Politics & Government

Kansas Senate passes bill blocking contracts with Israel boycotters

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Companies that boycott Israel wouldn’t be able to do business with the state of Kansas under a bill approved by the Senate on Saturday.

House Bill 2409 prohibits state government from contracting with companies that refuse to do business with people and entities in Israel. The bill requires companies and individuals that have contracts with the state to certify that they are not boycotting Israel.

The bill gives the Kansas secretary of administration wide latitude to waive the requirement if he or she determines “compliance is not practicable or in the best interest of the state.”

Senators approved the bill 28-9. Because the Senate changed the bill, it will now head back to the House, where it passed 116-9 in April.

If the bill becomes law, Kansas would become the next state to react to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, or BDS, movement. That’s a Palestinian-led boycott movement of Israeli businesses and entities.

In 2016, Kansas exported $56.7 million in commodities to Israel and imported $83.7 million from Israel, according to the Kansas Department of Commerce.

Opposition to the bill focuses on concerns that it would restrict the First Amendment rights of individuals and organizations to take political stands.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas said in a letter to lawmakers that the bill attempts to punish free speech.

“Government contractors are protected against unconstitutional conditions placed on the exercise of constitutional rights, including coercion of political association and, as here, coercion of non-association,” Micah Kubic, ACLU of Kansas executive director, said in the letter.

Sen. Steve Fitzgerald, R-Leavenworth, said the discussion isn’t about free speech but about state policy. He asked rhetorically whether lawmakers would support the state doing business with firms that were openly racist.

“Why not? Free speech? Really?” Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald supported the bill but objected to the provision allowing the secretary of administration to waive the no-boycott requirement. He said if the requirement is waived because it causes inconvenience, then “anti-Semitism is tolerable, it’s OK, we’ll go along with it.”

“It is embarrassing to say we object to anti-Semitism except when it’s inconvenient for the educational establishment,” he said.

Sen. Tom Hawk, D-Manhattan, offered the waiver amendment during debate on Friday. Senators voted 25-13 to adopt the amendment.

Universities could be affected by the no-boycott requirement, Hawk said. He floated the possibility of a Middle Eastern studies class that wants to subscribe to a Palestinian journal that may have signed on to a boycott.

“It applies, but there could be unintended consequences. So let’s take care of that ahead of time,” Hawk said.

Contributing: Daniel Salazar of The Eagle

Jonathan Shorman: 785-296-3006, @jonshorman