Inside the Illinois state pension board seeking to promote Israeli control over the West Bank


JB PRITZKER AND BRUCE RAUNER (ARMANDO L. SANCHEZ/CHICAGO TRIBUNE)

FRAN ZELL, MONDOWEISS, FEBRUARY 10, 2022

A coalition of Palestinian rights activists in Illinois believes it is past time to overturn the state’s anti-BDS law and do away with the small board dominated by right-wing extremists that enforces it. The Ben & Jerry’s issue was the tipping point that prompted the formation of the Illinois Coalition for Justice, Equality and Free Speech, now 20 member groups strong. It started last August when six activists attended the meeting of the Illinois Investment Policy Board (IIPB), at which the board voted unanimously and without discussion to begin the process of punishing Ben & Jerry’s for deciding to stop selling its ice cream in the West Bank and East Jerusalem settlements. 

At that meeting the IIPB agreed to send notice to parent company Unilever that its socially responsible subsidiary had 90 days to reverse course. Otherwise Illinois public pension funds would be divested from all 400 Unilever brands. And ultimately, at a crowded meeting in late December, the board finalized the punishment by adding Unilever to its “restricted” list.

The media framed it as the state of Illinois’ war on Ben & Jerry’s. But in reality it’s a war being waged by an extremist pro-Israel lobby that put both the law and the board in place, and as FOIA emails show, is now using the board to promote their agenda of establishing Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank. However, a growing number of Illinois citizens are demanding the law be overturned, and the board it created be disbanded. 

The pro-Israel ideologue behind the Illinois Investment Policy Board

The person quietly at the center of it is Richard Goldberg, a Chicago-based pro-Israel neocon. He is currently a Senior Adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), a hawkish foreign policy “think tank” that according to the Jewish News Syndicate helped guide the Trump administration’s Iran strategy.

Richard Goldberg (Photo: Foundation for Defense of Democracies)
Richard Goldberg (Photo: Foundation for Defense of Democracies)

At FDD Goldberg is said to have worked behind the scenes in 2018 to kill support within the Trump administration for the Iran Nuclear Deal. He is described as the Iran hawk John Bolton brought onto the National Security Council (2019-20), where he coordinated Trump’s “maximum pressure campaign” against Tehran. According to the Jewish News Syndicate, the campaign included sanctions, military force and the assassination of Qasem Soleimani. A few days after the assassination, Goldberg left the Trump administration and returned to the FDD.

Goldberg’s latest target through FDD is the United Nations for “demonizing” Israel. He has branded  UNRWA as antisemitic and linked to terrorism and guilty of perpetuating a “myth of Palestinian refugees.” When Trump defunded UNRWA in 2018, Goldberg told AP News that it was a “‘win for U.S. taxpayers and peace’…that would make Palestinians more self-sufficient…” 

He is also the person who “spearheaded the first ever” anti-BDS law, which “sparked a nationwide initiative in state capitols around America,” as he asserts in his FDD bio.

Goldberg has remained closely associated with the Illinois Investment Policy Board since its beginnings in 2016, according to a reliable source. “He attends IIPB meetings and is involved in its operations,” the source said.  “If you want to know anything about the statute and how it is interpreted, talk to Richard Goldberg.”

Goldberg did not return a call asking for information about his involvement with the board. 

The story of SB1761

The anti-BDS law (SB1761) passed the state assembly without a single nay vote in 2015. It is an amendment to the Illinois Pension Code that prohibits transactions by retirement systems with companies that “boycott Israel,” as well as with companies that don’t boycott Iran and Sudan. The Sudan clause is currently being revised, due to political changes in that country related to Israel. 

The law defines “Boycott of Israel” as “politically motivated” and “intended to penalize Israel.” Among the more contentious and legally questionable aspects of the law (after constitutionality) are the words “territories controlled by Israel” used in place of occupied Palestinian territory. The board then uses this language to claim the West Bank is part of Israel.

“Ben & Jerry’s is not boycotting Israel,” three national leaders of two liberal Zionist organizations said in a guest op-ed that appeared in Crain’s Chicago Business in early January. “…Their ice cream is still available in Israel, just not in Israeli settlements outside the state of Israel.”

The op-ed authors, Jim Klutznick, Bill Singer and Marilyn Katz are prominent Chicago area professionals and serve on the national boards of J Street and Americans for Peace Now (APN). Their op-ed decried the settlements and Israeli human rights violations against Palestinians. They decried SB1761 for flaunting international law.

The law, which was the first of its kind, gave birth to 34 more anti-BDS state laws, and recently has become a template for laws pending or passed in numerous states that restrict and/or punish public, business, and government entities for taking a stand on firearms, fossil fuels, and even Covid-19 vaccines. 

At the time SB1761 passed, and for most of the time since, no one publicly took credit for writing it. Lately, however, Richard Goldberg’s name has come up in the media as its author. The same reliable source confirmed Goldberg’s role in writing it, but also noted that “every governor appointee to the Investment Policy Board was involved with tracking legislation that was helpful in drafting the legislation.”

Goldberg created the anti-BDS law (SB1761) in 2015 while deputy chief of staff for legislative affairs for former Illinois Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner. He had recently completed 10 years on Capitol Hill, in various capacities for former U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), also a former Illinois Congressman. As Kirk’s senior foreign policy advisor, he was a leading architect for the toughest sanctions imposed on Iran, and in an earlier position, played a key role in expanding and securing military funding for Israel.

From his earliest days as governor, Rauner was not a friend of unions and gained a reputation for exploiting pension funds. Goldberg’s idea of forcing pension funds to divest from sound companies with a social responsibility component must have struck a chord with Rauner because he took up SB1761 almost immediately. 

In March 2015, about two months after taking office, Rauner hosted a Passover seder at the Governor’s Mansion. Besides the usual four questions, a main topic was BDS, with the governor pledging that Illinois would be a “national leader” in the battle against it. Richard Goldberg was in attendance, along with Jewish Federation leaders from across the state. The Chicago JUF News story thanked Goldberg for his Jewish United Fund (JUF) “partnership” on the event, and reported that about 75 state legislators and executive officials attended. Future IIPB board member and former JUF annual campaign chair, Andrew Lappin, was one of the four co-hosts.

There wasn’t much more for lobbyists to do than tell every legislator that SB1761 was a law that would fight antisemitism. Which by default meant if they didn’t vote for it, word could get out that they were antisemitic.

“Every liberal and every lefty voted for it because they were afraid of the right wing Jewish lobby and no one else spoke up,” says Americans for Peace Now board member Marilyn Katz, who tried to stop the law from passing back in 2015.

The words “antisemitic” or antisemitism” are not mentioned anywhere in SB1761. But those words are its subtext, thanks to a controversial 21st century definition promoted by the Israeli government that conflates “hatred of Jewish people” with “criticism of Israel.”  The definition was expanded in 2016 by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance to (among other additions),  make “accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel…than to the interests of their own nations” another form of antisemitism.

Less than a month after Rauner’s seder, the law passed the Senate, 49 to 0, with a sprinkling of Present and NV votes.  Shortly afterward, JUF News reported that the law was “conceived” by Rauner, who indeed touted it at an Israeli Independence Day celebration in Chicago a couple of weeks before the House vote. The same JUF article, written about two weeks before the House vote, noted that the bill had been “strategized in cooperation with JUF,” and called on readers to contact their state reps.

Jay Tcath, who oversees JUF government affairs in Washington and Springfield, speaks with the authority of someone who may have been part of that strategizing, and FOIA emails indicate he is closely connected to board operations. “The law is very clear and this board is not a deliberative body,” he told the Jerusalem Post the day after the IIPB’s unanimous December vote that added Unilever to the restricted list.  “…it is not a legislature, there is no debate per se…They [board members] are more like regulators….the law is black and white.”

Coalition members say the law is written with broad, ambiguous and non-determinative language, defining “boycott of Israel” as  “politically motivated” and “intended to penalize Israel,” when in reality these are assumptions.

“How does the board have any idea what the motivations or intentions of Ben & Jerry’s are or any company for that matter?” asked Tarek Khalil, an attorney and Chicago board member of American Muslims for Palestine, speaking during IIPB public comments in December. “The answer is simple: You have no idea.”

Board remains a mystery

There are seven members on the board, four of them governor appointees. The other three members are appointed representatives of state public pension funds. No term limits are indicated in the statute, though there has been turnover among the pension fund reps. Rauner appointed three Republicans with strong ties to the pro-Israel lobby: Andrew Lappin, Alicia Oberman, and Mitchell Goldberg, who left the board in late 2021 for a judicial appointment and who the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reports is Richard Goldberg’s brother. Rauner’s fourth appointee was Republican Michael Mahoney, his Policy Adviser for Revenue and Pensions, when Rauner was profiting from them.

There are two board committees, which meet briefly before each board meeting to vote on recommendations which are then voted on and usually approved by the board. Andrew Lappin, who also has ties to the FDD, chairs the Committee on Israel Boycott Restrictions, whose membership consists of two other governor appointees and one pension fund appointee, which means the right-wingers control it. Andrew Lappin and one other governor appointee, along with all three pension fund representatives serve on the Committee on Sudan Restrictions, Iran Restrictions, and Expatriated Entities. This gives the labor reps sway on a committee which doesn’t have that much importance in the big scheme of anti-BDS activity.

Democratic governor J.B. Pritzker who took office in January 2018 left all of Rauner’s appointees in place until late last year when he appointed former Illinois Republican state Rep. Sidney Mathias to replace Mitchell Goldberg. Mathias also has longtime close ties to the pro-Israel lobby and once served on the board of the JUF/ Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.

Pritzker didn’t have much to say about why he has allowed right-wing extremists to control a board that handles state pension funds.  When asked to comment for this article he replied through his press secretary: “The vote from an independent board is the initial step in a process laid out in a state law that passed the General Assembly nearly unanimously governing how the pension boards can invest their funds. The administration will closely monitor additional steps.” 

So for teachers and state workers it sounds like a vote for Pritzker turned out to be a vote for Rauner regarding pension fund concerns.

According to the law, the board is charged with using pension fund monies to cover costs associated with its activities. Board members have no fiduciary responsibilities, meaning they can not be held responsible or legally accountable for decisions regarding such monies. 

Palestinian rights activists Ross Hyman of Jewish Voice for Peace-Chicago and Paula Roderick, of Chicago Faith Coalition on Middle East Policy and United Methodists for Kairos Response, recently filed a FOIA request to the board. They are seeking, among other information, documents indicating the names of vendors the board uses and how much they are billing the board.  

“Those requests were rejected on the grounds of being a ‘proprietary trade secret,’” says Hyman. “This is a Republican majority board and I want to know if they are using anti-union consulting firms, and how much they are taking out of pension funds to pay them.”

“Many email requests are coming back redacted, so we can’t tell who sent them,” says Roderick. “They didn’t do that with FOIA requests a few years ago.”

Airbnb as a tipping point

The board entered uncharted waters when it cracked down on Airbnb back in 2018 for removing its listings from the settlements. It was the first case involving a high profile U.S. company and the occupied Palestinian territory. Airbnb had taken the step after more than two years of dialogue with Human Rights Watch.   In a written (FOIA) appeal to the board, Airbnb explained that it had developed a five-step framework in regard to listings in any disputed territory in the world. Three of those steps were assessing potential safety risks for both hosts and guests; evaluating whether such listings contributed to existing human suffering; and determining whether the existence of listings in the occupied territory has a direct connection to the larger dispute in the region.”

Airbnb further elaborated that it was not boycotting Israel or intending to do harm to Israel as defined in the section 1-110.16 of the Illinois Pension Code. It had 20,000 listings in Israel, including East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. The West Bank listings impacted less than 1% of those listings and less than .2% of its revenue from the region. Within the previous five years it had invested “more than $20 million to support our community in Israel and we are committed to maintaining this level of financial commitment going forward…”

The board was not moved. In March 2019 it added Airbnb to its growing list of prohibited companies.

The anti-BDS law states that it is not the general assembly’s “intent…to cause divestiture from companies based in the United States,” but it’s possible some on the board may have balked when then State Sen. Ira Silverstein, in a December 12, 2018 FOIA email urged the board to “fully enforce the statute with respect to Airbnb.” He said that as the “original author of SB1761” he could assure them the intent section was “non-binding” and that the Board has “complete authority to add Airbnb to Illinois’ Prohibited List.” (Up until that point, and ever since, Silverstein seems to have only been publicly associated with the bill as its chief Senate sponsor.)

In May 2019, faced with discrimination lawsuits in the U.S. and Israel, and widespread charges of antisemitism, Airbnb restored its listings in the West Bank. Back when Airbnb had first decided to withdraw from the settlements, five prominent Jewish organizations wrote a joint letter to the Israeli government supporting Airbnb’s decision and condemning Israel for branding Airbnb as antisemitic. But the condemnations stuck and spread.

“Whether you consider Israel to be a democratic or apartheid state,” APN board member Marilyn Katz told Mondoweiss, “no international law considers occupied Palestine as part of Israel.”

Like the coalition, she and her two op-ed co-authors called for repeal of SB1761 and an end to a board “known by and accountable to virtually no one.”

A smoking gun

The board may not be accountable to Illinois taxpayers, but as revealed in a smoking gun FOIA email, some members of the IIPB do see their mission as further entrenching Israeli control over Palestinian land.

Board member Andrew Lappin sent the FOIA email to his friend Jay Tcath at the Jewish Federation on December 10, 2018. Speaking as chair of the Committee on Israel Boycott Restrictions, Lappin implied that it was clear from Airbnb’s “robust” defense, that like other companies on the restricted list, it had no hatred for Israel. However, he said, both he and Tcath knew that the “principle and the nuance, within the context of the committee’s mission,” was preserving Israel’s sovereignty over the West Bank (Lappin used the words Judea and Samaria). Lappin said that he as well as the other governor appointees on the Committee (he named Alicia Oberman and Mitchell Goldberg) were “fiercely committed” to that mission.

Email from IIPB board member Andrew Lappin to the Jewish Federation’s Jay Tcath.

He shared a concern that possible future governor appointees to the board might not be like-minded, and therefore other “well-intended companies like Airbnb” could go unpunished. With a new governor (Pritzker) about to take office, Lappin asked Tcath to help make sure the political bent of the board did not change.

And it didn’t. 

Governor Pritzker’s office did not reply to a request for the governor’s thoughts about Lappin’s email to Tcath.  Coalition members, however, are incensed.

If Andrew Lappin says it is his job to protect Israel’s sovereignty over Palestine, why is it Illinois’ job to help him do that?” asks Lesley Williams, a coalition organizer and a leader of Jewish Voice for Peace-Chicago. “Why should Illinois law be helping to preserve Israel’s sovereignty over the West Bank? And why is Illinois making foreign policy at all?

“This is a law that not just protects Israel, but protects policies that the United Nations describes as a war crime,” Williams says. “A UN reporter on Palestine actually called the settlements a war crime, not an obstacle to peace, or any of the euphemisms that the U.S. government  uses, but an actual war crime.”

Coalition members are also concerned about a blog Lappin writes in the Times of Israel, which often drives an Islamophobic narrative and in which he identifies himself as an IIPB member as well as a former board member of CAMERA (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America.) In a telling 2017 post titled “Islam, the Political Iceberg of Democracy,” he blamed “unfettered Muslim immigration” in Sweden for the claim (a false claim as it turns out) that Sweden was the “rape capital of Europe.” He suggested that Swedish government refusal to curb Muslim immigration “highlights the lopsided political imbalance resulting from Islam coercion.”

Activists would like to know why the governor keeps Lappin on the board, in view of his disturbing comments about Muslims.

The push to overturn SB1761

Coalition organizers plan to fuel their drive to overturn the law with an education and social media campaign as well as with outreach to elected officials at the state and Congressional level.

Since the law passed in 2015, “there has been a growing public awareness of what a colossal human rights disaster the occupation has been,” says Williams. “Last May there were many thousands on the street in Illinois and all over the country protesting what was happening in Gaza and East Jerusalem. We want people to also be aware of this law, in hopes that it will build a large outcry against it.”

Flyer for the Illinois Coalition for Justice, Equality and Free Speech

The legislative work will require getting past the pervasive, anti-Palestinian racism that led so many to vote for the bill, says JVP’s Ross Hyman.

“That’s the underlying problem,” he notes. “The law and entire anti-BDS movement are rooted in an effort to enforce and inflame the association of Palestinians with antisemitism and terrorism.”

“The law promotes a narrative that if Palestinians want human rights, freedom and liberation it’s not because they are human beings who love their families,” Hyman says. “It promotes a narrative that if Palestinians (or others) are supporting BDS, which is a nonviolent campaign to pressure Israel to honor human rights, it must be because they are antisemites.” 

“It is like something out of a totalitarian state, that SB1761 passed without a single no vote,” says Michael Davis, an independent rabbi, based in suburban Chicago. “It’s preposterous. Who can even say with a straight face that there is zero opposition among the people of the State of Illinois for this anti-democratic law?”

Marilyn Katz points out that “with the conflation of the occupied territories and Israel, SB1761 sets up precedent for more unconstitutional laws, in opposition to even U.S., let alone international laws.  Everyone was asleep at the wheel.” 

Rabbi Davis reflects that the saga of SB1761 reveals the state of mind of the anti-BDS lobby. “If the anti-Palestinian lobby felt they had a strong moral case, they wouldn’t have minded a few nay votes,” he says. “But they are terrified. Look how they freaked out over a few simple words in support of Palestinians from Emma Watson. It’s like they think this unanimous dam can hold back Palestinian solidarity. They fear that the slightest crack in the dam they built spells doom.” 

A question the coalition wants to ask state reps and senators, is  “When you voted for this law did you realize what it was actually going to do?” says Lesley Williams. “And how do you think this law is actually going to help address antisemitism?  Did you really want a law that protects a human rights violator?

“The decision may not have great impact on Ben & Jerry’s sales because it is a popular company,” Williams says. “But this is a bellwether.”

Marilyn Katz notes that next the board is going after Morningstar, because it purchased two European companies that do not purchase products produced in the West Bank. Morningstar is a Chicago-based company that employs almost eight thousand people. 

“The danger the law and board pose to Illinois is real,” Katz and others wrote in the Crain’s op-ed.

The danger and continued humiliation it poses for Palestinians is real as well.

“This law is just another example of Palestinian exceptionalism, where Palestinians are told that when they demand justice they’re going too far,” Liz Bajjalieh, Student Network Director of Chicago Area Peace Action told the board in December. “As a Palestinian of the diaspora I witness this exceptionalism daily…where even just saying ‘I am Palestinian’ can tense up a room.” 

“The Illinois law is perpetuating the life that I, and all Palestinians of the diaspora, that all Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, Israel…experience on a daily basis… We don’t just have to fight for justice for our people, but even just the right to say we are allowed to fight for justice for our people. Like when George Washington University… denied Palestinian students the right to even grieve the mass killings of their people during the Israeli bombardment of Gaza this May. That is how much we have normalized demonizing Palestinians and justice for Palestinians.”

Two days before the board’s final meeting on Ben & Jerry’s last December, the Jewish News Syndicate announced in an “exclusive” story, that it had learned from “multiple sources,” that divestment was assured. JNS also said it had learned that “American Muslims for Palestine was attempting to organize a large-scale protest and potential disruption of the public meeting.” The only source quoted by name in the story was Richard Goldberg, described as the person who “spearheaded the legislation.” Goldberg told JNS that the board had given Unilever “multiple opportunities to formulate its position” and had only replied with a “boilerplate corporate letter,” a response he called “flippant.”

There was a rally in front of the James R. Thompson state office building that December morning, but it had been organized by the entire coalition and included speakers from various member groups. About eight activists went inside to witness and/or speak. Reports came back that the room was at capacity, probably beyond Covid-19 protocol limits, so a few others who had wanted to speak delivered their comments outside. The notion of a meeting disruption, as planted in the JNS story, was somebody’s anti-Palestinian fantasy. 

Fran Zell is an independent journalist living in Chicago. She is a former staff writer for the Chicago Tribune.


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