A Bill (HB 527) sponsored by Melbourne Republican Ritch Workman that would prevent state funding from flowing to organizations that boycott or have divested from Israel on human rights grounds passed unanimously through a House appropriations committee on Wednesday.
However, the issue provoked strong reactions by some Republicans on the panel, who registered objections to the bill’s critics who said the Legislature was setting themselves up for a lawsuit by passing the measure.
The measure is a reaction to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, better known as “BDS,” a global cause that has caught fire on some college campuses in this country (including on the USF Tampa campus). It’s modeled after the mass movement to isolate South Africa during the apartheid era, and aims to pressure Israel through economic isolation into ending its occupation of the Palestinian territories.
“Simply stated, if you want to boycott Israel, then Florida has no business doing business with you,” said Workman in announcing his proposal.
Florida State University student and activist Derrick Silver testified in favor of the bill. He said the BDS movement essentially wanted to eliminate the states of Israel. “They cloak it as a civil rights issue,” he said. “It’s based on lies.”
Four other speakers who came before the panel all opposed the legislation (including a BDS supporter who bizarrely said said he was representing AIPAC and would be distributing campaign contributions after the meeting).
Laila Abdelaziz, the Legislative and Gov. Affairs director with the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), said the bill violates the First Amendment, and cited how when the Legislature passed a similar measure punishing companies that did business with Cuba back in 2012, it was struck down by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals as being unconstitutional.
“This bill will get struck down, because this bill does go against the First Amendment,” said Abdelaziz. “You are the Appropriations Committee. Know that a lawsuit will hit the state as soon as it passes.”
Although Abdelaziz’ mention of the federal courts rejecting a similar measure regarding Cuba appeared relevant, some Republicans on the committee said they were offended that she suggested that could be the fate of this bill.
“I believe we have an obligation to make our decisions based on policy, and the threat of litigation is absolutely absurd in this process, so ma’am, I do take issue with your testimony,” Tampa Representative Dana Young said.
Naples Republican Matt Hudson chastised the speakers who criticized the proposal, saying that while they were “certainly allowed to,” he added that he would hope that “in the essence of civility, in the essence of making sure that frankly, within the chambers of a committee room that there would be a level of decorum of threats and just preposterous statements, I think we can be better than that.”
Those comments seemed to be a bit excessive for Tallahassee Democrat Alan B. Williams, who said that “we should have thicker skin based on what citizens who elected us, say to us.”
Miami Beach Democrat David Richardson said he visited Israel and the Palestinian territories during the summer of 2013, and learned more about the ongoing conflict than he had his entire life. He supported the bill, yet also found time to speak up for those who opposed the measure.
“Any citizen of the state of Florida has the right to come and say anything they feel that they need to say to us, and we have an obligation to hear them,” Richardson said.
The bill received unanimous approval, though Fort Lauderdale Republican George Moraitis Jr. said he didn’t actually support the idea of the state trying to coerce a type of speech on private companies. He said that because he supported Israel, though, he would vote “yes” on the legislation.
The Senate companion sponsored by Stuart Republican Joe Negron passed the entire Senate last Thursday.
There is also similar resolution being proposed in both houses of the Legislature that expresses opposition to the BDS movement. The resolution (HR 1001) calls the movement “anti-Israel” and “anti-Jewish.”