HELENA – Spurred in part by a spate of controversies over anti-Semitism in one of the state's towns, Montana lawmakers advanced a bill Saturday that pledges solidarity with Israel by refusing to do business with firms boycotting the Middle Eastern country.
Republican House Speaker Austin Knudsen of Culbertson said his bill allows Montana to stand in solidarity with Israel. His bill "sends the message that we will not send our taxpayer dollars to companies which chose to participate in the boycotting and sanctioning of one of our nation's strongest allies," Knudson said.
The bill would direct the Montana Board of Investments to sever ties with companies supporting a pro-Palestinian movement to boycott Israel. It would also bar public agencies – including counties, cities and towns – from doing businesses with companies that don't agree to certify in writing that they are not engaged in a boycott of Israel.
Opponents said the bill is well-intentioned but a potential infringement on free speech. Some argued Montana should stay out of global politics.
Nevertheless, the House endorsed the measure 59-41 on preliminary vote. In doing so, Montana is seeking to join other states that have passed similar bills.
Knudsen said his interest in Israel predates the recent focus on hate groups in Whitefish.
In recent weeks, a Jewish center in the tiny Montana community was the target of bomb threats. The town garnered widespread scrutiny in December when a neo-Nazi group began urging followers to "take action" against Whitefish residents who it believed were Jews.
"We're all aware of what happened in Whitefish late last year. Some of that controversy is still going on. We have white supremacists who want to march in Whitefish, Montana, in our own home state," Knudsen told members of the House chamber. He saw the bill as an opportunity, he said, to stand up for Israel and the Jewish people.
Rep. Denise Hayman, a Democrat from Bozeman, said the bill would create a political and ideological test for Montana's investments. She said her husband and children are Jewish, and that her in-laws escaped Germany's Nazi regime to move to the United States.
The proposal takes aim at the so-called BDS movement – Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions – that is seeking international support against Israel for its treatment of Palestinians.
"BDS is nothing less than modern-day anti-Semitism," said Rabbi Chaim Bruk, in a statement released by Knudsen's office. Bruk applauded the Montana House for "standing with the Jewish people in Montana and their eternal bond with Israel."
But not all Jewish leaders supported the proposal. Laurie Franklin, the congregational leader of Har Shalom in Missoula, acknowledged that the bill "was well-intentioned" but would place "unacceptable restraints on free trade and free speech."
Franklin, who advocates improving relations between Israelis and Palestinians, said the bill is an unnecessary foray by the state into global politics.