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

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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.”

Alex Kane

Alex Kane is a freelance journalist who focuses on Israel/Palestine and civil liberties. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.

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9 Responses

  1. pabelmont on March 9, 2014, 3:47 pm

    There would seem to be several reasons a person would wish NOT to hear about Israeli persecution/oppression of Palestinians. [1] One is ideological — a closed mind, not to be confused with facts. [2] Another is political, not wishing to to incur Zionist wrath by (being known to) listen to facts of Israeli oppression. [3] No time, learning facts is so darned time-consuming, as I’m sure you’ll all admit, my dears, and I’m a busy legislator trying to get my job done (to say nothing of fund raising which sadly is part of my job de facto if not de jure).

    And, contrariwise, the reason these legislators should listen is [4] to learn why the BDS / ASA boycott activities are well-justified, sensible (if not the only game in town, at least a game that makes sense and is not antisemitic).

    I think the speakers at such legislative meetings should recite my reasons [1], [2], [3], and then [4] so that the legislators may be shamed if they vote against BDS without having learned the facts (or some of them).

  2. Hostage on March 9, 2014, 5:15 pm

    The Anti-Defamation League and American Jewish Committee have come out against the Maryland anti-boycott legislation,

    The ADL was on the wrong side of the First Amendment and the question of state viewpoint restrictions in university forums when it filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court in the landmark Widmar v. Vincent case.

    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.

    There are civil rights statutes that enjoin states from withholding funding “privileges” on a discriminatory basis and there have been Supreme Court cases which say that states cannot withholding funding based upon viewpoint discrimination if they extend the same funding privileges to other academic groups. See for example, e.g.
    * 42 U.S. Code § 1983 – Civil action for deprivation of rights

    If the state chooses to subsidize membership fees and travel expenses for other professional organizations, it can’t withhold funding from others based upon speech content-restrictions:

    Ronald W. Rosenberger, a University of Virginia student, asked the University for $5,800 from a student activities fund to subsidize the publishing costs of Wide Awake: A Christian Perspective at the University of Virginia. The University refused to provide funding for the publication solely because it “primarily promotes or manifests a particular belief in or about a diety or an ultimate reality,” as prohibited by University guidelines.
    Did the University of Virginia violate the First Amendment rights of its Christian magazine staff by denying them the same funding resources that it made available to secular student-run magazines?
    Yes. The Court, in a 5-to-4 opinion, held that the University’s denial of funding to Rosenberger, due to the content of his message, imposed a financial burden on his speech and amounted to viewpoint discrimination. The Court noted that no matter how scarce University publication funding may be, if it chooses to promote speech at all, it must promote all forms of it equally.


  3. Pamela Olson on March 9, 2014, 7:56 pm

    Speaking of suppression of free speech and thought — exciting news from Florida.

    Prominent Rabbi Bruce Warshal wrote an article in a Florida newspaper about how he is “getting off the Hillel bandwagon” because of its egregious violations of free speech and thought in the interest of pleasing conservative donors — who have turned it into “just another Zionist organization” with little to do with actual Judaism. Powerful words.

  4. Daniel Rich on March 9, 2014, 8:20 pm

    Q1: Battle over Maryland’s anti-boycott Israel bill heats up.

    R1: They should do this stuff during winterdays, when its cold...

    Q2: Under the law, those funds would not be able to come from the department anymore.

    R2: And we sneer at Kim ’very Ill’ Un’s antics? 

    Q3:…Jewish Voice for Peace and the Christian Peacemaker Team, shot back

    R3:You’re not making this up, do you?

  5. David Doppler on March 10, 2014, 12:33 am

    Lobbying state legislatures to punish free political speech by a large liberal academic group upset by Israeli oppression of Palestinians and protesting it is so obviously a losing cause that one wonders about those making the decisions, both the quality and the purpose of their thinking. If they by miracle were to succeed, it would certainly help solidify the liberal academic community against the Israel Lobby, at best briefly delaying, and at the same time magnifying the utter rejection of the very idea of thought police in academia. “Think as we tell you, or you will be sorry, we’ll get the legislature to penalize you,” is a joke of a strategy.

    Group think can cause smart people to do stupid things, and that is the most likely explanation here. Organization and message control can be powerful tools, but there should be wisdom commensurate with capability.

  6. seafoid on March 10, 2014, 4:40 am

    “The Anti-Defamation League and American Jewish Committee have come out against the Maryland anti-boycott legislation ”

    They can’t fight everything everywhere. They have to pick their battles now.
    Even Oren sounds like a drone. They are losing young American Jews. There’s a hard core who will never surrender but the bigger picture is not looking good for them.

    It’s just another dud ideology.

  7. Boomer on March 11, 2014, 6:59 am

    I just heard a story on NPR about a bill in Maryland, but it wasn’t this one. Instead, it is a bill to require a French rail company to pay reparations for the holocaust: I wonder when we will hear of bills calling for the U.S. to pay reparations to Palestinians, which we owe due to our role in the dispossession and oppression of the Palestinians?

    • Boomer on March 11, 2014, 7:31 am

      PS: I’d say we owe reparations to some others too, most notably the Iraqis. Perhaps the U.S. would be less quick to attack others if we paid some reparations for our actions. Just a thought, not a prediction.

  8. Mustosheer on March 11, 2014, 10:42 am

    May we know the birth place of Bibi Netanyahu. Some say Babol, IRAN.
    Does he know Mr. A in Babol?

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