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March 1, 2016 6:51 am

Colorado Anti-BDS Legislation Advances

avatar by Joshua Sharf

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The Colorado State Capitol Senate chamber. Photo: Wikipedia.

The Colorado State Capitol Senate chamber. Photo: Wikipedia.

On Friday, by a vote of 54-10 with one excused absence, the Colorado State House of Representatives voted to divest the state’s public pension plan (PERA) from foreign companies involved in boycotts of Israel. All 10 dissenters were Democrats, including Alec Garnett (D-Denver), who was a sponsor of the bill, and had voted in favor of it in committee.

One amendment adopted on the House floor included language indicating that US companies are already prohibited from boycotting allies, thus explaining why the bill is limited to foreign companies.

Under the bill, PERA would have until January 2017 to identify any companies boycotting Israel in which it had holdings, and to notify them of its findings. Those companies would then have 180 days to cease boycott activities, after which time PERA would divest itself of them.

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The policy mirrors the Iran divestment and Sudan divestment policies already in place.

The bill is a bipartisan effort, sponsored by Sen. Leroy Garcia (D-Pueblo), Sen. Owen Hill (R-Colorado Springs), Rep. Dominick Moreno (D-Commerce City), and Rep. Dan Nordberg (R-Colorado Springs). Hill and. Moreno made clear that they were not taking sides on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or on the issue of settlements. They consider the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement to be antisemitic, noting that the US government has taken a strong position against BDS.

Rep. Moreno commended PERA’s cooperation as “nothing but helpful in the drafting of this bill, and we hope that we’ve drafted a bill that will be seamless for them to comply with.”

PERA’s board voted to oppose the bill, because it doesn’t believe investment positions should be made for political reasons. When a similar bill mandating divestment from Iran was under consideration, the PERA board helped to prevent its passage by adopting its provisions as PERA policy.

When Rep. Paul Rosenthal (D-Denver) questioned the sponsors about possible free speech implications, Rep. Moreno responded that private citizens and companies are, of course, free to do as they wish, but that Colorado doesn’t need to be complicit in actions that compromise the state’s values.

The bill itself refers to “Israel,” making no reference to “Israeli-occupied territory,” and under questioning, Rep. Moreno said that his idea of the bill was that it would apply only to companies doing business “within Israel’s internationally-recognized boundaries.”

As in other states such as Florida, opposition testimony claimed that BDS was not designed to hurt Israel, but to force a peaceful settlement of the conflict with the Palestinians. Supporters argued that economically isolating the Jewish Dtate would only make peace less likely by punishing its citizens and encouraging the more radical elements among the Palestinians.

If the arguments were largely similar to Florida’s, those testifying were not. In Florida, the bulk of the opposition came from college students. In Colorado’s hearing, a variety of groups were represented, most notably the Friends of Sabeel, but also longstanding anti-Israel groups such as Coloradans for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace.

Colorado’s direct trade with Israel was not mentioned in the debate. In 2015, Colorado’s trade with Israel was roughly balanced, exporting $35.6 million worth of goods and services, and importing $37.9 million including medical equipment. This accounted for only a small fraction of Colorado’s overall foreign trade.

The bill will move on to the Senate for consideration. It has not yet been placed on the Senate calendar.

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