UNITED STATES NEWS

Israel and Hamas measures get a look as most US state legislatures meet for first time since Oct. 7

Dec 22, 2023, 10:22 PM

FILE - Pro-Palestinian supporters hold up signs during a demonstration at Orlando City Hall, Friday...

FILE - Pro-Palestinian supporters hold up signs during a demonstration at Orlando City Hall, Friday, Oct. 20, 2023, in Orlando, Fla. State lawmakers across the country are expected consider legislation related to the Israel-Hamas war in 2024. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel via AP, File)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel via AP, File)

Most U.S. state legislatures will reconvene in January for the first time since Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel sparked a war in Gaza and protests worldwide — and they’re preparing to take action in response, both symbolic and concrete.

Legislatures in at least eight states that were in session late in 2023 have already condemned the attacks.

“My worldview was shaped by the fact that my forbearers were not protected during the Holocaust, that no one came to their aid,” said Florida state Sen. Lori Berman, a Democrat who sponsored a resolution that passed unanimously last month in her state. “Silence and indifference are the reason why bad — evil — is able to prevail.”

Measures have been introduced already for the 2024 sessions in states from New Hampshire to North Dakota, and more are likely.

In the Oct. 7 attack, Hamas killed about 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and took about 240 others hostage. Israel responded with attacks on Gaza, leveling buildings, including hospitals, killing more than 19,000, according to the Health Ministry in Gaza, and causing 1.9 million Palestinian residents to flee their homes.

Strong emotions about the ongoing war are informed by a long history of conflict.

Since Oct. 7, at least 59 Hamas- or Israel-related pieces of legislation have been introduced in state legislatures. Most are resolutions condemning the attack and supporting Israel.

In states including Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas, resolutions in condemnation of the attack passed unanimously or nearly so.

Others have different aims: Resolutions in Pennsylvania and Texas would encourage President Joe Biden to facilitate an end to the conflict between Israel and Palestinians. A New Jersey bill would have the state reimburse travel bills for state residents who were evacuated from Israel during the attack or afterward.

The issue could become more complex as the war goes on, with Democrats in some states becoming divided on resolutions.

In Michigan, the Democratic-led state House adjourned their 2023 session without agreeing on a resolution, as Arab American lawmakers refused to support a resolution condemning Hamas and supporting Israel’s response.

Another resolution in Michigan would call on Democrat U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib — the only Palestinian American in Congress — to resign over rhetoric that’s widely seen as a calling for the eradication of Israel. Her statements have already brought her censure from Congress.

While condemning the attack is a largely popular position, how the bills do so varies.

During a special session this month, the Georgia House of Representatives approved a resolution condemning the attacks. Only two of the 180 representatives voted against the resolution, but 49 didn’t vote. Among those not voting was Rep. Ruwa Romman, a Democrat and the first Muslim woman elected to the chamber.

She said in an interview that she told the bill’s authors that she would have supported it if it had said the state stands with the Israeli people, instead of Israel.

“You can’t ask me to stand with a country that displaced my grandparents and is now killing people en masse,” Romman said.

Lawmakers are also weighing in on how to handle protests and Palestinian-oriented events at universities, some of them accused of allowing antisemitism.

Republican lawmakers in Pennsylvania this month defeated legislation to send $33.5 million to the private University of Pennsylvania’s veterinary school amid criticism and claims that the university was tolerating antisemitism.

Indiana’s Republican House Speaker Todd Huston told his caucus in November that he would prioritize addressing antisemitism on college campuses in light of the Israel-Hamas war.

The Indiana House passed a bill during the 2023 legislative session that sought to define antisemitism as religious discrimination and “provide educational opportunities free of religious discrimination.” The bill died in the Senate.

“Our Jewish students should know they will be safe on campuses throughout Indiana and not be subjected to antisemitic teaching or materials,” Huston told colleagues in a speech.

A Florida measure introduced in 2023 would force public university students who support Hamas and other groups designated as terrorist organizations to pay out-of-state tuition.

“I saw videos of protests on Florida’s campuses and wondered to myself ‘how many of these pro-Hamas students chanting for the destruction of Israel are taxpayers subsidizing with reduced tuition rates?’” the bill’s sponsor, GOP state Sen. Blaise Ingoglia, told The Associated Press in an email.

The bill did not advance in a special session in November, but he said he would bring it back.

A New Jersey measure would target funding for universities, rather than individual students, prohibiting them from “authorizing, facilitating, providing funding for, or otherwise supporting any event or organization promoting antisemitism or hate speech on campus.” Its sponsor in the Assembly, Republican Alex Sauickie, said he believes the idea can pick up the bipartisan support needed to pass in a Democrat-controlled legislature.

Edward Ahmed Michell, the national deputy director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said that measures restricting speech could be found unconstitutional and he doesn’t expect them to gain traction. He said that many of the others, which focus on support for Israel but not for the people of Gaza killed or displaced in the war, are also troubling.

“I understand state legislators want to comment on international incidents that are relevant to their constituents, and that’s fine,” said Edward Ahmed Michell, the national deputy director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “But they need to be morally consistent.”

___

Mulvihill reported from Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Associated Press writers Isabella Volmert in Indianapolis and Joey Cappelletti in Lansing, Michigan, contributed to this report.

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Israel and Hamas measures get a look as most US state legislatures meet for first time since Oct. 7