campuses in recent years has been documented by the Anti-Defamation League, which tracked 520 anti-Israel activities over the past academic year, compared to 375 during the 2013-2014 academic year. Student groups at 29 campuses have also taken votes on whether to support the BDS movement, according to the organization.
Santarsiero, an attorney and former teacher who has served in the State House since 2008, said that although the problem has not yet been seen in Pennsylvania, “we should act before that becomes an issue.”
“The fact that it hasn’t yet happened doesn’t mean that it won’t, and if anything, underscores the need to act before it happens to prevent it from happening ever,” said Santarsiero. 
The Illinois legislature recently approved a bill — which the governor said he would sign — that prevents the state’s pension fund from investing in companies that boycott Israel, but Santarsiero said he was not aware of a bill similar to his proposal in other states.
Meanwhile, Pennsylvania state Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, a Republican representing Bucks and Montgomery counties, has introduced a non-binding resolution — similar to ones passed in Indiana and Tennessee — condemning the BDS movement and said he plans to introduce legislation similar to Santarsiero’s in the Senate.
Representatives from the Jewish Federation and the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition, which lobbies on behalf of federations across the state, joined Santarsiero at a news conference in Harrisburg announcing the proposal in May, but the organizations have not yet declared whether they support the bill.
“We have to talk about this as committees to get a consensus, but saying that, I think the fact that there is such leadership and concern about Israel and how it is being marginalized, that’s encouraging that it’s something that has garnered attention” from legislators, said Robin Schatz, director of government affairs for the local Jewish Federation.
The lack of vocal support from some Jewish organizations — in addition to the fact that the legislature just started a new session on June 1 after a two-week recess — stems in part from questions over whether the state has the legal right to implement such a law. The ADL is still examining the bill to see if it would pass constitutional challenges, according to Nancy Baron-Baer, executive director of the organization’s Philadelphia and South New Jersey region.
The American Jewish Committee has similar concerns and does not support the bill.
“Even though we think BDS is morally unjustified and counterproductive to helping the Palestinians achieve independence, we don’t think” the bill is the “right way” to counter the movement, said Marcia Bronstein, regional director of AJC. With such legislation, “it will then become an academic freedom and free-speech issue.”
In Harrisburg, Steve Miskin, spokes­man for House Republicans, downplayed the need for such legislation, pointing to the fact that no Pennsylvania school boards have considered endorsing boycotts or divestment.
“It seems to be more of an issue in California,” where student groups at several universities have endorsed the BDS movement and tried to persuade school officials to divest, he said.
In the Philadelphia area, no college or university board of trustees or student government has voted on a measure to boycott or divest from Israel, according to Rabbi Howard Alpert, CEO of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia. The closest instance, he said, came in 2012, when Students for Peace and Justice in Palestine at Swarthmore College asked the school to stop buying Sabra Hummus, which is made in Israel, but the school dismissed the request.
At the same time, he said, “I know that on several of our campuses, there are groups of students that would like to see the governing body for the students take such a vote.
“If that were to happen,” he added, “I do not believe that it would have any impact on the practices of the universities or the colleges or that such a move would be accepted by the boards of trustees.”
Still, Alpert said, “I think the Jewish community — certainly the Hillel community — would welcome any statement by the government that would recognize the true nature of BDS,” which he described as an attempt to delegitimize the state of Israel and as discriminatory against Jews.
For its part, the Zionist Organization of America supports the bill but wants to amend some of the language and expand the area covered to include territories controlled by Israel and not just the state itself, according to Steve Feldman, director of the Philadelphia ZOA.
Santarsiero, who was raised Catholic but converted to Judaism, said he proposed the bill because he was alarmed by the growth of anti-Semitism and the BDS movement on campuses.
He said his daughter, Nancy, a 17-year-old junior, started a chapter of the pro-Israel organization StandWithUs at her private high school in New Jersey in response to other students who were discussing “bringing people in to speak on behalf of the Palestinians” after the war in Gaza last summer, the state representative said.
In listening to her talk about the pro-Palestinian efforts, he said, “it struck me that in just a couple years, she’ll be in college, and as a Jewish student, she would be dealing with this issue.” 
With reports of more overt instances of anti-Semitism, he said, “it got me thinking that as a state, we should make our policy pretty clear.”
In fact, Santarsiero said, his concern about anti-Semitism was one of the reasons that he decided to convert three years ago, even though he and his wife, Ronni, have been married for two decades and were raising their three children Jewish.
As his three children got older, he “realized that the day was coming that they were going to encounter anti-Semitism, and I wanted them to know that when that happened that not only would I be there to help them confront it, but that I would be standing with them publicly,” said Santarsiero, a member of the Reconstructionist synagogue Congregation Kol Emet in Yardley. 
An incident hit close to home in December, when a Bucks County resident in his district found “Move Jew” spray painted on his garage door. In response, Santarsiero organized a news conference with Jewish, Christian and Muslim clergy, who came together to condemn it.
“I wanted them to make this public,” he said of the family that was targeted, because “the only way to stop this kind of thing was to shed a light on it.”
Meanwhile, as he begins his race for the open congressional seat, Santarsiero is reaching out to potential Jewish supporters and donors. 
He is quick to distance himself from President Obama, who has sparked anger among some Jews for some of his criticism of Israel and tense relations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, saying he is “disappointed” in the president’s actions toward Israel. 
Santarsiero said that had he been in Congress earlier this year when Netanyahu made his controversial appearance, he would not have been one of the Democrats who refused to attend. He also said he does not support the proposed nuclear deal with Iran.
Santarsiero said he has never visited Israel, but that is “something he plans to address in the next year.” 


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