A New York state senator is seeking to cut off university funds to student groups that support boycotting Israel, an escalation of the legislative assault on the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.
Last week, State Senator Jack Martins, a Republican from Long Island, New York, introduced a measure that would prohibit student organizations, like Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), from receiving public funds. The bill would impact students who organize for Palestine at State University of New York and City University of New York schools. SJPs and other pro-BDS groups receive university funding to operate their organizations. While the legislative session in Albany closes today, the bill could be taken up in a later session.
Martins has been leading the attack in New York against the BDS movement, which he characterizes as engaging in “hate speech.” Earlier in the year, he introduced a bill that would prohibit state contracts with businesses that engage in boycotts of Israel and other “allied” nations. Under the bill, New York would create a list of businesses that engage in such boycotts. While the measure passed the Senate, it stalled in the Assembly–and last week, Governor Andrew Cuomo did an end-run around the legislative process by issuing an executive order to do just what Martin’s bill would have done.
Cuomo’s executive order, and Martin’s pair of anti-BDS bills, are part of a nationwide trend in state legislatures. Twenty state legislatures are either considering or have passed bills against the BDS movement, which advocates for economic boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel over human rights abuses. Civil liberties and Palestine solidarity groups have criticized the measures and say they raise constitutional concerns, since the government is directly seeking to punish participation in a boycott, a protected First Amendment activity. The specter of creating a list of those who engage in BDS has also raised comparisons with the McCarthy era.
“The state of New York cannot punish student groups for engaging in their First Amendment right to boycott,” said Radhika Sainath, a staff attorney at Palestine Legal, a group that protects the legal rights of pro-Palestine activists. “It’s part of a pattern of speech suppression in this country when it comes to supporting Palestinian rights. But it’s been particularly bad at CUNY campuses in New York.”
Last March, state lawmakers cut $484 million in funding for CUNY campuses in response to alleged anti-Semitism.
Martins’ bill is the first of its kind, though, in that it explicitly targets student groups and seeks to cut off their funds from state and city universities. Martins did not respond to requests for comment.
In a sponsor memo meant to explain why he’s introducing the legislation, Martins said “this bill would not abridge any element of free speech, but would merely prevent the state of New York from being dragged into a discriminatory agenda directed by those who seek to advance principles that are antithetical to our state, its constitution and its citizens.”
Nerdeen Kiswani, the chair of NYC SJP, a coalition of New York chapters of the Palestine solidarity group, explained that the amount of funding is relatively modest. It varies from semester to semester, but she said chapters receive less than $2,000 a year. She said most of the money goes for food or for honoraria for speakers at events SJPs put on.
Kiswani attributed the attack on SJPs as a response to the issue of Palestinian rights becoming “increasingly mainstream.” She added: “It’s strengthening to know that we don’t have those resources and connections, but we’re still threatening enough that they are trying to stop us.” SJPs in New York have protested against Israeli wars in Gaza, held a number of pro-Palestinian events and have advocated for BDS. In April, the Doctoral Students Council at CUNY passed a resolution endorsing the academic boycott of Israel.
The CUNY administration has expressed concern over Martins’ bill aimed at SJP. A CUNY spokesman told the New York Daily News that “the constitutional concerns raised by the bill are increased by the vagueness of the terms ‘intolerance’ and ‘hate speech,’ which are not defined in the bill, and by the fact that boycotts are defined as only those against certain ‘allied countries,’ thereby selectively banning advocacy of some boycotts but not others.”
But CUNY has taken its own action into alleged anti-Semitism, though Palestine solidarity organizers say those actions are aimed at their activism. In February, CUNY announced they would investigate alleged anti-Semitism on campus. The report on anti-Semitism is slated to be released this summer. The probe was launched after the Zionist Organization of America sent a letter to CUNY detailed a long list of allegations, all of them voiced by anonymous sources, of anti-Semitic acts on campus.
Martins told the Daily News he was frustrated at the pace of the CUNY investigation, and that he decided to introduce the bill “to step in and prevent taxpayer dollars being used to promote hate and specifically, anti-Semitism.”
But Palestine Legal, in a statement, said the measure “is an unequivocally unconstitutional attack on First Amendment freedoms that strikes at New York’s college students…Should this bill become law, it would undoubtedly face legal challenges.”