There was little common ground between Jacky Rosen and Dean Heller during Nevada’s contentious 2018 U.S. Senate race.
But on at least one topic, the former Democratic congresswoman and former Republican senator who locked horns on the campaign trail were in total alignment: In 2017, both Rosen and Heller sent messages on official congressional letterhead urging lawmakers to support a bill that prohibits local governments and the state from contracting with businesses boycotting Israel.
The bill, SB26, had a long line of heavy hitters behind it, including Rosen, Heller, Republican Rep. Mark Amodei and Democratic Rep. Dina Titus. The bill was sponsored by Republican then-Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison, who presented it alongside former Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley and a pro-Israeli lobbying group with close ties to Republican megadonor and Las Vegas Sands CEO Sheldon Adelson.
Those political heavyweights helped usher the bill through the Legislature with little formal opposition, and it was signed into law by former Gov. Brian Sandoval at a public ceremony attended by Miriam Adelson. His office called the measure that aimed to curb the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (B.D.S.) movement against Israel an “important policy decision to discourage discrimination based on national origin.”
But two years later, not much has happened with the law that thrust Nevada into the middle of a decade-long protest movement begun by Palestinian organizations against Israel.
No company has been denied a contract with the state over boycotting Israel, no funds under the purview of the state treasurer have been divested and the state’s pension fund has found no ties between its investments and companies in support of B.D.S..
Nevada’s anti-B.D.S. bill wasn’t an anomaly; it sprang from a well-coordinated effort among pro-Israeli lobbyist groups that helped pass similar (and often identical) pieces of legislation in 27 states in the last four years.
The effort to pass legislation targeting B.D.S. had been pitched as a way to combat a very real rising tide of anti-Semitism locally and nationally, but opponents have derided the laws as both a waste of government time and resources and a threat to free speech rights, leading groups including the American Civil Liberties Union to file lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the laws in several states.
No lawsuit has been filed in Nevada, but supporters of the bill including Hutchison say that the lack of government action and divestments are proof the measure is working as intended, and that the bill marked an important symbolic step in Nevada’s relationship with Israel.
“I think that those who have engaged in the past and currently in the B.D.S. movement have probably surveyed the states that have passed laws and have likely avoided those states,” Hutchison said in an interview. “So I think that the law has had its intended effect, which is to send a clear message to those companies that engaged in the B.D.S. movement that Nevada simply will not do business with or invest in them.”
Although there has been recent congressional action — including a nonbinding House resolution last month — individual states have been at the vanguard of efforts to limit the B.D.S. movement, which aims to economically pressure Israel into ending the occupation of the West Bank, granting full “right of return” to Palestinian refugees and granting “full equality” to Palestinian citizens of Israel. Opponents of B.D.S. have said granting those requests would end the Jewish majority in the country.
The B.D.S. movement was established in 2005 by Palestinian groups and modeled after a successful effort to end apartheid in South Africa. It is described by The New York Times as a “loosely connected, nonhierarchical network of activists” roughly organized through an umbrella organization, the Palestinian B.D.S. National Committee.
Although members of the group insist the organization and its aims are not anti-Semitic, many Israelis and American Jews say that the B.D.S. movement acts as cover for anti-Semitic sentiment and that it conflates criticism of Israel with a desire to dismantle the Jewish state. B.D.S. has also been criticized for not expressly condemning violence and allowing groups affiliated with terrorist organizations including Hamas to be members of the larger umbrella B.D.S. organization.
How it has worked in Nevada
Although the movement has been highly publicized in press reports and government action, it has few success stories to show in the United States beyond a handful of university student groups and small-scale changes.
The lack of buy-in from American companies and organizations is readily apparent in reports required by the bill approved by lawmakers in 2017. Those show little if any connection between Nevada government funds and companies engaged in a boycott of Israel.
Steve Edmundson, the Public Employees’ Retirement System of Nevada (PERS) investment officer, said managers of the pension fund used a list published by Florida’s pension fund to cross check its investments and found that it had no ties to companies publicly supporting B.D.S. — in part because outside of Airbnb, (which instituted but later reversed a ban on listing Israeli homes in the West Bank in April) only five companies, all based outside of the U.S., are listed as supporting B.D.S.. PERS also does not typically invest in emerging market portfolios, where he said it would be most likely to see companies with ties to B.D.S..
Edmundson said following the law’s requirements — which includes publishing a public list of any and all investments made by the fund into B.D.S.-backing companies, with annual updates — wouldn’t have much of an effect on PERS’ financial performance or investment decisions.
“We'll just denote our exposure and provide it in a report,” he said. “But it is not a divestment requirement. So from our portfolio standpoint, it would have zero impact on how we invest.”
Similarly, the state purchasing division has yet to reject a single contract with the state on the grounds that the outside contractor is engaged in a boycott of Israel. Department of Administration spokeswoman Stephanie Klapstein said all potential vendors with the state have to check a box “attesting to the fact that the vendor does not boycott Israel,” and that all requests for proposals issued by the state include information on the anti-B.D.S. law.
The state treasurer’s office is also required under the law to prepare a list of “scrutinized companies” and — unlike PERS — is required to “sell, redeem, divest or withdraw all direct holdings” in any company found to be engaged in a boycott of Israel.
But the office has found that the state hasn’t invested in any companies linked to a boycott of Israel, despite cross-checking lists produced by other states including Texas, New York, Illinois and Florida, consulting with asset managers and checking the U.S. Treasury’s list of potentially B.D.S.-linked businesses. Just as with PERS, the office relayed the same message to the governor and Legislature in February; the office couldn’t find any “investments under the purview of the State Treasurer's Office in identified scrutinized companies.”
Kim Schafer, the office’s deputy of investments, said it wasn’t surprising to see that none of the handful of companies that have publicly embraced B.D.S. show up on the list of state-backed investments, given their small number and the office’s existing investment policies.
“I wasn't surprised not to find any of these companies on it,” she said. “Between statute and our internal investment policy statements, we have a pretty thorough process of vetting all companies that are on our list.”
Still, the office is moving forward with adopting regulations (likely up at the next interim Legislative Commission meeting) that further define who is categorized as a “scrutinized company.” Those would include requiring notice before a business is put on a list, an appeals process, and a process for a company to be removed from the list.
It also requires the state treasurer to consider “investment safety, liquidity and securing a just and reasonable investment return while avoiding undue risk” before divesting state funds, which under the law is required to happen within three months after a company is added to the “scrutinized company” list. It also grants additional flexibility by allowing the office to create a gradual divestment plan that “preserves the principal value of the investment” instead of immediately dropping investments within the three months required under the law.
But the simple creation of a “scrutinized company” list has invited legal challenges from groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, which has filed lawsuits in multiple states including Texas, Arizona and Kansas to enjoin so-called “anti-B.D.S.” state laws. ACLU of Nevada Policy Director Holly Welborn said her organization considered Nevada’s version of the law to be “facially invalid,” but that no similar suit had emerged out of this state in large part because the civil liberties organization just hasn’t heard of any business or individual directly aggrieved by the new law.
“I think that there certainly could be aggrieved businesses, but we have not heard from anyone at this point,” she said. “We're in contact with some of the coalition partners that had engaged with us during the 2017 legislative session, and it's something that is not off the table for challenging in the future.”
Even pro-Palestinian activists in Nevada say that before and especially after passage of the law, no massive boycott against Israel appeared likely to make headway in the state. Michael Arage, an activist of Palestinian origin and member of the Las Vegas chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, said the organization has focused more on raising awareness of Palestine’s issues than on trying to get Nevada-based companies to join in on the boycott.
“There aren't too many companies here in Nevada ... that would fall under that umbrella that would be affected by this bill,” he said. “So it was kind of like wordplay almost from Israeli groups here to get that bill passed, to just stifle any sort of upward movement of B.D.S. here from the outset.”
Nevada and Israel
Although Nevada has recently sought to strengthen and highlight its economic ties to Israel, including through a memorandum of understanding on “water-use innovation” and a 2013 trade mission to the nation by former Gov. Brian Sandoval, Israel remains low on the list of Nevada’s top import and export partners. According to the U.S Census Bureau, Israel is Nevada’s 15th most prominent importer and accounted for between 0.7 to 3.4 percent of all foreign imports between 2015 and 2018; Israel is not in the top 25 foreign nations receiving Nevada-produced exports.
Although lawmakers now routinely pass resolutions highlighting their friendship with Israel, Nevada and many other states have a long history of elevating anti-Semitic politicians and public figures while engaging in racism against Jewish individuals; from a University of Nevada, Reno dean in the 1930s informing his staff “that they must hire no Jews” to the state Board of Dental Examiners routinely denying applications from aspiring Jewish dentists until the 1970s.
Perhaps most infamously, former Nevada Sen. Pat McCarran opposed bills and won amendments limiting the number of Jewish refugees from the Holocaust that could seek asylum in the U.S., and warned “untold millions are storming our gates for admission and those gates are cracking under the strain.”
Though the B.D.S. movement has sought to highlight its successes, it has had a negligible effect on Israel’s economy outside of a few one-off examples and canceled concerts since it was officially launched in 2005. According to data from the World Bank, Israel’s Gross Domestic Product has doubled since 2005, and the country hit a record high in foreign direct investment in 2017.
A 2018 Brookings Institute study found that because Israel’s economy is structured around high-quality goods that are not easily irreplaceable, any boycott would likely be ineffective and difficult to enforce outside of official government sanctions.
In particular, pro-Palestinian activists say Nevada — the home of many prominent Jewish political figures from the Adelsons to Berkley — has been a difficult place for the B.D.S. movement to gain traction. Seth Morrision, who heads the Las Vegas chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, said in an interview that he had faced difficulties connecting his organization with other progressive groups in the state.
“I moved here about three years ago and I'm involved in this on the national level,” he said. “I'm on the JVP national board as well as a running a local chapter. This is one of the more oppressive communities on this issue that I've worked with.”
Although the B.D.S. movement has not caught fire in Nevada or elsewhere in the country, pro-Israeli groups and Israel itself (which has pledged more than $72 million to combat the boycott effort) have moved to stifle the boycott effort through both direct advocacy and the passage of laws targeting the movement.
Those efforts were detailed in a 2019 Center for Public Integrity report on how pro-Israeli lobby groups and activists helped push passage of similar anti-B.D.S. laws in 27 states over a four-year period, including in Nevada. Hutchison, the bill’s sponsor and public face, worked closely with a lobbyist for the Israeli-American Coalition for Action, including forwarding planned testimony from a state assemblywoman to the lobbyist.
Democratic Assemblywoman Ellen Spiegel, who advocated for the bill in 2017 and authored a three-page memo on her experience pushing the bill through the Legislature, said in an interview that the legislation was focused more on a sense of supporting Israel and opposing anti-Semitism as opposed to targeting a specific movement in Nevada.
“Someone's support for Israel or not, is not necessarily indicative of someone being anti-Semitic,” she said. “The fact of Israel's existence is something that is very important to the Jewish community. When it comes to anti-Semitism, Jews need to have a refuge and a place to go when anti-Semitism becomes so great that they can no longer stay home.”
She said that since the bill has passed, the focus for her and other Jewish legislators has moved to fighting anti-Semitism and promoting Holocaust education (a bill that would have laid the groundwork for a Nevada Holocaust museum but failed to pass out of the Assembly in the 2019 session). But asked if passage of the anti-B.D.S. bill had two years later helped with those goals, she demurred.
“I haven't really thought about it,” she said.