Introduced in the Colorado House on February 19, 2016 and is fast-tracked to move quickly. HB 16-1284 if passed will mandate that PERA (Public Employees Retirement) divest itself from investments in companies or other entities that participate in boycott or divestment from Israeli businesses. The Business Affairs and Labor Committee heard the bill today sponsored by Representatives Dominick Moreno (D) and Dan Nordberg (R) and Senators Leroy Garcia (D) and Owen Hill (R). The following is a transcript of some of the testimony.
This measure would require PERA on a biannual basis to make its best effort to identify companies that have economic prohibitions against Israel and divest from such companies should they not end their prohibitions following a 180-day notification period. Since its inception Israel has been subject to an organized campaign of economic warfare and boycotts. Efforts to encourage countries and companies around the world to break off economic relations with Israel were for decades a key component of the Arab League’s de-legitimization strategy. In response, US Congress in the 1960s and 70s passed several anti-boycott measures which prohibit US companies to enter into agreements with entities that refuse to do business with or in Israel. To reflect this longstanding federal policy, we’ve included language in our bill on page 9 lines 9-13 to document existing law and the current standards already in place for American companies. Thanks in large part to a strong bipartisan US policy position as well as the desire to have mutually beneficial economic relationships. Many Arab nations have normalized trade relations with Israel. As encouraging as that trend has been, unfortunately a new movement has emerged in recent years which seeks to revive the boycotts of the past in hopes of once again isolating and de-legitimizing Israel from the international community. This movement transcends disagreements over Israeli/Palestinian relations and is rooted in anti-Semitic ideology that questions the right of Israel to exist, promotes the dissolution of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, and undermines legitimate and important efforts to negotiate a two state solution. As I stated previously the United States government has consistently opposed economic boycotts of allied nations. Recently a number of states have taken strong positions as well. Just within the last year, Illinois and South Carolina passed legislation unanimously prohibiting business dealings with individual or companies that support the BDS movement against Israel. Several other states are currently in the process of enacting legislation and I believe it’s important that we do the same. It is certainly within the prevue of a private company to boycott Israel. As distasteful as that may be, that is their right. But under no circumstance should Colorado be complicit in such activity and subsidize their national or religious discrimination. That’s what this bill is about and I would respectively ask for your support.
For me my interest in this. I’ve heard from a lot of folks that talk about it’s not the place of our state legislature to involve ourselves in international affairs. But the reality is that we have in the past gotten involved in certain international activities. This isn’t the first time we’ve asked PERA to share our values and to divest from certain international movements. We’ve done it with the Sudan genocide. There was legislation around Iran but PERA took that on their own accord and did it themselves so there is precedence for this. And for me this is not directly involving ourselves in international affairs. We have a choice of where to invest our dollars. And whether or not we will invest our dollars in companies that share our values. Many of you received an email from secure PERA that they oppose this legislation. They are not going to be here to testify but I want to take a moment to commend PERA. They have been nothing but helpful in the drafting of this bill. And incorporating their comments and their feedback. It’s been a very, very good working relationship and we’re hopeful that we’ve been able to draft a piece of legislation that is seamless for them to comply with. And PERA simply doesn’t believe that the legislature should tell them where to invest their dollars. I respectively disagree. I think we invest our dollars in companies that share our values. And that’s what HB 1284 seeks to advance.
Representative Paul Rosenthal: One might see in certain parts of the bill that there might be some free speech issues. What is your perspective on this?
Moreno: The intent of this legislation is certainly not to in any way limit free speech. But that being said, companies and the heads of those companies have the right, have the ability to say, or invest their dollars, have the ability to say whatever they want or invest their dollars however they choose. We also as a general assembly have that right. And so that’s where it comes down for me is that I don’t see it as a free speech issue necessarily. I respect that there are companies who can say whatever they like or invest their dollars wherever they like but there are also consequences to exercising that free speech when they are in direct contradiction with the values of our country and one of our most important allies.
Rosenthal: So Representative Norberg talked about a federal law or a series of federal laws that cover boycott and I guess I’d like some clarification because as I understood it, that dealt with Arab countries saying that they will not do business with any company that does business with Israel and so it’d be an American law saying you can’t comply with that versus this has nothing to do with an Arab country. This has to do with a foreign company saying that they’re not going to do business in Israel. So I guess if you could clarify that.
Norberg: The laws I referenced specifically the Ribicoff Amendment in 1979 established one of the anti-boycott laws but one of the things that came out of that was the office of anti-boycott compliance. And the objective of that office is they’re adopted to encourage and specify cases requiring US firms to refuse to participate in foreign boycotts the United States does not sanction. That’s pretty broad language. The United States does not sanction the BDS movement so my interpretation of current federal law is that currently the BDS movement is not sanctioned by us so the laws of those anti-boycott efforts of the 1970s apply.
Rosenthall: So if there is let’s just say a European company saying it will not do business. say a company in the occupied territories, would that be considered part of the BDS?
Moreno: One, I want to clarify that it’s more than a company just saying we won’t do business with an Israeli company. It has to do with intent. Its more than we won’t do business, it really is part of this move to boycott, divest, or sanction from Israel with the intent of delegitimizing Israel’s standing in the international community. Regarding your question around businesses that are within occupied territories, we are very clear in here, we do in the legislative declaration talk about the international community. The international community had a role with establishing the state of Israel along with the Jewish people. So I imagine that we would hold to companies that are within currently internationally recognized boundaries within the state of Israel.
Tom Hall: I represent the Colorado Green Party. I am opposed to censorship of any kind. I do see it as a free speech issue. Boycotts are constitutionally protected forms of free speech and have a long history of being used successfully to address injustice and effect political change. The Boston Tea Party comes to mind. The BDS is a legitimate, nonviolent tactic to oppose Israel’s ongoing repression of Palestinians. I ask you to oppose this.
Rosenthal: Do you support the BDS movement?
Hall: Yes I do.
Rosenthal: Do you seek the destruction of Israel?
Hall: No not at all. The purpose of BDS is not the isolation of Israel but to encourage the current government to end its denial of basic civil rights to its non-Jewish members. I have nothing against Israel.
Rosenthal: So research by some show that the leadership of BDS started off as anti-Semitic and seeks the destruction of Israel and that it is still so today. So while maybe you don’t feel that way, perhaps they do.
Hall: That’s true. I may have errantly spoken my support. My support is for the boycott for the peaceful efforts for the Israeli government to do the right thing. It is not, and if that’s a portion of the BDS that I’m unaware of, I do not support that, and in that regard, I would not support the BDS.
Dr. Eric Anderson: I am speaking only for myself. Bear with me if I falter. I was not planning on testifying today. In fact I’ve never testified for a hearing like this before. This is a deeply important issue to me. I’ve traveled in both Israel and the Occupied Territories and I have dear, dear, friends from both places. I believe this bill is somewhat disingenuous in presenting boycotts as an effort to harm Israel, delegitimize, isolate, etc. There are grave human rights violations associated in particular with settlements. One of the things that has come up in a lot of these bills is an attempt to define settlements as interchangeable with the state of Israel. So that they say they are attempting to defend Israel but they also seek to block any action related to settlements in the occupied territory. Human Rights Watch came out with a report one month ago saying, settlement businesses unavoidably contribute to Israeli policies that dispossess and harshly discriminate against Palestinians. The only way for businesses to comply with their human rights responsibilities is to stop working with and in Israeli settlements. Amnesty International also came out with a report arguing that the construction on these settlements is a prima fascia war crime and we should not be supporting it. This bill talks about supporting the rights of Palestinians and Israelis but there is an old legal principle that where there’s a right there’s a remedy. And currently the Palestinians have no remedy for their legal rights. The Children’s Rights International Network recently came out with their global repot on children’s access to justice around the world. The occupied Palestinian territories are ranked 195th, that is coming ahead only of Eritrea and Equatorial Guinea in terms of children’s access to the justice system. Attempts to boycotts or divest are currently just about the only recourse, the only remedy available for people who wish to promote and protect the rights of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories.
Neil Foeman: I represent Jewish Voice for Peace Front Range. I think there are a couple of misconceptions about what those of us who oppose the bill are really feeling and really thinking. I don’t think any of us are against Israeli Jews or against Israel itself. So this isn’t about de-legitimizing Israel. What it’s about is de-legitimizing the racist, exclusivist, ethnic exclusivist government in Israel and its racist policies. I think were also against the settlements. We want to make sure we use tactics as BDS just to be able to oppose the settlements. Right now there is nothing in that bill that really says that we’re allowed to oppose the settlements; if anything it’s going to help us get there. And I know some of you all were talking about a two-state solution. None of us want to push the Jews into the sea as many folks may say. I also want to say that boycotting is something that we should be able to do as a matter of free speech and also unhindered as well. I can think of so many times that boycotts were done like for the purpose of progressive change within the US and I don’t think that’s something we should be stifling. Ask yourselves what side you would be on if this was the Montgomery bus boycott or if this was the boycott of racist South Africa or any other number of boycotts that go on all across the US. And I also want to mention about the point that the leaders of the BDS movement are supposedly anti-Semitic. I think it happens in the Arab League, it happens in many places in the BDS movement. As always it’s called out by members of the BDS movement. And to be frank about it, there’s many folks that I could name by name that are part of the Palestinian call for BDS which was made in 2005. Many of whom have called out anti-Semitic actions within the movement several times. I can think of Mustafa Barghouti has done this several times. For the most part this movement is ant- racist in all forms. It’s a matter of principle that we take this position and we’re not going to stop even if were painted as the folks that are wanting to de-legitimize Israel.
Sophie San Miguel: I found this to be an interesting bill. It’s my subjective opinion so take it with a grain of salt. The settlement by which this bill perhaps 1284 functions for fair comparison to Israel and against its unilateral law, rules, or government create for a very controversial topic as we’ve seen for decades among the American nation. With that said, disengaging that plan altogether and while dismantling the very cost of what is known as desolation, I propose the settlement of announcing the adoption of community disputes, both territorial and internationally. The peace process is to find a solution for our personality differences. I had the chance to visit Israel I believe in 98 and it was amazing. I definitely have a favorable recommendation for it and any recognition to utilize the international business avenues to jeopardize fair drive doesn’t involve any kind of sharing.
Jan Miller: I’m a member of a local organization called Friends of Sabeel Colorado. We support Palestinian organization in Jerusalem, an organization of Palestinian Christians named Sabeel. When I first traveled to Israel and Palestine ten years ago I visited the Christian holy sites, the Eastern Wall, the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum. And I began the trip thinking that it was a matter of time. Eventually there would be two states. A state of Israel and a Palestinian state. So I was totally shocked on that trip to realize that everything that was seen around me on the ground was not a way toward two states. On maps I had seen two areas. Israel and the West Bank. But instead what I saw on the ground from our tour bus was a West Bank populated by lots and lots of Israeli settlements on every road that we drove on. And with each settlement, there were Israeli soldiers with automatic weapons patrolling the entrances to every Palestinian town that was near a settlement. And Palestinians waiting in long lines at checkpoints even if they were going to a nearby West Bank town. I saw the bulldozed olive trees of Palestinian farmers where yet another settlement was being built. And our bus drove on Israeli only roads between towns in the West Bank that were reserved for the settlers. I met Israeli peace activists who were working to end the settlements. And I heard stories from Palestinians who were unable to conduct business or were unable to visit their grandparents because of the building of the wall. Bill 16-1284 seeks to derail the increasing pressure on Israel from the BDS movement. Like me more and more people around the world are seeing that 40 years of occupation have not produced peace and are looking for new ways. The two-state solution is a laudable goal. The BDS is a nonviolent way of encouraging Israel to stop building the settlements. Boycotts are a constitutionally protected form of free speech and we have a long tradition of boycotts in this country beginning with the Boston Tea Party. The two- state solution during the 40 years of negotiation toward a two- state solution , 500 thousand Israelis have settled in the West Bank and on land that would have become a Palestinian state. I ask you to protect my free speech. I must advocate for the right of companies to conduct their business in a manner that expresses their values and their human rights.
Rosenthal: What are your perspectives on attacks by Arabs and Palestinians on Israel and the terrorism against Israelis .
Miller: There have been recent attacks and that is certainly deplorable. No one in the BDS movement encourages people to violence because the BDS movement is a specifically nonviolent movement. Sabeel, the organization I am part of is a particularly nonviolent resistance to the occupation. And those attacks are deplorable. What I see from having been there and talked with people is that these children who are doing these stabbing attacks have stood at checkpoints with their parents and watch the Israeli soldiers humiliate their parents, make them practically strip in front of the soldiers. These children have been forced to wait in long lines on the way to visit their grandparents at the checkpoints. So I could understand the amount of rage and anger that young people feel because they are so trapped in this system. So while I can see why a child would come to want to do that, I certainly reject that as a way forward.
Rosenthal: You’re saying that the BDS movement is nonviolent, and when you have discussions with folks in the West Bank why don’t you share with them that your movement as you’re seeing it is nonviolent and yet some folks there are engaging in violence. Do you advise them or give them that you’re that that’s your opinion and that’s what your movement stands for?
Miller: The people that I have worked with in the West Bank are people who all are working toward nonviolent solutions. And so I have not worked in cooperation with anybody whose engaged in violence so it’s an argument that they already espouse so I have no need to convince them not to be violent.
Representative (Cole) Wist: Ms. Miller I’m having a hard time understanding how HB 1284 infringes on your freedom of speech. I think what we’re really talking about here is how assets of the state are invested, not about the First Amendment which as I understand it is an individual right.
Miller: Because as an individual I also participate in the BDS movement. And if the state of Colorado is prohibiting PERA from making investments in companies, I worry that the next law will prevent me from engaging in such an activity.
Wist: Can you tell us specifically your understanding of how this bill infringes on your right to exercise free speech?
Miller: I guess I can’t answer it any better than I just did. I just feel like it’s one step toward, I mean if we’re going to not invest in companies that engage in BDS, then what’s to prevent the legislature next time from adopting a law that would say that people are not allowed to participate in the BDS movement.
Wist: And I think that’s precisely the point that if the state passed a law that infringed in your right as an individual to invest in assets of your choosing, I certainly agree with you that that would infringe on your freedom of speech, however we’re talking about collective assets of the state, we’re really talking about the collective judgment of the state and an expression of the states values and I think that’s certainly a discussion that we all have a role to play, not one individual talking about their specific freedom of speech and I don’t see how this bill specifically does infringe on any individual’s right to engage in freedom of speech.
Joanne Wacker Farrand: I represent myself as a person who is a citizen who supports justice and I’m also a very active member of Coloradans for Justice in Palestine, Friends of Sabeel, and Jewish Voice for Peace. The BDS movement was a call from the Palestinian civil society in 2005 which is now 11 years ago asking the global community to help address the injustices experienced by Palestinians. BDS is a nonviolent movement that seeks equal rights by encouraging Israel to end the occupation of Palestinian land and dismantle the wall which is built on portions of Palestinian land , recognize the right of Arab Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality and just respect the rights of Palestinian refugees. In 2009 Palestinian Christian authors wrote the Kairos Document. Kairos is the Greek word for the special time of opportunity. Those Christian authors of this document declared a moment of truth when a word of faith and hope had to be spoken from the hearts of Palestinian suffering. In this document they called on churches of the world and the international community to join the nonviolent BDS movement. They recognized in taking economiic , political, and diplomatic measures similar to those taken in South Africa led to the end of Apartheid. And I will end with a quote from Nobel Peace Prize recipient Archbishop Desmond Tutu which is on the information given to you who does support BDS. In South Africa we could not have achieved our democracy without the help of the people around the world who through the use of nonviolent means such as boycotts and divestments encouraged their governments and other corporate actors to reverse the decades-long support of the apartheid regime. The same issues of inequality and injustice today motivate the divestment movement trying to end Israel’s decades-long occupation of Palestinian territory and the unfair and the prejudicial treatment of the Palestinian people by the Israeli government ruling over them. As a Coloradan I ask you to oppose this bill and thank you for your time.
Rosenthal: I guess I would draw a little bit of a line through your testimony. And I think it’s fair to say that with US foreign policy traditionally you could say that there has been some disagreement over the issue of settlements. But at the same time where you could say it crosses the line with BDS is that it takes an action that actually hurts Israel, our ally.
Wacker: I think you’re right. They can be hurt. But I also see a whole group of people that are being hurt by what is happening now. And so does one right of one group of people supersede the rights of other people? If in this bill you talk about everybody should live in a secure, safe place. We know that’s not happening now. So there has to be some modality for people to push up against what’s happening.
Carla Henebry: I am here today speaking for the Coloradans for Justice in Palestine. We’re a local group which sponsors things Palestinian. We had a cultural fair last summer to let people know what it’s like the culture back there. We have a booth every year at the peoples fair for that. And we also support various BDS movements. Last November we were instrumental in assisting the American Association of Anthropologists to get a boycott movement through their national meeting. There were 1176 votes with 88.55% in favor of the boycott. What they voted for was not to boycott individual scholars but just academic institutions. They stated, “Israel is a settler colonial regime based on Jewish supremacy and Palestinian dispossession. Regarding HB 1284 it limits divestments to less than .05% of the total holdings and it only pertains to non-US companies. But there are lots of other costs to PERA. There’s a review of holdings every six months. Contacting violators. Retaining an individual research firm. Maintaining web pages. Six months after someone’s been on the list, they have to be pointed out that they have to sell this within a year. Not within the six months but of when they originally went on the list which means just six more months. As to why you all chose PERA for this particular document, we don’t know. We know that there have been various anti -BDS motions throughout the country in many of the states. Most of them have been sponsored by the American Israeli Pact. We were waiting for one to come here but I’m sorry you picked this one. In 2015 PERA’s unfunded liability was 24.6 billion. Only 61% of it is funded. According to a foundation report the problems are due to irresponsible decisions by the state rather than to economic events. We hope that you will consider all of these things. It’s not fair. You talk about individual rights but there’s the individual rights of the people who are waiting for their money from PERA.
Pat Hewitt: I’m here as a representative of Friends of Sabeel Colorado. I too have visited the West Bank and Israel and Gaza as well. And I just want to elucidate a bit more about the settlements on Palestinian land in the West Bank and Jerusalem. These settlements are various sizes. Some are villages, towns; some are large cities as large as 90,000 residents. They’re populated altogether by over 500,00 Jewish Israeli settlements who are encouraged to move to the settlements with subsidized loans by the government. Many corporations and businesses that contribute to further settlement construction and deter Palestinian economic viability are part of these settlements. Included in this are Medjool dates that Israel exports as Israeli when they are actually Palestinian and the Ahava Corporation. These are just two. The Ahava Corporation , they’re just plundering the Dead Sea salt to produce and export its beauty products. These are Palestinian resources no longer available to Palestinians. The roads that have been constructed to lead to the settlements from Israel are not available to Palestinians and prevent severe restrictions on their freedom of movement. In many cases the roads cannot even be crossed by Palestinians trying to reach another town or village and necessitate traveling far out of their way to reach their destinations. Often they’re prevented by checkpoints. HB 1284 states that the effect of this law should not interfere with US foreign policy and yet settlements are being built in very clear violation of US foreign policy which doesn’t recognize them as part of Israel. They also violate article 49 of the 4th Geneva Convention that prohibits an occupying power from transferring its own population to the occupied area. BDS efforts have targeted these settlement enterprises because we want to encourage the Israeli government to address the changes in policy that would provide self determination and justice to the people who have lived under this occupation for half of a century. Boycott was the nonviolent method used by most of the world to encourage South Africa to change and it is notable that south Africa survived this process.
Rosenthal: Ma’am I also had a chance to visit the West Bank. I was in Ramallah in 2014 and I sort of thought to myself wouldn’t it be better to have more activities that brought people together rather than engaging things that separate them which I think BDS does. I think it separates people. And wouldn’t you think it preferable to have events that bring Jews, and Arabs, and Palestinians together. I know there’s a program in the Jewish community that brings Palestinian and Jewish girls to Denver. And you know it’s tough for them to relate to each other but eventually many of them become friends and they keep those relationships over time. Don’t you think that’s a more productive way to bring about the change that you seek?
Pat Hewitt: I think it’s a productive way. I also know that in Palestine there are many organizations that work to bringing especially young people together but also across the spectrum. The wall for one thing prevents much of that kind of dialogue between peoples. In fact there are people that live on those settlements that don’t know that five minutes away down the hill are Palestinians that live there in you know essentially very bad conditions because of policies. And they don’t know. They’re not aware. They just don’t know. And the reason for that is that they are so divided, so separated, that with their roads and with the wall, and since Israelis can bypass the checkpoints, and Palestinians cannot, it’s a very difficult situation over there. And of course we would love to see greater dialogue. And you know there are many Israelis that go to the West Bank and protest in a nonviolent way with the people of the village of Behlin who have been doing this for years on every Friday, every single Friday. And you know there are many Israelis that go and that are involved in t his and so of course there is dialogue among these peoples.