By Joshua Marks
RICHMOND — The Virginia House of Delegates on Tuesday passed a resolution condemning the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel. The final vote tally was 89-2 with six of the 34 Democratic legislators and two of the 66 Republican lawmakers abstaining.
Northern Virginia Jewish community members traveled to Richmond to voice their support for the resolution, meeting with more than 33 delegates and senators as part of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington’s annual Virginia Jewish Advocacy Day. The JCRC’s email campaign sent 1,500 emails to delegates before the vote.
The resolution was introduced in the House on Jan. 18 by Del. Jason S. Miyares, a Republican representing District 82 in Virginia Beach.
“We are so thankful for the state of Virginia for affirming their support for the State of Israel and condemning the BDS movement as an anti-peace, discriminatory movement,” said Darcy Hirsh, director of Virginia government and community relations at the JCRC. “This resolution has allowed us to take a significant step forward in preventing the BDS movement from gaining traction both in Virginia and around the country.”
Hirsh said she was “thrilled” that both Democrats and Republicans voted for the resolution, stressing the importance of bipartisan support for Israel.
Del. Marcus Simon (D-District 53), a co-sponsor of the resolution, said that the BDS movement has evolved into something that it wasn’t originally intended to be and not what it is often portrayed to be.
“It goes beyond advocating for the rights of Palestinians in Israel and really uses aggressive tactics against not just supporters of Israel but all Jews,” said Simon. “It has really evolved into not only an anti-Israel but an anti-Semitic movement in my view.”
Gun violence prevention for the first time made it to the JCRC’s legislative priorities list for this year’s General Assembly, but the topic was not part of Tuesday’s agenda. That’s because Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, recently reached an agreement with Republicans, who hold the majority in both houses, on the contentious issue.
The controversial compromise recognizes concealed carry permits from other states. In exchange for this concession, Republicans agreed to tighten restrictions, including confiscating firearms from anyone under a two-year protective order for domestic violence offenses and requiring that State Police attend all gun shows to provide background checks if requested for private gun sales.
Speaking to Jewish community advocates from Northern Virginia, the Tidewater region, the Virginia Peninsula and Richmond, McAuliffe called the gun violence prevention deal the most historic announcement they’ve had in 25 years.
“Common sense reforms. If we can get a deal on guns, we can get a deal on anything,” said the governor at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. “I’m optimistic, but then again I’m always optimistic.”
In addition to BDS, advocates discussed other priority items on the JCRC’s legislative agenda.
The JCRC focused on its opposition to four bills in the General Assembly related to First Amendment issues, three that it believes would allow discrimination against the LGBT or transgender community under the guise of religious freedom. The other bill would create a voucher program for private and parochial schools that the JCRC said appears to be unconstitutional.
Participants had the opportunity to thank lawmakers for supporting the Virginia Israel Advisory Board (VIAB), a state government agency that builds bridges between Virginia and Israeli businesses. VIAB contributed to the addition of 144 new jobs in the state last year, which generated roughly $8.35 million in revenue and $480,240 in state tax revenue, according to the Jewish advocates.
“We’re very important in terms of the economy of Virginia because we bring tax dollars and jobs to the Commonwealth,” said Julie Krachman, program coordinator for VIAB, who came to Richmond to advocate for the continued funding of the agency and to thank legislators for funding. She emphasized that the agency has bipartisan support.
While McAuliffe’s Medicaid expansion plan has been continuously stifled by Republicans, the JCRC supports closing the coverage gap that leaves nearly 200,000 low-income Virginians without health insurance.
Advocacy Day participants encouraged their legislators to keep fighting for expanding health care to working families in Virginia.
“Folks, we have got to get the Medicaid expansion here in the commonwealth,” the governor said to applause.
Cantor Jason Kaufman of Beth El Hebrew Congregation in Alexandria gave the opening invocation on the Senate side and Rabbi Rosalin Mandelberg of Ohef Sholom Temple in Norfolk led the prayer on the House side.
UPDATE: A correction was made to this story on Feb. 3 to reflect that 89 delegates voted yes and two voted against the anti-BDS resolution, while six Democratic delegates and two Republican delegates abstained. The article had incorrectly stated that the final vote tally was 91-0 with nine Democrats walking out and not voting.
In Maryland, no anti-BDS bill this session
The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington (JCRC) and the Baltimore Jewish Council will not pursue a bill against the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel in this year’s Maryland General Assembly Session.
“We spent a few weeks researching it and there’s no problem now,” BJC executive director Art Abramson said. “Given everything else going on, budget issues … there’s no sense in fighting a battle that’s not needed at the moment.”
The bill would have prevented pension divestment, making it so state pensions could not be invested in companies that support the BDS movement, and would have changed the state’s procurement contract process so that companies who support BDS could not earn state contracts. Both measures are similar to laws enacted relating to companies who do business with Iran.
BJC officials researched both of those issues and found that while there is pressure on some companies to divest, none have. Sarah Mersky, director of government relations at the BJC, said one small electrical workers union passed a statement in support of BDS, but it is not clear if it has divested.
“It’s something we’re really tracking, where unions are, because if a larger union were to divest, it would have an effect on the state,” she said. “We’re just working really hard to talk to different elected officials about it and continuing to have conversations.”
Abramson said he believes the bill would have passed this year because of support from legislators and partnering with the JCRC, but didn’t think it would pass it there was no way to show a problem exists.
“I am pleasantly surprised given a lot of rhetoric in this state about BDS that that there isn’t a problem,” he said. “The council and our counterparts in D.C. will certainly get into this as soon as and if it becomes a problem.”
The other issue is that BDS supporters in Maryland argue that the bill goes against free speech.
“It’s got nothing to do with this, and I did not want this to become a free speech issue,” Abramson said.
The BJC is continuing to speak with legislators about the BDS movement and monitoring the movement in Maryland and on Maryland’s college campuses.