Battle over Maryland’s anti-boycott Israel bill heats up

ActivismIsrael/PalestineUS Politics
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Image via WaronWant.org

Image via WaronWant.org

Maryland state politicians are likely unaware that Palestinian children in Hebron have to cross checkpoints to get to school. But that’s the reality that supporters of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement brought into recent legislative hearings in an effort to fight back against anti-boycott legislation.

Israeli human rights abuses and the BDS movement took center stage on two occasions last week in Maryland. The separate state Senate and House committee hearings centered on a set of bills that would prohibit spending public funds for travel or membership fees on academic groups that boycott Israel.  The American Studies department at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, pays yearly dues of $170 to the American Studies Association, which recently voted to boycott Israeli academic institutions.  Under the law, those funds would not be able to come from the department anymore.

Proponents and opponents of the bill testified at both hearings on March 5th and March 6th.

Israel advocates, like members of the Baltimore Jewish Council (BJC), said the BDS movement was discriminatory and anti-Semitic and that public funds should not be spent on groups that support the movement. Opponents of the legislation, including members of Jewish Voice for Peace and the Christian Peacemaker Team, shot back by pointing to Israeli human rights abuses and why the bill would chill speech and infringe on academic freedom in the state. Tarek Abuata, a coordinator for the Christian Peacemaker Team, told legislators of how, as a ten-year old, he was home-schooled in Palestine because the Israeli military closed down schools. Legislators interjected, and told Abuata and other opponents to stick to the bill at hand.

Introduced earlier this year, the bill as it stands would cut off three percent of funds to state universities if they violate the legislation.  But the author of the bill, State Senator Joan Conway Carter, started the March 5 hearing by saying that “it’s a placeholder bill for the Baltimore Jewish Council,” and that she wanted to amend it by striking the financial penalties.  Conway added that she wanted to change the bill into a resolution, which might take some of the teeth out of it.  Art Abramson, the Baltimore Jewish Council’s executive director, told me in an interview that he was lobbying to have the financial penalties removed.

The Maryland effort is part of a larger push in New York, Illinois and Congress to staunch the flow of public dollars to organizations like the American Studies Association (ASA), which made waves in December by voting to boycott Israel.  The ASA’s landmark move sparked a wave of backlash from Israel lobby groups, university presidents and, most recently, state legislatures.

As in other states, the bill in Maryland has lead to a rancorous battle within the halls of state power over academic freedom and the BDS movement. But two leading pro-Israel Jewish groups are split on the strategy to combat BDS.

The Greater Washington chapter of the Jewish Community Relations Council opposes the current bill. Ronald Halber, the group’s executive director, told legislators that the bill would hinder academic freedom–an argument echoed by the University of Maryland administration, which also opposes the ASA boycott and the state bill.  “This legislation is serving as a catalyst for anti-Israel activists,” Halber testified, opening a window into an ongoing debate within Israel advocacy groups.  Some opponents of BDS oppose using state power to punish the movement, saying that it will backfire by bringing attention to boycotters. The Anti-Defamation League and American Jewish Committee have come out against the Maryland anti-boycott legislation, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

The BJC, though, continues to lobby for some version of the bill.  In an interview, Abramson said that the Maryland attorney general had told his group that the bill was constitutional, pointing to a provision making clear that nothing prevents scholars from joining the ASA as long as they pay dues with their own money. But groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Palestine Solidarity Legal Support have come out swinging against the bill.  The Attorney General’s reading of the bill is “inaccurate,” a letter sent by the National Lawyers Guild and the Center for Constitutional Rights asserted. “Direct or indirect restrictions in public funding aimed at suppressing particular political perspectives are unconstitutional,” the letter asserted.

For Abramson, “the issue here is that state funding is going to support discriminatory practices,” alluding to the fact that the ASA is not boycotting Somalia or Russia. But the ASA has boycotted California and Washington state for enacting anti-affirmative action laws, for instance.

The Keep Free Speech in the Free State Coalition–comprised of civil liberties, peace and Palestine solidarity groups–continues to mobilize in opposition.  “We’ve been waging as big a pressure campaign as we can around these bills,” said Karen Ackerman, a Jewish Voice for Peace board member from Maryland.

The coalition got some help from the Washington Post editorial board on March 8th. “As misguided as the [ASA] boycott is — impeding the free flow of ideas should be antithetical to halls of learning — it is an expression of a belief and those who support it should not be subject to government coercion,” the editorial said.  “This bill is ill-advised and should be killed. If it advances out of the General Assembly, Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) should veto it.”

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