Citing Small Town neo-Nazi Row, Montana Moves to Crack Down on Israel Boycotts

Bill allows Montana to stand in solidarity with Israel after neo-Nazis moved against Jews in Whitefish, Republican House speaker says, but others say state should stay out of global politics.

From left, Montana state Sen. Keith Regier, Rep. Dave Fern and House Speaker Austin Knudsen listen to a delegation of Orthodox Jewish rabbis from the U.S. and Canada Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2017, in Helena, Mont.
From left, Montana state Sen. Keith Regier, Rep. Dave Fern and House Speaker Austin Knudsen listen to a delegation of Orthodox Jewish rabbis from the U.S. and Canada Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2017 Matt Volz/AP

Montana lawmakers advanced a bill Saturday that pledges solidarity with Israel by refusing to do business with firms boycotting the Jewish state.

Spurred in part by a spate of controversies over anti-Semitism in Whitefish, Republican House Speaker Austin Knudsen of Culbertson said his bill allows Montana to stand in solidarity with Israel.

His bill "sends the message that we will not send our taxpayer dollars to companies which chose to participate in the boycotting and sanctioning of one of our nation's strongest allies," Knudson said.

The bill would direct the Montana Board of Investments to sever ties with companies supporting a pro-Palestinian movement to boycott Israel.

Opponents said the bill is well-intentioned but a potential infringement on free speech. Some argued Montana should stay out of global politics.

Nevertheless, the House endorsed the measure 59-41 on preliminary vote. In doing so, Montana is seeking to join other states that have passed similar bills.

Knudsen said his interest in Israel predates the recent focus on hate groups in Whitefish.

In recent weeks, a Jewish center in the tiny Montana community was the target of bomb threats. The town garnered widespread scrutiny in December when a neo-Nazi group began urging followers to "take action" against Whitefish residents who it believed were Jews.

"What went on in Whitefish certainly helped spur me on," Knudsen said.

>> Whitefish rabbi breaks silence with a warning to Jews: Nazism is alive and well in America >>

The bill takes aim at the so-called BDS movement — Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions — that is seeking international support against Israel for its treatment of Palestinians.

"BDS is nothing less than modern-day anti-Semitism," said Rabbi Chaim Bruk, in a statement released by Knudsen's office. Bruk applauded the Montana House for "standing with the Jewish people in Montana and their eternal bond with Israel."

But not all Jewish leaders supported the proposal. Laurie Franklin, the congregational leader of Har Shalom in Missoula, acknowledged that the bill "was well-intentioned" but "applies a political ideology test to Montana's investments."

Franklin, who advocates improving relations between Israelis and Palestinians, said the bill is an unnecessary foray into global politics.