State Legislators Headed for Lobbyist-Paid Israel Vacation This Week

Massachusetts' State Senate President Stanley Rosenberg in Israel (left) with Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav (middle) and Jewish Community Relations Council Director Jeremy Burton on a JCRC trip in December, 2015 (Photo: Courtesy). Jerusalem Post

Twelve Massachusetts state legislators are headed to Israel on Thursday for a ten-day, all-expenses paid tour of Israel paid for by the Jewish Community Relations Council, a pro-Israel lobby group that is currently pushing those same legislators to support an anti-boycott bill it crafted. A state senator who had planned to join the group has changed his mind and is not going.

 “Legislators and public officials should not accept free gifts of travel from lobby groups that have bills before the legislature,” said Susan Nicholson, a member of Massachusetts Peace Action’s Palestine/Israel Working Group. “The conflict of interest is particularly acute with respect to Representatives Campbell (D-Methuen), Vincent, (D-Revere), and Sanchez (D-Jamaica Plain), and Sen. Patrick O’Connor (R-Weymouth).  All four are in a position to have a direct impact on the fate of JCRC’s anti-boycott bill. Campbell, Vincent, and O’Connor sit on the State Administration and Regulatory Oversight Committee, which will vote on the bill within the next several months, and Sanchez chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, where the bill will go next if approved by the State Administration Committee.”

The JCRC is the main lobby group supporting legislation pending in the State Legislature, H.1685/S.1689, which would penalize citizens who use boycotts to challenge Israeli occupation of the occupied Palestinian territories.  If passed, the legislation would directly benefit Israel in its attempts to escape international condemnation for its 50-year occupation.

In addition to Campbell, Vincent, Sanchez, and O’Connor, the legislators who plan to go on the trip include Reps. Evandro Carvalho (D-Roxbury), Gerard Cassidy (D-Brockton), Ken Gordon (D-Bedford), Danielle Gregoire (D-Marlborough), David Muradian (R-Grafton), Jerald Parisella (D-Beverly), Alan Silvia (D-Fall River), and Chynah Tyler (D-Roxbury).

Sen. Joseph Boncore (D-Revere), who had planned to join the trip, has made the decision not to go, according to a staff member.

JCRC-paid trips to Israel by state legislators are a regular event, but this is believed to be the first time JCRC has had a major pro-Israel bill pending before the Legislature at the time it took legislators on its trip.

“The JCRC-crafted bill currently before the State Administration committee purports to be an anti-discrimination bill, but it is really intended to penalize Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) activism for Palestinian human rights.  Nonviolent economic boycotts are as American as the Boston tea party, the civil rights movement, and the anti-apartheid struggle.  We urge members of the legislature, particularly members of the State Administration committee who are currently considering JCRC crafted legislation, and the chair of Ways and Means who may soon be, to withdraw from this JCRC sponsored trip to avoid a conflict of interest,” said Cole Harrison, executive director of Massachusetts Peace Action.

Massachusetts Peace Action today released letters it sent last week to Reps. Sanchez and Campbell pointing out the conflict of interest, which said in part:

We, members of Massachusetts Peace Action, have long opposed these lobby-paid Israel trips for public officials as providing a one-sided view of a conflict that is important for American citizens and their elected representatives to understand.  The JCRC may call this a “study trip” but the plain fact is that the itinerary and programs are organized to support the official Israeli view, regardless of whatever token attention may be paid to other voices.  Further, the trips will likely include visits to Israel-occupied parts of Jerusalem and the Syrian Golan Heights, whose annexation by Israel is recognized neither by the international community nor by the United States. There is nothing objective about this “study.”

JCRC – a registered lobbying organization – has been pressing the legislature to pass H.1685/S.1689. As you probably are aware, H.1685 is aimed at penalizing supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.  This is a movement aimed at pressuring Israel to live up to its obligations under international law and human rights principles.  Claims by the JCRC that there will be no “lobbying” during this trip are disingenuous when the JCRC itself has drafted and is actively promoting a bill to be voted on by legislators who are on an all-expense-paid trip costing JCRC many thousands of dollars.

We believe that participation of our elected representatives in such a lobby-paid trip damages the credibility and reputation of the legislature.

As of Tuesday, neither Sanchez nor Campbell had filed trip disclosures with the state Ethics Commission.  The Ethics Commission regulations require legislators to make disclosures “prior to any travel.”

“The Ethics Commission’s disclosure forms themselves do not adequately inform the public of the conflict of interest,” commented Nicholson.  “According to the Ethics Commission regulations, a disclosure is a written statement that sets forth all the relevant facts (930 CMR 5.04).  However, the disclosure form does not require legislators to disclose that the organization paying for their trip – JCRC- is a registered lobbying organization, or that this same organization is lobbying for the passage of specific legislation that the travelers are in a position to impact. In other words, the form omits the very facts that generate the conflict of interest.”