Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams is defending a vote she cast in 2016 against Georgia’s anti-BDS legislation.
Abrams, who was the House minority leader, was on the losing side of a 95-71 vote March 22, 2016, to approve Senate Bill 327, which established that the state of Georgia will not contract with businesses or individuals boycotting Israel. (Stone Mountain Democrat Michele Henson, who is Jewish, said that although her vote was recorded as a no, she actually voted yes, meaning that the tally should have been 96-70.)
Georgia was one of the first seven states to pass legislation opposed to the anti-Israel boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. The law applies only to state contracts worth at least $1,000 and involves no investigation or extensive paperwork; a potential contractor just has to sign a statement saying it does not boycott Israel.
Sponsored by Sen. Judson Hill (R-Marietta), the legislation cleared the Senate on a 41-8 vote before Gov. Nathan Deal signed it. The bill had the support of the Israeli Consulate, The Israel Project, the Israel Allies Foundation and American Jewish Committee, among others.
“Israel welcomes and appreciates the spirit and language of this bill,” Ambassador Judith Varnai Shorer, Israel’s consul general to the Southeast, said after its passage.
Amid the rush of activity in the closing days of the 2016 legislative session, neither Abrams’ opposition to SB 327 nor the bill’s support from Rep. Stacey Evans (D-Smyrna) drew much attention. But now that the two progressive Democrats have resigned from the House to battle each other for their party’s 2018 nomination for governor, their split over the anti-BDS bill has emerged as one of their differences.
(Democratic businessman Steve Berman raised the issue in an AJT blog post Wednesday, Nov. 15, sparking an exchange of opinions.)
In an interview, Abrams said she opposes the BDS movement, which has taken “what is a legitimate tactic for fighting oppression and instead has tried to use it to demonize and delegitimize Israel, which is unacceptable, and there is no justification for doing so.”
But she said she couldn’t support SB 327 as a mechanism to resist BDS because of the precedent for using the state’s power to stifle legitimate protests against social injustice.
“Having spent 11 years in the legislature, I do not trust the best intentions of my fellow lawmakers,” Abrams said. “My responsibility is to vote for the things that I think make sense and vote against those things that I think are harmful.”
Evans noted that more than 20 states now have passed anti-BDS legislation and that the Georgia law has produced no enforcement problems and sparked no court challenges.
“I reject the notion that denying contracts to those participating in the unjust BDS agenda somehow puts at risk the right of others to use boycotts to achieve other goals that are just,” Evans said in written answers to questions. “Specifically, I think comparing BDS to the anti-apartheid movement is a misleading and troublesome tact.”
Abrams said she and Evans approached SB 327 from different perspectives, both legitimate. “I bring a very specific personal and community history that has positioned me for these opportunities based on the success of the use of boycotts. As an African-American in the South, that is a necessary part of my history.”
Because of the complex issues involved, Abrams said, she did not attempt to take a position on the legislation in the party caucus. She did, however, speak against the bill during a brief House floor debate before the March 2016 vote.
She asked a series of four questions of Rep. Debbie Buckner (D-Junction City), who presented the minority report opposing SB 327.
“What country will it be next? If it’s Israel today, will it be Canada tomorrow? Will it be England? Where will it stop?” Buckner said.
Abrams’ questions did not focus on the precedent set by the bill, but on the complexity of enforcing it and the potential of disrupting contracts with thousands of small businesses.
Abrams said in the interview that, like other supporters of Israel who have opposed anti-BDS legislation, she shares the goals of the bill’s proponents but differs on the means.
“It is critical that we constantly defend the state of Israel, and I think it is the responsibility of every person of good intent to stand up for and to stand in solidarity with Israel,” she said.
Evans, however, said words are not enough. “She expresses discomfort with the shift from being anti-BDS as a principle to backing that principle up with law,” Evans said about Abrams. “But the very job we are tasked with as legislators is to pass laws that conform with our principles. The BDS movement threatens our friend Israel, and my principles tell me that you protect your friends.”
Abrams, a veteran of the Atlanta Black-Jewish Coalition and AJC’s Project Understanding and Project Interchange (which took her to Israel in 2011), as well as a regular participant in AIPAC events, said she stands by her record of supporting Israel and working with the Jewish community. “It is unassailable.”
While disappointed that Abrams didn’t vote for the bill, AJC Atlanta Regional Director Dov Wilker appreciated that she was clear in her condemnation of BDS.
“This is a good reminder of why you can never take a relationship for granted,” Wilker said.
He said the renewed discussion about SB 327 is an opportunity to remind people that the BDS movement is anti-Semitic at its core and that its goal is Israel’s elimination as the home of the Jewish people.