Fire With Fire

02.15.14

The Movement to Boycott the American Studies Association for Boycotting Israel

Several states are pushing bills to block aide to public universities that got on board with the decision to stop working with Israeli universities over the Jewish State’s human rights record.

What’s the best way to beat back a boycott? By boycotting the boycotters, of course!

At least that is what several states are doing in response to a decision by the American Studies Association to boycott Israel over human rights. That boycott bars official collaboration with Israeli universities—but not Israeli scholars—and brought forth a torrent of criticism, even from those who were sympathetic to the boycott’s aims, but who feared that such a move would hurt academic freedom.

“In seeking to punish alleged violations of academic freedom elsewhere, such boycotts threaten the academic freedom of American scholars to engage the broadest variety of viewpoints,” wrote the leadership of the American Association of University Professors.

And now those varieties of viewpoints could diminish further.

A bill in New York would strip aid from universities that use state aid to fund academic groups that who’ve passed resolutions or taken official actions to promote boycotts against institutions where the New York Board of Regents charters their own institutions—a list that includes Israel, Lebanon, the Czech Republic, and Hungary.

“This bill was necessary because I think taxpayer dollars shouldn’t be used to conduct anti-Israel, and I believe, anti-Semitic rhetoric against colleges that are sharing information back and forth between American students and Israeli students,” said New York State Senator Jeff Klein, who sponsored the bill in Albany. “That is intellectual freedom, and a boycott endangers that.”

Asked if he risked imitating the kind of action that he deplores, Klein responded,  “They started this debate by somehow singling out Israel as a country which isn’t worthy of having intellectual freedom and the ability to have students go over to Israel to attend universities there.”

The sponsors of the bills in the various statehouses appear to be ahead of where Israel and Jewish organizations are in their home states.

That bill easily passed the State Senate, but ran into a roadblock in the State Assembly. Klein said he is optimistic however that it will pass.

In Maryland, a bill would bar public institutions of higher learning from using public dollars to be a member of a group that boycotts a country with whom the state has signed a declaration of cooperation.

“Maryland has a ratified agreement with Israel that we are going to work together and cooperate to improve the lives of our citizens in areas of trade, economic development and specifically academic institutions,” said Ben Kramer of the Maryland House of Delegates. “It really does not make sense when this is state policy to have public funds undermine that policy.” 

Lawmakers in Illinois and Florida are now looking into their own bills, as are two members of the U.S. Congress, even though the efforts have been almost uniformly panned. The AAUP, which wrote the open letter against the ASA boycott, wrote that the state efforts “would impose a political litmus test on faculty members seeking university support for research meetings and travel.” The New York Times called the bill “a chill on speech,” and urged Governor Andrew Cuomo to veto it. An op-ed in the Baltimore Sun (by a member of the American Studies Association, no less) proclaimed, “Our state deserves better than these draconian attempts to silence debate about one of the vital issues of our time.”

But concerns that these bills are the part of an all-powerful Israel lobby once again bending the arms of lawmakers to their will appear unfounded. If anything, the sponsors of the bills in the various statehouses appear to be ahead of where Israel and Jewish organizations are in their home states.

Klein, in New York, said that he thought of the bill on his own, without hearing from any advocates or lobbyists.

“When I saw what the American Studies Association did, I went and crafted legislation that I thought would be appropriate to stop it. I introduced the legislation, then I talked to the [Jewish Community Relations Council] in New York, and they were supportive. I really haven’t reached out to any groups. I am optimistic we will have more groups on board.”

In Illinois, State Sen. Ira Silverstein saw the Times editorial and said he too wrote and introduced a bill, after reaching out to Klein but before reaching out to Jewish community groups in his home base of Chicago.

“I did this myself. I was in Springfield, reading The New York Times online, which we still do, even though we get the Chicago Tribune, and I saw the editorial blasting the bill and I said ‘We have to stop this kind of conduct.’”

In Maryland, Delegate Kramer said he too wrote the bill as soon as he learned about the ASA boycott, also checking with Jewish groups only after.

“I think there was broad interest in figuring out how to address it, and I decided that this was the responsible way to address. I then met with a number of groups who were very upset [by the ASA vote.]”

The Senate version of his bill, in fact, was passed so quickly that the sponsor in that chamber did not have time to see cosponsors.

So far though, many Jewish groups and otherwise staunch supporters of Israel have kept fairly quiet about the bills, if not discouraging them all together.

“We welcome any effort to challenge or fight the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement in colleges and universities,” Anti-Defamation League Chairman Abraham Foxman said, according to Buzzfeed. “However well-intentioned, we are not sure that this bill would be the most effective means of recourse.”

The American-Israel Public Affairs Committee has so far been silent too.

“It’s kind of a dangerous precedent to set, having a legislative body do this,” said Richard Cravatts, president of President of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East and someone who has written over 350 articles, op-eds, and book chapters on Israel and anti-Semitism, including most recently the book Genocidal Liberalism: The University’s Jihad Against Israel and Jews.

“There are more moral imbalances to this debate, to be sure, but I don’t think the idea of a bill coming out of a legislature that targets one organization and demonizes them is a good thing. I think it is a slippery slope.”