Bill Targeting Israel Boycott Bounces Back in New York State — and Nationally

Congress May Consider Measure Barring Pro-BDS Moves


By Hody Nemes

Published February 07, 2014.
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Just days after a coalition of unions, civil libertarians and academic groups cheered its demise, a bill targeting academic boycotts of Israel has returned to New York’s state legislature — and similar measures are now popping up in other statehouses and the U.S. Congress.

The New York bill, which passed the State Senate January 28, prohibits universities from using state funds to support academic groups boycotting Israel, among other countries; universities that violated the ban would lose all state funding.

Under mounting pressure from opponents, who criticized the measure as an assault on free speech, a companion bill was withdrawn from the State Assembly, New York’s lower house. But on Thursday, the bill was reintroduced in the State Assembly with softer financial penalties. Instead of losing all state funding, as specified in the State Senate bill, such universities would lose only the money they used to participate in the banned groups’ activities. Membership costs or travel to banned groups’ conferences would “be deducted from any future payments of state aid” to such colleges,” according to the revised Assembly bill’s language.

Opponents of the bill were unmoved. But they may have their hands full on multiple fronts. A version of the bill was also introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives February 6, sponsored by House Chief Deputy Whip Peter Roskam (R-Ill.) and Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill). The congressional bill would deny federal funding to any U.S. academic institution participating in a boycott of Israeli universities. The university would also lose funding if “any organization significantly funded by the institution” endorses an Israeli academic boycott.

Maryland state lawmakers have drafted a similar bill, which garnered more than 50 co-sponsors in the Maryland House of Delegates when it was introduced, also on February 6. Another bill, nearly identical to the New York legislation, will likely be introduced in the Illinois Legislature next week by State Senator Ira Silverstein, the Majority Caucus Whip.

The various bills come in response to a resolution passed in December by the 5,000-member American Studies Association, endorsing a boycott of Israeli academic institutions and their official representatives. The resolution, which is meant to protest Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, its alleged restrictions on academic freedom for Palestinians, and the United States’ “enabling” of these policies, exempts individual Israeli scholars from the boycott policy. The ASA, an academic organization for scholars in the field of American studies, states it continues to support such individual scholarly exchanges.

The resolution’s passage nevertheless provoked a storm of reaction, including condemnation of the measure by nearly 200 universities, reported threats sent to the ASA and attacks on and defenses of the group by prominent public figures.

But even some prominent opponents of the ASA’s original resolution are now condemning the legislative moves to sanction schools that give financial support or dues to the ASA, or that support scholars with funds to attend ASA functions.

In New York, the coalition pushing against the bill includes the powerful New York State United Teachers union, the Center for Constitutional Rights, the New York Civil Liberties Union, and a group of dozens of Columbia University professors. The American Association of University Professors, which strongly condemned the ASA boycott, has also decried the legislation. The group’s New York chapter described the bill as “reminiscent, for many of us, of the loyalty oaths of the McCarthy era.”


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