Bye. Senate committee votes to block funding for universities that withdraw from or boycott Israel

On Tuesday, the Senate government committee voted to advance a bill that would block the flow of state funds to colleges and universities that boycott or withdraw from Israeli companies for political reasons.

The bill’s co-sponsors, Sen. Steven Santarsiero (D-Bucks) and Sen. Kristin Phillips-HIll (R-York) wrote in a memo that the bill was introduced in response to protests that began on campuses across the country opposing the war on Israel -Hamas.

On October 7, Hamas militants attacked Israel, killing over 1,100 people and kidnapping approximately 250. In response, Israel launched a war in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, which is estimated to have killed over 35,000 Palestinians.

Many protesters, including at the University of Pennsylvania, have demanded that their schools withdraw their foundation funds from companies with financial ties to Israel because of the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians.

“I think it’s important for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to make clear as a matter of policy that we stand with Israel,” Santarsiero said in defense of his bill.

No senators on the state government committee opposed the bill, although two members, Katie Muth (R-Montgomery) and Anthony Williams (R-Philadelphia), voted against it.

Many Republicans on the committee, including Sen. Doug Mastriano (R-Franklin) and Sen. Cris Dush (R-Jefferson), spoke in favor of the bill.

“We will not endorse or support any moves that would harm our strategic partner and ally and friend, Israel,” Mastriano said.

Mastriano added that he and other Republicans are considering additional legislation “that would withhold taxpayer support for any university or college that promotes anti-Semitism.”

Santarsiero’s bill would also affect funds controlled by the Pennsylvania treasurer’s office, as well as numerous state pension funds. The controllers of these funds, which total billions of dollars, would not be allowed to boycott or divest from Israel or Israeli companies for any reason that is not strictly financial.

Following the vote, Pennsylvania Treasurer Stacy Garrity announced its support for the bill on social media.

As of October 7, Garrity does ordered an investment of $20 million in state funds in Israeli bonds.

Over the past decade, more than 35 states have passed some form of so-called “anti-BDS laws,” named for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, a Palestinian-led movement encouraging economic protests by Israel over its treatment of Palestinians.

Pennsylvania is one such state. In November 2016, former Gov. Tom Wolf signed a law prohibiting the state from doing business with contractors that engage in boycotts or divestments from Israel or Israeli companies.

These laws have led to numerous lawsuits in which plaintiffs have cited First Amendment concerns, though for now most of them remain legal.

States such as Texas and Arkansas have passed laws prohibiting the state from working with contractors that engage in boycotts or withdrawals from Israel. Both provisions were challenged in the courts, but were ultimately left in force. The U.S. Supreme Court has not yet heard the challenges.

Solomon Furious Worlds, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, said regardless of its legality, the group opposes the current bill.

“Political boycotts have always been lawful,” Furious Worlds said. “Any violation of this law is suspect. Is it automatically illegal? Perhaps not, but it certainly goes against the spirit of the First Amendment.”

Furious Worlds noted that the organization particularly questions the bill’s potential impact on private universities that receive state funding.

“Because of its application to public and private educational institutions, we believe it appears to violate First Amendment rights there,” Furious Worlds said. “Even beyond that, the idea that the government restricts the political speech of these institutions is contrary to the principle of the First Amendment, is contrary to the spirit of the First Amendment, even where it may be lawful.”

However, Santarsiero emphasized to the committee that he believed his bill did not violate anyone’s First Amendment rights.

“This means that taking the drastic step of withdrawing from or boycotting Israel would have consequences,” Santarsiero said. “However, this does not mean that we are telling private institutions that they cannot take any of these actions. They can certainly do it for free. “It would simply have consequences for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the financial support it would otherwise receive.”

Santarsiero added that “students, faculty and administrators would still have the opportunity to speak out about Israel or any other issue. “

The bill now goes to a vote in the full Senate and will then have to pass the Democratic-controlled House to become law.

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