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Lawmakers pause on anti-boycott bill for Israel

Those free trips that lawmakers have been taking to Israel — paid for by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, a pro-Israeli lobbying group - are still haunting Beacon Hill.

In both the state House and the Senate, two lawmaker offered — then quietly withdrew — amendments to the nearly $1 billion economic development bill last week that would crack down on companies which participate in boycotts of Israel for its treatment of Palestinians.

The amendments — by state Senator Cynthia Creem, a Newton Democrat, and state Representative Paul McMurtry, a Dedham Democrat — would have prohibited the state from contracting with any company that boycotted Israel.

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JCRC, a registered lobbying group which has pushed the anti-boycott issue on Beacon Hill, has over the years squired state lawmakers for 10-day trips to Israel, paying any where between $4,000 to $6,000 for each member. Last December, 10 state senators participated in the tour, and the year before, a House contingent was treated to a similar junket.

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Even Attorney General Maura Healey, whose office could be drawn in to adjudicate the legal issues of the debate, took a free trip this Spring — funded by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the American-Israel Friendship League.

That has raised the ire of peace activists who have called on the State Ethics Commission to crack down on what they see as a serious conflict of interest.

Those who advocate for the boycott argue the legislation is an attempt to stifle a non-violent economic protest. They say the boycott is a legitimate exercise of free speech, much like the effort in the 1980’s against apartheid in South Africa.

“Senator Creem’s amendment is not about stopping discrimination,” said Cole Harrison, executive director of Massachusetts Peace Action in a press release. “It’s about impeding our constitutionally-protected right to engage in boycotts as a form of speech.”

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Creem, who as a senator has not taken a free trip to Israel, said she withdrew her amendment because she felt the controversial issue needed a full public airing, which it would not get as budget rider.

“It deserves to be talked about and debated,’’ she said.

Frank Phillips can be reached at phillips@globe.com.