A contingent of 13 Massachusetts lawmaker are off to Israel Thursday for a nine-day junket paid for by a registered State House lobbying group that is pushing a controversial bill that would quash boycott and sanction efforts against the Jewish state for its policies toward Palestinians.
As it has for years, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, which arranged and will lead the tour, is also paying the tab for the lawmakers — a price tag that can reach as high $6,000 a person.
The JCRC is leading the local effort to get a bill approved that would prohibit any laws that would ban the state from contracting with anyone or company that boycotts Israeli businesses and products. That boycott movement — BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) — has created fierce debates in legislative bodies around the world.
The trip comes just four months after the Legislature’s joint Administration and Regulatory Oversight Committee held a hearing on JCRC’s bill that would prohibit the state from adopting the BDS policies. The group argues that BDS is part of an anti-Israeli campaign to isolate the Jewish state.
“JCRC study tours are intended to provide civic leaders with a more comprehensive sense of Israelis and Palestinians and of our support for their efforts to achieve a meaningful and lasting peace through a two-state solution,’’ said Jeremy Burton, JCRC’s executive director. He notes that the group also lobbies Beacon Hill for human services and civil rights issues and the protection of immigrants and refugees.
Burton also pushed back against charges from some activists that the trips pose serious conflicts of interest.
“Our study tours are done in full compliance with the ethics rules of the Massachusetts Legislature,’’ he said. A 2016 Ethics Commission ruling claimed the trips did not violate the conflict of interest laws as long as the lawmakers filed disclosure statements.
The BDS proponents argue the legislation infringes on their First Amendment rights to battle Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, noting that similar tactics were used to battle racial segregation in the South and to bring down the apartheid regime in South Africa.
Local BDS advocates scoff at the idea the JCRC trips are for an objective studies of the issues.
“These so-called study tours are in fact organized to bolster the official Israeli view, with no more than token attention paid to alternative voices,’’ said Jeffrey Klein, a board member of Massachusetts Peace Action.
Klein’s organization has lobbied the Ethics Commission to crack down on such junkets.
The itinerary closely follows the previous trips that JCRC has conducted over the years: a series of sessions with Israeli officials, educators, political figures, civic leaders and several Palestinians. But it is also interlaced with the usual tourist activities: floating in the Dead Sea, browsing through ancient markets, visiting the Holocaust memorial, and traveling to the country’s most famous historic sites.
The legislators making the trip are: Senators Joseph Boncore and Patrick O’Connor; Representatives Linda Dean Campbell, Evandro Carvalho, Gerard Cassidy, Kenneth Gordon, Danielle Gregoire, David Muradian, Jerald Parisella, Jeffrey Sánchez,
O’Connor, Campbell, and Vincent sit on the committee that is considering the fate of the bill. Campbell, the only one of the three to respond the issue of potential conflict, said she is in compliance with the ethics laws by publicly disclosing with the Ethics Commission any potential conflict.
“No lobbyists are permitted on the tour, and JCRC staff will not discuss legislative matters on the tour,’’ she also said.