Some of the state’s Jewish community leaders said they were disappointed in Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman following her no vote a resolution condemning the movement to Boycott Israel Wednesday, but the congresswoman insisted her vote was rooted in First Amendment concerns, not anti-Semitism.
“I do not support the BDS campaign, and I do not stand for anti-Semitism of any kind. I’ve spent my career fighting against hate and bias in every form, and that’s a fight that’s deeply personal for me,” she said. “Boycotts have always been powerful tools against hate that have won rights for marginalized communities here and abroad — and denouncing the practice using the First Amendment right to boycott in the pursuit of change is a step too far.”
The Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement seeks to employ economic pressure meant to force Israel to remove the wall along the country’s border with the West Bank and withdraw from occupied territories, among other things.
The movement’s proponents claim they’re fighting an apartheid state. Its opponents claim BDS is a movement rooted in anti-Semitism that aims to delegitimize the Jewish state.
“Everyone that has really been anywhere the last couple months knows exactly what this is about,” Mark Levenson said. “You’re either for BDS or you’re against BDS, and the BDS movement denies the right of the Jewish people to the homeland, looks to exclude Israel from the cultural and academic life of the rest of the world and violates core goals of university and cultural development … it really was very unfortunate and disappointing and also dispiriting that Rep. Coleman could not bind herself to vote for this resolution.”
Levenson is a longtime Jewish community leader who once served as president of the New Jersey State Association of Jewish Federations. He currently chairs the New Jersey Israel Commission, but spoke to the New Jersey Globe outside that capacity.
The resolution affirmed the federal government’s opposition to the BDS movement and encouraged the full implementation of a 2014 law supporting Israel but did nothing to actively quell the movement.
The measure won near-unanimous support in the House, passing 398-17.
“Obviously, we’re disappointed that the congresswoman voted against the resolution,” said Rabbi David Levy, who is regional director of New Jersey’s branch of the American Jewish Committee. “But at the same time I have to tell you we are taking great comfort in the fact that the entire rest of the New Jersey delegation, and actually 398 members of the House of Representatives from both political parties, shared our view that the global movement to boycott the Jewish state is both unjust and blocks the path to peace.”
Among the other House members who voted with Watson Coleman was Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota), who has drawn fire for invoking anti-Semitic tropes in her criticism of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobbying group.
Earlier this month, Watson Coleman cosponsored a resolution introduced by Omar that affirmed constitutional protections for economic protests like those employed by proponents of BDS.
“I will continue to support the state of Israel, our vital strategic partnership, and Jewish people here in the U.S. and abroad, just as I will continue to advocate for a two-state solution — but as Black woman who understands the way in which boycotts won me and my community civil rights, I won’t vote against others ability to do the same,” Watson Coleman said.
Obviously, the issue is one that resonates with Jewish communities.
A demographic study published in 2015 found that New Jersey numbered among the states with the country’s highest Jewish populations, with 523,950 Jews living here.
It’s possible the issue animates Jewish voters ahead of the 2020 primaries, though Seton Hall University political science professor Matt Hale, who is also a Democratic councilman in Highland Park, didn’t think that was likely.
“I don’t think it opens her up to a primary challenge. I think she’s in a pretty safe seat, and my sense is there’s not necessarily a large active Jewish community in her district,” Hale said. “But I think it certainly goes against the tide of not just the rest of the congressional delegation. It goes against the tide of the state delegation.”
Though the 12th congressional district doesn’t include massive Jewish population centers like Lakewood or Teaneck, there are significant Jewish communities in East Brunswick, Monroe, West Windsor, East Windsor, Lawrence, Princeton, Plainsboro, South Brunswick and Scotch Plains.
Watson Coleman won re-election by more than 37 points last year. The district is considered safely Democratic, meaning only a primary challenge could oust the congresswoman if she chooses to run for re-election in 2020.
Levenson and Levy declined to speculate on how the congresswoman’s vote could affect her primary prospects.
Levy declined to comment because the AJC does not get involved in electoral issues. Levenson, speaking for himself and not the Israel Commission, declined because he did not want to treat Jewish voters as a monolith.
“I would imagine that Bonnie Watson Coleman gets some flak for this,” Hale said. “But overall, I would imagine that it fades away fairly quickly.”