Massachusetts governor heads to Israel as BDS fight heats up


(JTA) — Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker is headed to Israel for the first time as a legislative battle heats up over a proposed state law banning investments in companies that boycott Israel.

The trip is being organized by the New England Israel Business Council. It is focused on cybersecurity and digital health, and aims to bolster already strong ties between Massachusetts and Israeli companies, startups and academic partnerships. Baker departs Thursday.

Several groups that back anti-Israel boycotts are protesting the bill and the trip. They say the trip poses a conflict of interest because it is being financed by the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston, the Boston Globe reported.

The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, which is paying for a separate 10-day trip by state legislators, is currently backing a bill to ban state pension funds from investing in companies that boycott Israel. The council receives some of its funding from Combined Jewish Philanthropies.

Both Jewish organizations support a two-state solution.

“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, an organization that supports anti-Israel boycotts. “This is a classic conflict of interest.”

Baker is on record as opposing the boycott movement against Israel and is among some 19 U.S. governors who signed a letter in August from the American Jewish Committee calling the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, or BDS, “virulent.” Tennessee, New York and California have already adopted similar anti-boycott measures.

A JCRC spokesperson told the Globe that the purpose of the trip “is to expose lawmakers to the array of issues facing Israel and educate them on the agency’s belief in a peace based on a negotiated, two-state solution.”

Baker and the state lawmakers say the trips meet the state’s ethics guidelines and have publicly disclosed the their financial backing.

Baker, a Republican, announced his intention to travel to Israel at the end of September, a few months after the release of a study that found that Israeli-founded companies in Massachusetts added $9 billion to the state economy in 2015 and employed 9,000 workers. The study also found that the growth rate of Israeli companies in Massachusetts is four times that of the state’s economy as a whole.

The governor’s delegation, which includes nearly 50 leaders and over 20 presidents and chief executive officers, will participate in a summit of more than 400 Israeli business leaders in cybersecurity and digital health, as well as with leaders from startups seeking to expand in the U.S.

Baker will also meet with executives from General Electric in Israel, which employs some 500 people there. The giant American multinational conglomerate recently relocated its headquarters to Boston.

Among others traveling with the governor are Brandeis University President Ron Liebowitz and John Harthorne, founder and CEO of MassChallenge, an accelerator program that includes the Jerusalem-based MassChallenge Israel. They recently co-authored an opinion piece in the Boston Globe about Massachusetts being a popular destination for Israeli startups.

“Massachusetts is home to many of the world’s leading innovative companies, accelerators and educational institutions, as well as an economically competitive climate prepared to host the world’s emerging digital health and cybersecurity industries,” Baker said in a statement.

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