Israel Boycott Law Wrong for Pennsylvania

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Last week, Governor Tom Wolf signed a law that prohibits any agency of the Pennsylvania State government from contracting with any business that boycotts Israel. The intention behind the law is to discourage businesses from participating in the “Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions,” movement (BDS), which tries to put economic pressure on Israel to end its occupation of Palestine, put a halt to Israeli settlements on Palestinian land, and cease its discriminatory treatment of Palestinians. The law’s sponsor, Republican State Representative Matt Baker stated, “This legislation makes it very clear that companies can either perform a BDS action or they can do business with Pennsylvania. However, they cannot do both.” This is the wrong move for Pennsylvania, for both practical and moral reasons.

First of all, this law doesn’t really make practical sense — it will be hard to implement and it could have unintended consequences down the line. In terms of implementing the law, how will Pennsylvania determine if businesses with which it has contracts have boycotted Israel? Israel is not a large country, and there are certainly many businesses that contract with Pennsylvania that don’t do any business with Israel, or even any international business whatsoever. Under this statute, are these businesses boycotting Israel? If not, what’s the difference between a business that naturally doesn’t do business with Israel, and one that chooses not to do so? Why is one unworthy of doing business with Pennsylvania?

The law could also have unintended consequences that will harm Pennsylvanians. A recent poll from Pew showed that American support for Palestine is on the rise, particularly among millennials. This means that support for BDS is also on the rise, and more and more businesses will consider boycotting or divesting from Israel. Already, major institutions like the Methodist Church, United Electrical Workers Union, and Deutsche Bank have already boycotted or divested from Israel. Even the United States government requires products from Israeli settlements to be labeled, a milder form of boycott. Pennsylvanians stand to miss out if major businesses choose to boycott Israel in the future, thus closing off their services to the Pennsylvania government.

Taxpayers might also end up paying more if Pennsylvania must contract with a more expensive business because its cheaper competitor boycotts Israel. Pennsylvania has an obligation to its taxpayers to conduct its business in the most cost-effective and efficient way possible, not to put the needs of citizens after special interests and ideological stances.

This law also has legal and moral issues. I’m not convinced that Pennsylvania has constitutional leeway to refuse businesses based on their political stances. Imagine if Pennsylvania passed a law stating that its government could not make contracts with businesses owned by Democrats. Surely even conservative Republicans would balk at such a statute. This law is no different, it discriminates against businesses for acting on their principles in a way that has no impact on Pennsylvania or its citizens. Don’t business-owners have a constitutional right to voice their opinions without being punished by their government? Shouldn’t the only factor that Pennsylvania considers when making contracts be prices and the quality of service? Governor Wolf justified the law by saying, “We, as a Commonwealth, must make sure that Pennsylvania is not contributing to a cause that is antithetical to our country’s position on the world’s stage,” yet Governor Wolf had no problem signing a law legalizing medical marijuana this year, even though it directly contradicts federal law.

But this law is also the morally wrong choice for Pennsylvania. Rather than punishing businesses that practice BDS, Pennsylvania should join the ranks of the BDS movement, divesting all state funds from any Israeli businesses and boycotting all Israeli products, especially those made in illegal Israeli settlements. Governor Wolf said that Pennsylvania “will not encourage economic punishment in place of peaceful solutions to challenging conflicts.” I wonder if he would have said the same thing about companies that divested or boycotted South Africa in the 1980s, or the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1956. I wonder if he feels the same about sanctions on Russia, Iran, and North Korea today.

The truth is, we ought to use every peaceful tool at our disposal, including economic pressure, to dismantle situations of injustice and oppression. Experts from Jimmy Carter to John Kerry have likened the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to apartheid in South Africa and segregation in the United States. Not only has Pennsylvania stayed on the sidelines rather than standing up for justice, with this law it has actively and willfully chosen the side of the oppressor.