Massachusetts Peace Action members asked Senate President Karen Spilka to cancel her plans to lead a trip to Israel this December, in a letter released today and delivered to Spilka’s office last week. The trip, which Spilka has encouraged Senate colleagues to participate in, is sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council, a lobbying group with business before the Massachusetts legislature.
“We strongly object to this trip, which is sponsored and funded by a group which lobbies the Massachusetts legislature and which has advocated for several Israel-related measures at the State House including $250,000 in taxpayer funding for the New England Israel Business Council,” wrote Jeff Klein, a board member of Massachusetts Peace Action, in the letter. “There is also another attempt this year to pass legislation punishing supporters of BDS.” BDS, which stand for the boycott, divest, and sanctions movement, seeks to pressure Israel to abide by human rights standards and international law. “Last year, an identical bill backed by the Jewish Community Relations Council was rightly ‘sent to study,’” Klein continued.
“Lobbyist-sponsored Israel trips, and any travel paid for by groups which lobby at the State House, need to be opposed,” said Cole Harrison, Executive Director of Massachusetts Peace Action. “Although the State Ethics Commission has allowed such travel through a ‘public interest’ loophole, when lobbyists who have business before the Massachusetts legislature pay for legislators to travel there is clear violation of the principles of ethics and at the very least the appearance of a conflict of interest. We fail to see how JCRC-paid travel – or travel paid for by any lobbying organization – effectively serves the public interest. This is a violation of principles of good government and legislative transparency.”
Mass. Peace Action has advocated closing this loophole at hearings before the Ethics Commission and is preparing to submit legislation to that effect in the face of a refusal by the Commission to alter its policy.
The advocates asked Spilka to cancel this upcoming trip as it represents a clear-cut conflict of interest. “If legislators want to learn more about Israel and Palestine, they are free to travel there at their own expense or on trips sponsored by non-lobbying organizations that might reasonably offer an unbiased view of the region,” wrote Klein.
“The participation of Massachusetts legislators – especially Democrats –in an Israel-government-friendly trip is particularly inappropriate given Israel’s treatment of Democratic members of Congress,” Harrison pointed out. Israel refused in August to allow freshman Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) and Ilhan Omar (D-MN) to visit the Palestinian territories on a private trip, which was not financed by AIPAC. The refusal caused great controversy, drawing criticism by Democratic leadership and support from President Donald Trump, who said of the Congresswomen, “They hate Israel and all Jewish people.”
“So long as Israel does not allow every member of Congress to see firsthand how U.S. taxpayer dollars are spent no elected officials, at the federal, state, or local level, should agree to go,” said Harrison.