Radio Debate about Anti-BDS Bill: Delegate Kramer vs. Delegate Tarlau. Our Side (Tarlau) Wins!


This morning on the Marc Steiner Radio Show, two Maryland State Delegates, Ben Kramer (D-Silver Spring) and Jimmy Tarlau (D-Mount Ranier) faced off against each other about the Anti-BDS bill. Ben Kramer is a sponsor of the bill. Jimmy Tarlau is an opponent of the bill.

You can listen to 22-minute-long debate here.

Delegate Tarlau did a fabulous job pointing out all the flaws in the bill -- most importantly that it is an assault on free speech.


Below you can read the entire transcript of the debate.

Marc Steiner: Welcome back folks. This is Marc Steiner. Good to have you with us here on The Marc Steiner show, your source for cool Jazz and more. WEAA 88.9 FM the voice of the community. On awaits the conversation, we remind you the Marc Steiner show is brought to you in part by MECU Baltimore’s Credit Union offering a full range of financial services. MECU Baltimore’s Credit Union is helping its members and its community prosper. When you invest in yourself MECU invests in you. More information at or is MECU Baltimore Credit Union’s banner. We’re here with Delegate Jimmy Tarlau who represents district 47A in Prince George's County in the Maryland House of Delegates and joining us by phone Delegate Ben Kramer who represents District 19 in Montgomery County and also in the House of Delegates. And delegates welcome. Good to have you both with us.

Delegate Ben Kramer: Good Morning.

Marc Steiner: Good Morning. And we are discussing the BDS ban, the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions proposal in the state legislature which would say that we have to… the state cannot invest in -- divest in a sense -- with any companies doing business that support BDS which is a movement that was started across the globe to boycott Israel because of the occupation of the West Bank and more. And some folks say that this is the destruction of Israel if you support this. Others say no, this is supporting the right to free speech and also a right to say that there is something wrong with the occupation. Now it's come to Annapolis. So we're here with two delegates who are on either side of this issue. It’s “Tarlow”? Did I say your name?

Delegate Jimmy Tarlau: "Tarlau".

Marc Steiner: "Tarlau". Sorry. I said “low” but I’m sorry “Tarlau”. And so let me begin Ben with you and then go to Jimmy. Just talk about why this legislation was introduced from your perspective and why people like Jimmy oppose it.

Delegate Ben Kramer: Well, Marc, the purpose of the legislation is that Maryland and the state of Israel have had since 1988 a very special relationship that was documented by a signed declaration of cooperation between the two entities and in that time Maryland and Israel have had successful exchanges in the areas of commerce, technology, tourism, trade, economic development and academic achievement. And the point here is that we have this state policy that's been in place since 1988 to cooperate and work directly with the state of Israel that has benefited to a significant to degree Maryland's residents in addition to the citizens of Israel. And the whole point of this Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement would directly conflict with this relationship we have with with Israel and undermine state policy. So the purpose of this legislation is to double down on this significant relationship that we have had, the successful relationship, and say that we are simply not going to dedicate or use state funds to invest in a company that is participating in this propaganda called BDS and and we're not going to invest in pension funds for the same reason where an entity is in fact participating in BDS.

The phenomenal piece of this whole BDS movement is that Israel's enemies from the Arab nations surrounding it -- those same Arab countries that have attacked Israel repeatedly militarily -- they were not able to defeat Israel militarily. They spent years terrorizing citizens of Israel and what they haven't been able to accomplish through military aggression they’re now seeking to do through this economic attack on the State of Israel. The bottom line here is that boycotts have been used against Jews since the Middle Ages. It is absolutely nothing new. This strategy is nothing new. The Arabs in the Middle East have been boycotting Jews in the Middle East since the 1920s. So this is just rehashing what has been an old strategy and quite frankly the pushback here is we're not going to invest state dollars to support this kind of propaganda.

Marc Steiner: And Delegate Jimmy Tarlau...

Delegate Jimmy Tarlau: Good morning Ben!

Delegate Ben Kramer: Good morning Jimmy. Nice to hear you! 

Delegate Jimmy Tarlau: See you a little later! So let me start out first that I'm not only Jewish but a grandson of a Rabbi and a great-grandson of the actually one of the first members the Jewish the Austrian House of Parliament. And actually my birthday and the birth of Israel are about nine days apart. So I grew up with the growth of Israel. And I've always been a strong supporter of the State of Israel and believe it should exist. And I don't think we're asking Maryland to change any of its policies in terms of its economic cooperation with Israel. That's not what this is about.

I think what this is about is though I’m a support of Israel, I also disagree with some of the policies that they’ve been doing in terms of expansion and increasing settlements in the West Bank. I think eventually we have to come to terms with the Palestinians left Israel, were forced to leave and some left voluntarily back in 1948. At some point they need a place to live and a place to stay. I believe that there should be some kind of community in the West Bank and Gaza that is for the Palestinians. And I think the expansion of Israeli settlements hurt that. And I think efforts to try and pressure Israel to change the policy are legitimate. And in fact the BDS movement to my understanding is not an old movement but actually started in 2005. And it's actually almost a nonviolent way too kind of try and pressure Israel to change its policy.

And I think boycotts are legitimate. I grew up with boycotts. I boycotted grapes when the farmworkers were trying to organize. We were involved in boycotting South Africa. The Civil Rights movement boycotted buses during the Montgomery... you know the segregation there. There have been boycotts on North Carolina and Indiana both because of their anti-LGBT laws that were passed there. So I think there’s a whole tradition of people who have the right the boycott. And what this bill does… two things it does differently: It doesn't just say we should change our policy but it says we should actually punish or not do anything with any company or any organization or any individual that is actually involved in boycotting. And that's I think really infringes on the issue of free speech.

The Supreme Court has actually said that free speech and boycotts are very similar. That discriminating against people who are boycotting is actually a violation of their free speech. This was done in Mississippi. I did some research and found that in NAACP vs. Claiborne Hardware, white merchants tried to sue the civil rights organizations for boycotting and and the companies basically came back and the Supreme Court said the boycotting was the same as free speech. So when Maryland gets involved in deciding that we should not do business with companies or individuals or organizations that are involved in boycotts we’re really I think infringing on the free speech of those companies. I am for the protection of Israel. I'm against boycotting Jews. But I am saying that if people and organizations (and there’s a whole list of notable people and organizations that want to either boycott Israel or boycott the West Bank what I think are illegal settlements there) that's legitimate. And we in Maryland really shouldn't be involved in that.

Marc Steiner: So the question becomes… Lets just talk about free speech for a moment. And let me ask you Ben very quickly here, before we go back to Jimmy. That’s one of the arguments against this. That it abridges peoples’ right to say that we think that what’s going on in Israel is wrong and we as citizens have a right to ask for a boycott until policies change. Why is that wrong? I mean whether you agree with the political assumptions or not.

Delegate Ben Kramer: And quite frankly, the courts have been very clear on the issue that the states have broad power to limit where their money goes. There is nothing in this bill that says people can't do their boycott. They can boycott away. They can scream from the tops of the rafters of the building that they do not support the State of Israel. There is nothing in this statute that prohibits that. There's no criminal sanctions for doing it. We are simply saying though that it will be the state policy -- and the courts have upheld this time and time again which is why there are 14 states that have already adopted similar legislation to what this statute will do and it has not been challenged in any one of these states -- because the courts have made it clear that the states have broad powers to limit where they're going to put their money. And in this circumstance we're not prohibiting anyone from doing anything. They can boycott away. But we're simply saying we're not going to use state funds to undermine state policy. And it's that plain. It's that simple.

And that's before we get into -- if I may just very quickly -- the fallacy of this whole boycott movement. You know, I have asked the members of the BDS movement in the past:  “Well who else is it that you're boycotting? In other words, with the myriad of nations dominated by despots and dictators with unspeakable crimes against their own people and horrific human rights violations, which of those entities are you pursuing a boycott against?”

Marc Steiner: But wait a minute...

Delegate Ben Kramer: And the answer has repeatedly been “Not one.” 

Marc Steiner: Let’s focus on the BDS piece though. I mean this has directly to do with peoples’ anger about and dislike of the occupation of the West Bank. That’s where it comes from. Right?

Delegate Ben Kramer: But Marc, how did it come to pass that Israel is in the West Bank? It's the repeated wars launched by Israel's neighbors from the Arab countries surrounding it that Israel ended up in one of those wars capturing what is now the West Bank territory because that territory was used repeatedly to launch wars against Israel. So now Israel controls that territory. And by the way, Israel has offered repeatedly in the past that they would return that territory only in exchange for a promise of recognition that they have the right to exist. And the government of the West Bank and the government of Gaza have refused, refused to acknowledge Israel's right to exist.

Marc Steiner: Just in terms of time, I’m going to go back to Jimmy then come right back to you.

Delegate Jimmy Tarlau: So, two things I would say: First of all, I'm not part of BDS. I am somebody looking at this bill and feel that people have the right to boycott. I'm not boycotting personally. I feel that a lot of organizations, a lot of people can. Second thing, what this bill does which is much different, it ties it onto a question of going from.... part of the previous bill says that we should not be involved in investment activities in Iran. Fine. But then it goes from a state to actually not participating with people who are involved in a boycott which goes far beyond what the Maryland Legislature should be doing. 

Furthermore, what you haven't really talked about, this is not just a boycott of Israel, this defines “boycott of Israel” as anybody who's decides not to do any business in the West Bank. So let me give you an example: McDonald's. McDonald's has basically 160 restaurant in Israel but they have no restaurants in the West Bank. Does that mean we're now going to stop doing business with McDonald's because they decided not to do business in the West Bank? This bill does not just talk about we should not boycott people who deal with boycotting Israel but defines “boycott of Israel” as any company any person or any organization that refuses to do business with companies in the West Bank. And I think that goes far beyond what we should be doing. As a matter of fact, President Obama actually said last year in a similar legislation that he felt that punishing people who decide not to do work in the West Bank goes way beyond the issue about trying to respect Israel and the right to exist.

Marc Steiner: So the question this thing comes down to… I’m curious, where do you think this all stands politically in the statehouse? What would it mean if it passed? And how close is it to passing?

Delegate Jimmy Tarlau: Practically, there are hearings I think next week on the 28th of February and March 1st. It’s in front of a joint committee in the front of the Health Government Operations Committee and Appropriations Committee. I'm not sure what the Senate committee is. 

I think it's very controversial. I don't believe it has enough votes to pass and to get out of committee. But you know, Ben's been around much longer than I have. And I think that the debate is still out there. I think it’s going to be a vigorous debate in the committee and there'll be a vigorous debate on the floor if it gets that far. And I think the jury is out. And I defer to Ben, knowing more how it works down there.

Marc Steiner: Going to Ben now... but let me just say that House Bill 949 will be Tuesday February 28th at 1 pm or later. Senate Bill to 739 covering the same issue will be Wednesday March 1st, 1 pm or later. 

Delegate Jimmy Tarlau: So it has to go through the House committees. They have to vote them out. And then it goes to the House floor. It has to be voted on by both houses and then signed by the Governor.

Marc Steiner: Ben go ahead. I'm sorry, I didn’t mean to cut you off before. 

Delegate Ben Kramer: No, that’s fine. My first point would be that my good friend Delegate Tarlau was mistaken about what the standards are under the bill. Just because an entity may not choose to be doing business in Israel or in the West Bank wouldn't not subject them to the requirements in the statute. This is directed specifically at those companies that are actually participating in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. 

Delegate Jimmy Tarlau: The bill actually says “intended to limit commercial relations in Israeli controlled territories”. I'm looking at the bill right now. 

Delegate Ben Kramer: And I think you are clearly misinterpreting it. The bill is very clear with regard what the standards would be. As far as it’s success, I never speculate on any legislation I ever introduce as to what it’s success will be. What I can assure you is that the logic for passing this legislation will be very clear and very apparent. And I am confident that when we have that conversation -- as is going on right now -- my colleagues in the legislature will in fact be supportive when they have a full understanding of the purpose, the premise, the logic for this legislation and the why it has been offered.

Delegate Jimmy Tarlau: I think we have to agree to disagree. The same logic... I've talked to many people. Not only do they not agree with it. But they are not even sure why we want to have this discussion now. Why is Maryland getting involved in this kind of debate? We have many other things we should be focusing on in terms of minimum wage and Trust Act and bail reform. I don't think there's any appetite among my colleagues for us to get involved in whether we should be punishing pump companies and people who decide to get involved in boycotts. 

Delegate Ben Kramer: If I may Marc just simply say, I am confident. I don’t short sell my colleagues in the legislature to believe that they can’t have the room within their minds to be able to contemplate this legislation as well as the myriad of other legislation before them. I am confident that they can deal with everything that comes before us regardless of what one individual may consider to be valuable or thinking that it's not valuable. And I would prefer to you and to my colleagues in Annapolis this this is important and relevant legislation. And I would not sell short their ability to process this and all the other legislation that they're looking at.

Marc Steiner: I wonder though if this could have blow-back in a strange way. If you look at the language saying “the areas controlled by Israel” does that mean that liberal Zionists and others who boycott settlement products are going to be affected by this? Will this then lead to a full-blown boycott -- full-blown BDS? In other words, if people are pushed to the wall there could be a lot of reaction to this in ways that make that movement even more powerful.

And I think that we’ve had so many debates and conversation on this show over the last 24 years on the Middle East -- our Voices of Peace series and more, looking at the occupation. And we always put on the side of the Palestinians it’s their fault this is happening, when the reasons these negotiations aren’t taking place have enough weight on both sides to deal with. Especially now with the growth of the settlements, Is this the right time for us to be doing this? I think it’s a fair question to ask given all the complexities of it. So very quickly Ben, I’ll let you respond to that. Then to Jimmy. Then we have to go.

Delegate Ben Kramer: I think it’s perfectly appropriate time. And quite frankly, the BDS movement will bring nothing to the table to resolve the conflict between Israel and its neighbors. And by the way, Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in 2005. And since that time the government has been taking tens of millions of dollars intended to help build a society there. And they've been utilizing it to purchase missiles to launch against Israel. Israel doesn't have the luxury of unilaterally withdrawing from the West Bank and being exposed to the same kind of results that happened when they unilaterally withdrew from Gaza. 

Marc Steiner: So Jim let me pick up here… although I will say Ben -- and we can have this debate another day -- Israel has kind of put a ring around Gaza. Students can't leave the country to go to study. Fishermen can’t go do their work. They’re not allowed into the  in the Mediterranean fish.  And so Israel is also at blame here, not just people who reside in Gaza 

Delegate Ben Kramer: Marc, the only reason for that is that they have been put in a position where they have to keep the weapons from finding their way -- and by the way Iran is a huge sponsor of the government in Gaza and has been feeding weapons to Gaza -- and now Israel is in a position where they have no choice but to try everything they can to keep those weapons from finding their way into Gaza.

Marc Steiner: And the choice may go two ways.

Delegate Jimmy Tarlau: So I would only say that this is definitely the wrong time when we see a President of the United States is actually threatened to punish people who say things he doesn't like that from Maryland to start getting into the policy of of not investing and not dealing with patients and even companies or even Church groups that are boycotting either Israel or the or the West Bank work there Warfare base of this this bill says that we could actually withhold commands from those long is a shins this is the wrong time for doing as we should kind of back off. We should let the debate continue and not be passing his kind of legislation at this time.

Marc Steiner: We’ll be following this and continuing this conversation as we did last week and the weeks to come during the state legislature. I want to thank of Ben Kramer (District 19, Montgomery County) for joining us here by phone and -- Delegate Ben Kramer actually I'm sorry -- and Delegate James Tarlau (“Jimmy” Tarlau as he's known) who represents 47A in Prince George's County. Good to have you both with us.

Delegate Jimmy Tarlau: Thanks for us coming.

Delegate Ben Kramer: Marc, thank you. Appreciate the opportunity to speak with my friend Jimmy and you on the subject.

Marc Steiner: Pleasure to have you with us.

Delegate Jimmy Tarlau: See you in Annapolis Ben.

Marc Steiner: We have to take a short break. And we’ll come back with “Never Caught: The Washingtons' Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge”. We’ll be talking with Erica Armstrong Dunbar who wrote the book to honor Presidents Day in our way.

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