New York Senate passes bill punishing ASA over Israel boycott

ActivismIsrael/PalestineUS Politics
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State Senator Jeffrey Klein (Photo: MARIELA LOMBARD/New York Daily News)

State Senator Jeffrey Klein (Photo: MARIELA LOMBARD/New York Daily News)

Legislation that targets the American Studies Association over its decision to boycott Israel passed its first test today: a vote in the New York Senate. The bill, introduced by Democratic Senator Jeff Klein, the co-leader of the body, passed by a vote of 56-4.

The measure prohibits colleges and universities from spending taxpayer funds on academic groups that support boycotting Israel.  While the measure applies to any academic organization that boycotts countries where the New York Board of Regents has chartered a school, the focus is on Israel.  A companion bill is currently being considered in the Assembly.  If it passes there–48 lawmakers are co-sponsors of it–it will be up to Governor Andrew Cuomo to either sign the bill or veto it.

The bill’s passage marks the first time a legislative body has successfully passed a bill to target the ASA over its decision in December to boycott Israeli academic institutions. That decision, a landmark victory for the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, unleashed a torrent of opposition from Israel lobby groups and university administrations.

“This legislation sends a very simple message, which is that we should never ask taxpayers to support religious, ethnic, or racial discrimination. We need to marginalize the politics of intolerance whenever it rears its ugly head,” Senator Klein, who represents the Bronx and Westchester, said in a statement.  “I will not allow the enemies of Israel or the Jewish people to gain an inch in New York. The First Amendment protects every organization’s right to speak, but it never requires taxpayers to foot the bill.”

The bill’s principal impact will fall on students or scholars from state schools who receive money from their institutions to travel to the ASA convention–or to conventions held by the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association and the Association for Asian American Studies, both of which have voted to boycott Israel. The legislation also prohibits state schools from paying membership fees to the ASA.  In practice, this will affect individual departments at state institutions, since departments pay membership fees, not schools themselves.

Institutions violating the legislation would be cut off from state aid during the academic year the violation occurred. The legislation also has language that exempts certain kinds of boycotts: boycotts related to labor disputes, countries that are “state sponsors” of terrorism, and boycotts that target “unlawful discriminatory practices”–exactly what the ASA boycott and BDS movement are about.

Although Klein’s statement claims that the legislation is in line with the First Amendment, legal advocates strongly disagree, and the bill could set the stage for lawsuits.

In an e-mail to me last week, the Palestine Solidarity Legal Support group’s Dima Khalidi laid out the constitutional issues with the bill.  The First Amendment “prohibits public officials from denying public benefits as a way of censoring speech activities. These bills clearly aim to discourage expressive activities such as boycotts based on the legislators’ personal disagreement with the content of the expression,” Khalidi said.  “Painting the ASA boycott resolution as discriminatory is not only inaccurate, but also distracts from the fact that its purpose is in fact to protest the human rights violations for which Israel is responsible, and the discriminatory policies and practices of the Israeli government. These bills would be both a violation of free speech and of academic freedom, which the proposed legislation cynically purports to defend.”

Klein had previously sent letters to the leadership of the State University of New York and the City University of New York that asked them to denounce the ASA boycott.  Both of the university institutions have come out against the boycott.  Klein had also teamed up with Dov Hikind, an Assembly Democrat and former member of the Jewish Defense League–an extremist group linked to violent attacks in the U.S.–on a separate, and slightly different, bill targeting the ASA.  There has been no movement on that legislation, though.

(Thanks to Corey Robin, who first alerted me to this.)

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