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Antiboycott groups pay for state officials’ Israel trips

Governor Deval Patrick, left, shook hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jersalem in March 2011.
Governor Deval Patrick, left, shook hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jersalem in March 2011.(Jonathan wiggs/Globe Staff/file)

Governor Charlie Baker and Massachusetts lawmakers are touring Israel this month on trips financed by groups opposed to a growing anti-Israel boycott movement, which is at the center of a legislative fight on Beacon Hill.

Baker, whose trip is being financed by the Combined Jewish Philanthropies, is leaving Thursday for a six-day economic development tour. A dozen House members are on a separate 10-day trip paid for by the Jewish Community Relations Council.

Both trips come as the JCRC is campaigning for legislation on Beacon Hill that would ban the investment of state pension funds in companies that boycott Israel. The group receives financial support from the CJP.

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The trips have sparked sharp criticism from peace activists and pro-Palestinian advocates who have pushed the boycott because of Israel’s stance toward Palestinian people. But the Jewish groups insist that trips are meant to foster economic ties between Massachusetts and Israel.

“Once again, Massachusetts legislators are enjoying free trips to Israel, paid for by JCRC, within weeks or a couple months of taking up anti-[boycott] legislation drafted by none other than JCRC,’’ said Susan Nicholson, a retired attorney and member of Massachusetts Peace Action.

“This is a classic conflict of interest,” she added.

A spokesperson for JCRC, which has been paying for legislative trips to Israel for decades, said the purpose is to expose lawmakers to the array issues facing Israel and educate them on the agency’s belief in a peace based on a negotiated, two-state solution.

“JCRC believes that the ideal way for American leaders to learn about ways to support such efforts for peace for Israel — one of Massachusetts’ closest economic partners and an important US ally in the region — and the Palestinians is to travel and meet directly with a wide range of Israeli and Palestinian leaders to understand their perspectives and the work they are doing,” said Sasha Fastovskiy, a JCRC spokesperson.

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Both the governor and the lawmakers say they are following state ethics guidelines by publicly disclosing the trips’ financial backing. Those disclosures are filed with the state Ethics Commission.

Baker, who in August came out strongly against the boycott efforts, is scheduled to land in Tel Aviv late Friday with a delegation of a dozen state government officials and 40 private-sector representatives. The trip is billed as an economic development mission, focused on the cybersecurity and digital health sectors. It was organized by the New England Israel Business Council, with financial support from the Boston-based CJP, according to the governor’s ethics filing released Wednesday. Their costs for Baker’s and other state officials’ trips will be about $44,000, according to aides to the governor.

Meanwhile, the group of state representatives arrived last Saturday for a 10-day tour through Israel, arranged by Boston-based JCRC, a pro-Israel, social service organization that is a registered State House lobbying group. JCRC, which is supported by the CJP, is pushing the House and Senate to approve the antiboycott bill.

The JCRC, which arranged the trip and planned the itinerary, is paying $5,121 of the $6,506 per person cost of the tour, according to an ethics filing by one of the lawmakers on the trip. The group is following a busy schedule of meetings and talks with a host of people from various sectors — university professors, journalists, security officials, and Palestinian personalities, according to the JCRC itinerary, also filed by the lawmaker. It also includes visits to the Holocaust memorial and the borders with Syria, Lebanon, and Gaza; some walks through an ancient market; and a chance to float in the Dead Sea.

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Such junkets have become a flashpoint in the battle by local peace activists, pro-Palestinian advocates, and some liberal church leaders who are trying to persuade corporations and other institutions to boycott Israel.

The movement known internationally as Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions has created a heated debate across the globe. Pro-Israel groups see the boycott movement as part of a global effort to demonize the country and punish it because of its policies toward the Palestinians. Those who advocate for the boycott argue that Israel is occupying and colonizing Palestinian land; the antiboycott legislation, they say, is an attempt to stifle a nonviolent economic protest, similar to the one mounted in 1980s against the South African apartheid regime.

In the United States, three states — Tennessee, California, and New York — have moved against the boycott efforts. JCRC, which spends as much as $200,000 a year lobbying Beacon Hill on social service issues, is planning a full-court press to get an antiboycott bill to Baker’s desk in the coming legislative session.

Public officials whose travel to Israel has been funded by the JCRC and the CJP have filed disclosure reports with the State Ethics Commission in which they must state that the travel has a “legitimate public purpose.” The boilerplate wording states that the trips promote the interest of Commonwealth because they strengthen “the economic and political ties” between Massachusetts and Israel.

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Oftentimes when public officials disclose that they have accepted gifts, they also report that the donor has business before the Legislature, creating a potential conflict. But since the antiboycott legislation emerged, legislators have not included on those reports any mention of a potential conflict. Last year, the Senate unanimously approved a JCRC-sponsored resolution against the boycott movement just weeks before nine state senators took a JCRC-paid tour of Israel.

Boycott activists are especially critical of Baker’s accepting CJP funding of his trip, particularly after he signed onto an August letter with other governors that denounced the boycott movement as a “virulent movement.’’

“If the governor has a genuine case for building business relationships between Israel and Massachusetts, he should use state travel funds,’’ said Michael Hager, a Massachusetts Peace Action activist and former director of the International Development Law Organization in Rome, a group dedicated to the promotion of the rule of law.

When then-Governor Deval Patrick led a business group to Israel in 2011, he drew money from the various state agencies dealing in international trade to pay for the trip.

Julie Somers, a spokeswoman for CJP, said her organization was “honored” to support the trip because it was “consistent with the mission of Combined Jewish Philanthropies to strengthen ties between Massachusetts and Israel and educate about the close economic, cultural, and strategic ties we share.”

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Lizzy Guyton, communications director for the governor, said: “The administration will adhere to the Ethics Commission’s disclosure requirements and was pleased to join a large, bipartisan group of governors opposed to anti-Israeli boycotts several months ago.”

CJP has already paid for five Baker aides earlier fall to set the groundwork for the governor’s trip, the Globe reported in August.

Most of the 12 traveling lawmakers did not respond to requests for comment made through e-mail and Facebook. Those who did respond said they felt their participation in the trip met the state’s ethics laws.

“It is my understanding I am operating fully within the established regulations of disclosure and ethics,” said Representative Aaron Vega, a Democrat from Holyoke. “Additionally there has been no discussion of pending or future legislation on this trip.”

A spokesman for House Speaker Robert DeLeo said the legislative leader is satisfied the state representatives who are on the trip have met the standards set by the State Ethics Commission.

“The  members of the House who are traveling to Israel have all filed the required travel disclosures and will, if necessary, file additional disclosures should a matter affecting the sponsor come before them,” said Seth Gitell.


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