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

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Under mounting pressure from opponents, who criticized the measure as an assault on free speech, a companion bill was withdrawn from the State Assembly, New York’s lower house.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.”

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.”

“It’s incompatible with the principles of academic freedom and free speech,” said New York Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “In our society the response to bad ideas is not to suppress them or punish them, but to dispute them.”

Both LaHood and Lieberman said they expected their organizations would challenge the bill in court if it becomes law.

Klein rejected claims that his bill would violate the First Amendment. “I believe the ASA can’t hide behind the First Amendment to make a political statement that interferes with intellectual freedom,” he said. The bill, he argued is “very narrowly tailored,” and makes exceptions for boycotts involving state sponsors of terrorism, labor disputes, or “protesting unlawful discriminatory practices.”

The bill’s opponents say the measure’s premise is unconstitutional, no matter how many caveats are added. “When you’re trying to punish an academic institution for allowing academics to engage in free speech and debate, it’s hard to write a bill that will pass constitutional muster,” Lieberman said.

By penalizing schools only for the amount of state money they spend to support groups boycotting Israel, the revised Assembly bill seeks to address some of the opponents’ concerns. Under the earlier legislation passed in the State Senate, universities that used state money to participate in the activities of groups like the ASA would lose all state funding for an academic year.

“It’s draconian,” LaHood said. “If they spent $150 dollars to support a [professor] going to an ASA meeting and that money was from state funds, they would lose all of their state funding for the entire year.”

The language in Klein’s bill appears to bear LaHood out. But Klein denied this. He claimed that only state funding used specifically for participation in groups like the ASA would be in jeopardy. “They would lose the money that they allocated towards ASA purposes,” he said.

The State Senate bill states that “no college shall be eligible for state aid during the academic year that such college is in violation” of the funding ban.

“Maybe he doesn’t know what’s in his own bill, but he’s wrong,” LaHood said.

The push-back against the New York bill has not deterred supporters of similar legislation in Maryland and Illinois. Silverstein, the Illinois state senator, was unaware of the New York backlash. “How much controversy has it had?” he said, when asked whether the opposition to the New York measure had made him wary about introducing his own bill. “I don’t know what’s going on up there.”

The Baltimore Jewish Council, a local organization similar to the New York JCRC, is continuing to support the Maryland bill and collaborate with its sponsors. “We’ve been working with them to draft a bill that would be both effective and constitutional,” said Arthur Abramson, Baltimore Jewish Council Executive Director, reached in Annapolis while lobbying for the bill. “We’ve gotten an opinion from the Maryland attorney general that it’s constitutional.”

Whatever the final outcome, some see the current backlash in New York as an ominous sign for pro-Israel groups. “The speaker’s bills never get yanked. It just never happens,” Ryan Karben, a former Democratic State Assemblyman and vocal Israel supporter said, referring to Silver’s support for the original State Assembly measure. “If you’re having controversy over pro-Israel legislation in the Legislature in New York, that should be an alarm for the pro- Israel community across the country.”

Karben blamed the resistance on what he sees as left-wing Democrats’ slow drift away from support for Israel. “You clearly have a skunk in the Democratic tent on Israel and it smells really bad,” he said.

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