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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Several major Jewish organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, told the Forward they do not support the measure. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the large Washington-based Israel lobby, did not take a position on the bill and has said it is reviewing it. Congressional sources made clear that AIPAC did not lobby for the bill.

But the legislation’s sponsors in New York, which include State Senator Jeffrey Klein and the usually indomitable New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, have one powerful organization working on their side: the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York.

“Speaker Silver and Senator Klein are taking a stand against this extremist movement and in support of academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas,” said Hindy Poupko, JCRC Director of Israel & International Affairs, in an email.

Poupko noted that, as a tax exempt public charity, JCRC is not a lobbying organization, but it strongly backed the legislative effort. “This was an initiative that came out of the Assembly and State Senate and we believe in what they’re doing,” she said.

Klein said he had “worked very closely with the JCRC,” which helped him draft the bill. “I was on a conference call with their board yesterday [February 4] and they were very, very excited and supportive of the bill passing the Senate and they wanted to figure out a strategy for the bill passing the Assembly as well,” he said.

JCRC is an umbrella organization composed of 50 New York-based Jewish groups and local chapters of national Jewish groups, including the ADL and AJC. But Steven Bayme, AJC’s Director of Contemporary Jewish Life, strongly criticized the New York bill as “a constraint on academic freedom.” Bayme lamented that it was scaring away allies who had previously fought against the ASA boycott.

“We don’t think it’s a particularly wise idea,” Bayme told the Forward. “If academic freedom is a centerpiece in your argument against BDS, then don’t deny academic freedom to those who support it.” Bayme’s reference was to the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel that was initiated by a coalition of Palestinian civil society groups in 2005, to which the ASA was responding.

Evan R. Bernstein, ADL’s New York Regional Director, said in an email to the Forward that his group’s approach to the ASA boycott move “has not been to advocate for legislation.”

Two liberal Jewish groups, Jewish Voice for Peace and Jews Say No!, are working to defeat the New York bill.

The bill’s civil libertarian opponents say it is unconstitutional and violates the First Amendment. “Basically, political boycotts are protected under the First Amendment,” said Maria LaHood, Senior Staff Attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights, one of the civil liberties groups leading the fight against the bill. “The state can’t deny funding in order to suppress speech based on a particular viewpoint, in this case advocating for a boycott of Israel or Israeli academic institutions.”

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