Navigate to News section

Companies Run Scared as Anti-BDS Laws Take Effect

As state legislations kick in, corporations rush to disavow anti-Israeli bigotry

Liel Leibovitz
April 28, 2016
BDS supporters protesting in London, January 2009. Wikimedia
BDS supporters protesting in London, January 2009. Wikimedia

Over the past year, seven states have passed laws withdrawing funds—sometimes contracts, sometimes pension funds, sometimes both—from companies that support boycotts and economic warfare against Israel. Similar laws are winding their way through another seven states. Meanwhile, Illinois, which was one of the first states to pass such a law, has begun implementing it, cataloguing companies that may be affected for bowing to the BDS bigotry.

These companies, as you might’ve guessed, aren’t happy to find themselves on the list. At least one, the prominent security company G4S, appears to have responded with a massive public relations campaign, arguing that its decision to withdraw from activities in Israel was purely economic and not driven by the Jewish state’s detractors in any way.

Which is where all of us who care about these things should stop and acknowledge sweet victory: A global company with vast assets was faced with dire consequences for boycotting Israel, and had to unequivocally disavow BDS. Other companies will surely take note.

“The decision to sell G4S Israel was made on strategic and commercial grounds as part of a portfolio management program established by the company in 2013,” read an ad the company published in several newspapers, including The Palm Beach Post and The Sun Sentinel. “G4S notes and rejects comments by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) movement and anti-Israel pressure groups claiming that their actions have caused the G4S group to sell G4S Israel… G4S reiterates that it does not support the anti-Israel boycott by BDS or any other group.”

The company also engaged a Florida PR maven to email on its behalf. An email from the maven, which has been circulating among local Jewish community leaders and which was forwarded to Tablet, reiterates the company’s argument, and gives other examples of G4S terminating its subsidiaries recently in countries like Norway, Sweden, and Colombia.

Finally, G4S reached out to the ADL, which wrote out a letter praising the company for its position. “Your statement,” read the ADL’s letter, signed by the organization’s CEO, Jonathan Greenblatt, “is not only important for supporters of Israel who were concerned by the announcement regarding G4S Israel, but your public rejection of the BDS and efforts to harm Israel sends a powerful message of responsibility to others in the corporate community who may also be targeted by these campaigns.”

Not all companies, however, have handled their predicament so astutely. After Nordea Bank, a financial services company based in Stockholm, Sweden, received a letter from Illinois informing it that it was not in compliance with the new law, the company spoke with The Forward, which published a story last week asserting:

[T]he board entrusted with implementing the Illinois law consists of three representatives of state pension funds and four members appointed by Rauner. Within this body, the three-person subcommittee tasked with identifying companies that boycott Israel consists of Andrew Lappin, a real estate developer who is on the board of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, a group that fights perceived anti-Israel bias in the media, and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, which works with evangelical Christians; Alicia Oberman, a board member of Jewish Student Connection, which runs programs for Jewish teens in schools, and Goldberg, the subcommitte’s chairman and a Chicago lawyer who served as president of his Orthodox synagogue.

I reached out to an official in the administration of Illinois governor Bruce Rauner, who asked to remain nameless but argued that the piece isn’t accurate—either broadly or narrowly. According to the Rauner source, the Illinois subcommittee is made up of five representatives, not three. The remaining two—both unmentioned by The Forward, and including the subcommittee’s chair—are not Jewish. And the allegation that Mitchell Goldberg served as the head of an Orthodox synagogue, said the official, is neither true nor particularly relevant in any way to his public service in this case. Similarly, the official added, the article failed to note that Nordea received a standard notice from the state of Illinois and has, to date, failed to offer a direct response—odd behavior for a company alleging that it did not violate the new law in any way as it does not support BDS. Perhaps even more broadly, he said, the article makes repeated distinctions between divesting from Israel and refusing to invest in “companies operating in West Bank settlements”not a valid distinction according to Illinois law, which covers all companies operating in any area currently controlled by Israel.

While such a differentiation may be acceptable according to the political consciousness of some on the left, it is not valid according to Illinois law, which covers all companies operating in any area currently controlled by Israel. Reached for comment, Nathan Guttman, the author of The Forward’s piece, conceded that he misstated Goldberg’s synagogue affiliation, but noted that the subcommittee’s two additional members were added later and that Goldberg was initially its head. Guttman also denied that his story portrays the subcommittee’s members in a particular ideological light, or that it advances a particular political agenda. “As you know,” he wrote via email, “the question of including boycott on settlement products in anti-BDS legislation has been an issue in debate among pro-Israel activists and in the Jewish community and neglecting to discuss this debate in the article would be a disservice to our readers and to all who follow the issue.”

But never mind all that. Too many of us continue to fret over the theatrics the increasingly desperate BDS movement is playing out in classrooms across America (see under the laughable “Smellygate” involving Israeli politician Tzipi Livni and a Harvard BDS leader), but state assembly rooms and corporate boardrooms, thanks to smart and decisive action on behalf of pro-Israeli activists, seem growingly immune to the zealotry of the BDS haters. As we head to the table tonight to celebrate our liberty and triumph, that’s a lot to be grateful for.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.