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With trip in the works, Senate passes Israel resolution

Several weeks before it was announced that a registered State House lobbying group was arranging for an expense-paid, 10-day foreign junket for nearly a dozen state senators, the Senate delivered a nice gift: It went on record supporting the group in its battles to protect its client.

Bad timing, at best.

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The state’s conflict-of-interest law prohibits lobbyists from giving gifts to public officials.

The lobbying group is the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, a pro-Israel group which spent $211,000 last year lobbying for some of its issues on Beacon Hill. The gift is the JCRC’s arranging a trip for about 11 senators, including Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, to Israel in December.

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The Senate legal beagles say the JCRC’s role in organizing the trip — something the philanthropic group has been doing for years as part of its mission to promote Israel’s interests in the Boston area — clears the smell test. That is because the lawmakers publicly disclosed the arrangement with the State Ethics Commission as required by law. And, they say, the rule covering gifts applies only to lobbyists not their employers. A commission spokesman declined comment.

Still, lawmakers taking subsidized trips — the cost in this case will range between $5,000 to $6,000 per senator — is never a pretty sight. And the Senate action on the JCRC-sponsored resolution pushed the ethics questions a bit further.

On Oct. 1, as the trip was being put together, the Senate passed a resolution reaffirming Massachusetts’ support for its relationship with Israel and, as the group claimed, “rejecting efforts to isolate and target Israel.’’

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The Senate action provided no direct monetary value to JCRC — but it was of great indirect value to the group and to Israel.

The JCRC is battling is the movement to require the state and local communities to divest of their bonds and stocks in companies that do business in Israel. A counter campaign is trying to divest public pension funds from companies that boycott Israel. The Senate resolution delivered a clear message to any state agency — such as the state pension board — to think twice before entertaining such a move.

“Resolved that the Massachusetts Senate strongly discourages any actions, campaigns, or movements that would in any way undermine, punish, or otherwise limit, isolate, or diminish any relations with Israel or any other ally,’’ the resolution stated.

Jeremy Burton, the JCRC’s executive director, said the group is careful to make sure no lobbyists are involved in its Israel trips. He did acknowledge its government affairs staff often connect lawmakers interested in the Israel trips to the JCRC office.

“My understanding is that it is important that this is kept separate from the lobbying activities,’’ Burton said.

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