Ban on government contracts with firms boycotting Israel heard

Feb. 10, 2023, midnight ·

Senator Julie Slama testifies on her anti-BDS bill Friday (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)
Senator Julie Slama testifies on her anti-BDS bill Friday (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

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The Nebraska Legislature ventured into international relations today/Friday. It considered a proposal that would bar Nebraska’s state and local governments from doing business with companies that boycott Israel.

The proposal by Sen. Julie Slama is aimed at combating the boycott, divestment and sanctions, or BDS movement, launched to protest Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. Slama said 34 states have already adopted similar policies.

Jason Jackson, director of the state’s Department of Administrative Services, said he doesn’t know of any company the state does business with that’s currently participating in the BDS movement. But Jackson said he supports putting the prohibition into law.

“When we observe companies attempting to bring negative coercive economic pressure against one of our primary allies, that's obviously at odds with our foreign policy interests. And from the state's perspective, we don't want to be supporting that type of activity,” Jackson said.

Alice Myers of Auburn was among those who spoke in support of the proposal. Myers said the boycott hurts not only Israelis, but Palestinians as well.

“Thousands of Palestinians work in Israel with work permits to provide for their families in the West Bank. BDS threatens these families’ security and source of income,” Myers said.

And Sharon Brodkey of the Jewish Federation of Omaha said tax dollars should not be used to support companies that boycott Israel.

“The commercial boycotts addressed in this bill are a form of national origin discrimination, driven by bigotry and hate. The international BDS movement at its core is antisemitic and does nothing to promote peace. Instead it seeks to cancel Israel,” Brodkey said.

Opposing the measure, Dwight Williams, pastor of the New Life Presbyterian Church in Omaha, denied antisemitism is the intent of the BDS movement.

“Presbyterians do not wish the destruction of the nation of Israel. But we do want ethical behavior and human rights,” Williams said.

Another opponent, Alexia Plummer of Omaha, said boycotts have played an important role in American history, from the Boston Tea Party to the Montgomery bus boycott and the boycott South Africa for its policy of apartheid.

“Boycotts have played a central role in this nation's history. Americans have used boycotts across a range of issues to express their shared convictions,” Plummer said.

Keith Nelson of Omaha was another opponent. He described conditions he saw on a visit to religious sites in Israel.

“Neighborhoods and settlements on Israel-claimed land in Palestine are tense. Pristine neighborhoods, parks, and agricultural fields are guarded by armed Israeli military. Police stop citizens, asking for papers,” Nelson said

The Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee took no immediate action on the bill. Slama introduced a similar proposal last year, but the committee did not advance it.

Also Friday, the Revenue Committee heard a proposal by Sen. Eliot Bostar that would create a consequence if state or local governments don’t issue tax refunds on time. If they are late, then they would pay taxpayers 14 percent interest on the refunds people are owed.

Bostar said that rate would match what taxpayers are required to pay the government if they’re late with their payments.

“Government should never be held to a lower standard than it holds the taxpayers (to),” he said.

Bostar said he didn’t know when the 14 percent interest rate for taxpayers was established, but he assumed it was intended to be punitive. But Sen. Lou Ann Linehan offered an alternative explanation.

“I think if you check history, Sen. Bostar, you’ll find out they raised it to 14 percent when interest rates were 18 percent. It was cheaper to not pay your property taxes than it was to borrow money,” Linehan said.

No one spoke in opposition to the proposal. But John Cannon submitted a letter of opposition from the Nebraska Association of County officials. The letter said it would be difficult for smaller counties to pay big refunds in months when they did not have much revenue coming in.

Friday’s hearings mark the end of all-day hearings. Beginning Monday, senators will begin spending their mornings debating bills that committees have thus far advanced, while continuing to hold public hearings on bills in the afternoon.