Members of the Jewish community are celebrating the passage of a New Jersey law that prohibits the state from investing its pension funds in companies that support boycotts of Israel.
The legislation was passed overwhelmingly in the State Assembly June 27 by a vote of 70 to three, with two abstentions, followed by quick unanimous approval in the State Senate, 37-0. It awaits the signature of Gov. Chris Christie.
“We are delighted with passage of the bill and very appreciative of the legislators’ strong support,” Mark Levenson, president of the NJ State Association of Jewish Federations, told NJ Jewish News in a phone interview the morning after its passage.
Levenson, a partner at the Newark law firm Sills Cummis & Gross, had been lobbying for the measure for the past nine months. In a June 27 op-ed column in The Star-Ledger, he wrote, “The bill is inherently worthwhile since it maintains the viability of a trading partnership between New Jersey and Israel that has grown to almost $1.8 billion. It is important to note that this partnership is rooted in the long history of mutual friendship based on economic, cultural, and intellectual cooperation and exchange.”
“The statewide Jewish community came together in an unprecedented advocacy effort leading to legislative approval,” Jacob Toporek, executive director of the State Association, told NJJN. In a June 28 press release, he said that the State Association “may have taken the lead in coordinating the advocacy, but credit goes to the strong affirmative response from our federations and community partners.”
Keith Krivitzky, CEO of the Jewish Federation in the Heart of NJ, was pleased at the bill’s passage.
“It is a very good thing that it passed,” he told NJJN. “Once the legislation was out there anything short of its passage would send a bad message to Israel’s detractors, let alone to people who don’t know where they stand. It is a great example of what happens when federations and the community collaborate and work together.”
In a June 29 phone interview, Rabbi Jay Kornsgold of Beth El Synagogue in East Windsor told NJJN that he “applauded the efforts of all those who helped pass it. It sends an important message to those who are pushing BDS that their efforts are not working. It also shows how our legislators see the importance of supporting Israel.”
Kornsgold said the new law is a significant blow against the BDS movement aimed at trade with Israel. “BDS is not going to solve the Israeli-Palestinian problem. If the problem is going to be solved, both parties need to sit down and negotiate a settlement that will work for both sides. This piece of legislation is important in showing that BDS is not the way to go.”
“We want to thank the NJ Senate and Assembly in passing this important legislation and joining the other 10 states around the country that have passed similar bills,” Mark Merkovitz, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Princeton Mercer Bucks, wrote in an e-mail to NJJN. “It strengthens the Israel-New Jersey bond that already exists.”
The new law bars the state’s Division of Investments from investing the public workers’ $71 billion pension funds in any company “that boycotts the goods, products, or businesses of Israel, boycotts those doing business with Israel, or boycotts companies operating in Israel or Israeli-controlled territory.” The funds cover some 800,000 current and retired public employees.
The law also requires the fund to divest from any companies participating in the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against Israel within 18 months of the passage of the legislation. But according to its provisions, it exempts “any company providing humanitarian aid to the Palestinian people through either a governmental or nongovernmental organization unless it is also engaging in prohibited boycotts.”
It is not known whether any corporations whose stock is part of the state pension fund’s portfolio advocate boycotts aimed at Israel. But a state Treasury Department spokesman told the Philadelphia Inquirer that he was not aware of any companies that would violate the legislation.
Measures outlawing anti-Israel boycotts have been passed in Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, and South Carolina. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently signed an executive order banning state agencies from investing in companies that support such boycotts.
Despite the near majority of Assembly members who supported the law, there was strong opposition from the American Civil Liberties Union’s NJ chapter.
In a statement on its website, public policy director Ari Rosmarin called the law “a low point for the freedom of speech” that “tarnishes our constitutional rights and chills a time-honored form of political protest.”
“Their legal opinion is that the law is a violation of freedom of speech. Our legal opinion is that the law is you can say anything you want about Israel but when you turn it into discriminatory business practices, that is what this bill is aimed at,” said Toporek.
Kornsgold agreed. “You have to counterbalance the ACLU position with what the BDS people are doing,” he said. “Why are they picking on Israel instead of all the other countries in the world? I understand what the ACLU is saying, but I am not sure their argument is valid.”
Levenson told NJJN, “The ACLU opposed the measure for reasons that are unfathomable to me. This legislation is a statement. You are either standing for Israel or you’re not.”