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Missouri lawmakers pass bill barring Israel boycotters from large state contracts

Under the measure, companies must sign document pledging not to boycott Israel in order to do business with state
Founded in 2005, Palestinian-led BDS movement seeks to pressure Israel to end abuses against Palestinians through economic and cultural boycotts (AFP/File photo)

Lawmakers in the US state of Missouri have passed legislation banning the state from doing business with companies that boycott Israel.

The measure, entitled the Anti-Discrimination With Israel Act, was approved by a 95-40 vote in the Republican-held House on Thursday, the day before the state's 2020 deadline for legislation. 

The measure now heads to the desk of Republican Governor Mike Parson for ratification.

The bill targets the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which seeks to pressure Israel to end its abuses against Palestinians through economic boycotts and other non-violent means.

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Like scores of others passed around the country, the Missouri bill would require companies to sign a contract pledging not to boycott Israel in order to do business with the state government. But only contracts worth more than $100,000 or businesses with companies that have more than 10 employees would be affected. 

Missouri's legislation was introduced in January 2019 and sent to committee. It had been on the Senate calendar awaiting amendments for more than a year before it passed last month in a 29-1 vote.

Republican Representative Holly Rehder was one of the bill's main backers in the House, while Republican Senator Bob Onder introduced and led the bill through the Senate. 

Onder celebrated the legislation's passing on Twitter on Thursday, posting that he was "Glad to get this done for taxpayers and America’s #1 ally!". 

Nancy Lisker, director of the American Jewish Committee St. Louis Region, commended the state lawmakers for taking "bold action to combat the insidious and hateful BDS movement that singles out Israel and encourages punitive actions against its economy and citizens". 

'Constitutional infirmity'

But the bill drew bipartisan opposition from lawmakers who said it tramples on Americans' right to free speech through protests.

Republican Representative Tony Lovasco said awarding business contracts based on political opinions would be "incredibly dangerous" because people should have the right to criticise a government, even if they support the people of that country. 

"I am incredibly critical of our government, for example," Lovasco said. "I'm not anti-American. I love this country. I don’t want to be in a position where my criticism of our government's choices and how our government spends, or in my mind wastes our money, is going to result in my being placed on effectively a blacklist."

Almost all US states have introduced anti-BDS legislation or resolutions at the state legislator level, and at least 30 states have passed legislation that either restricts or bans individuals or companies dealing in state contracts from boycotting Israel.

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Still, federal courts on several occasions have blocked state laws requiring government contractors to certify that they are not engaged in boycotts of Israel.

In a ruling last year, US District Judge Robert Pitman stated that such laws threaten "to suppress unpopular ideas" and "manipulate the public debate through coercion rather than persuasion". 

Speaking of a Texas bill nearly identical to the one passed in Missouri on Thursday, Pitman said that "no amount of narrowing its application will cure its constitutional infirmity."

The BDS movement, which has a long history of non-violence, says it is inspired by the campaign that targeted South Africa's apartheid regime.

It has three primary objectives: the end of Israeli occupation of Palestinian land and dismantling of Israel's illegal separation wall and settlements in the occupied West Bank, full equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel, and for the rights of Palestinian refugees to be upheld as stipulated by the United Nations. 

Support for the movement has grown enormously over the years, with Nobel Peace Prize laureate and veteran of South Africa's anti-apartheid struggle Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Pink Floyd musician Roger Waters supporting the campaign, among many others.