Over the weekend, dozens of U.S. media outlets reported that a town in Texas had asked its residents to sign a form stating they do not participate in boycotts of Israel, in order to receive aid after their homes were devastated by Hurricane Harvey. The town of Dickinson explained that it was doing so because of a new state law against boycotts of Israel and the settlements, passed earlier this year.
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On Saturday night, the Texas state legislator who authored the bill at the heart of the controversy told Haaretz that the incident was a misunderstanding, and that officials at Dickinson have probably misinterpreted the law. "They have been in a tremendously difficult situation since the hurricane," said Rep. Phil King, a Republican from a district in the north of the state. "I think this is simply a result of confusion over the implementation of a recently approved law."
King, who has been a member of the Texas House of Representatives since 1999, authored the legislation against boycotts of Israel earlier this year. The bill went into effect in September, and King says that during his two decades as a legislator, he has witnessed many cases in which new laws were sometimes misinterpreted. "It's not uncommon to have some confusion when a new law goes into effect. This bill in no way applies to the type of situation that happened in Dickinson."
King's legislation relates to companies that choose to boycott Israel or its settlements in the occupied West Bank. Such companies, under the recently approved law, will not be eligible for receiving state contracts in Texas, nor will the state's pension funds be able to invest in them. "This is what the bill is about," King told Haaretz, emphasizing that "this is America. If you're an individual or a company and you want to boycott Israel, that's your right to do so. We just won't put our taxpayer money into it."
According to King, the situation in Dickinson is completely outside the scope of his legislation, because "they had private contributions from citizens to a relief fund in the city, and the city has set up a grant program to give those funds to help in disaster clean-up and restoration. Those are not taxpayer dollars, so the law by no means applies to these relief efforts."
When asked by Haaretz if he means that this was simply a mistake committed by a local official, King said that "I hate to use the word mistake, for me it's just a misunderstanding, a misapplication of a very new law. I think we need to take steps to clarify things, so that something like this doesn't happen again."
King proposed the legislation in the first place, he says, because "Israel is our fourth largest trade partner, and it's important for us to support the economy of our friend and trade partner. We also share the same values." King said that he was not aware of other cases of confusion like the one that took place in Dickinson, but that nevertheless, it was important to "clear up any ambiguity," and do so quickly. "That's why I'm very happy that you called me," he concluded.
Some leading Jewish groups have responded, questioning the wisdom and usefulness of anti-BDS measures. The head of the Reform Movement in the U.S. stated that some of these laws do more harm than good.