Renewing the attack on academic freedom

March 3, 2014

Laura Durkay reports on the ongoing drive by New York state lawmakers to punish academic groups and institutions that express support for the BDS campaign.

NEW YORK state politicians have introduced a new version of legislation targeting the American Studies Association (ASA) for its vote to support a boycott of Israel. While the new legislation is slightly less draconian, its passage would still be a serious blow to academic freedom and the right to criticize Israel.

In December, the ASA voted decisively to support the Palestinian call for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions--part of the wider campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel--until Israel complies with international law.

In late January, pro-Israel politicians in the New York State Assembly and Senate responded by introducing bills that would withdraw funding for a year from any universities with connections to groups that support the boycott of Israel, such as the ASA.

The bills immediately faced backlash. An ad hoc coalition of activist and legal groups organized call-ins and e-mail campaigns to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, state Sen. Joe Klein and members of the Higher Education Committee, where the bill was being debated. The New York State United Teachers union registered its opposition to the bill. So did the American Association of University Professors--even though the AAUP is on record saying it opposes an academic boycott of Israel. Even the New York Times took a stand in an editorial criticizing the bill.

New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver
New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (Azi Paybarah)

In the face of an outpouring of protest, the legislation was withdrawn. But now Speaker Silver has introduced a revised version of the bill--with the only change being that universities would not lose their entire state funding, but only an amount equal to what they spent on activities with groups that support the boycott of Israel.

WHILE THIS may sound less extreme, there is no good version of this bill. The intent is to chill criticism of Israel as the BDS movement becomes increasingly well known in the U.S. and to discourage other academic associations from joining the ASA, the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association and the Association of Asian American Studies in passing boycott resolutions.

The New York bill is part of a coordinated effort to legislate against BDS. A nearly identical bill has already been introduced in the Maryland state legislature, with similar legislation in the works in Illinois, and more symbolic legislation being debated in Florida and Pennsylvania.

Plus, two Illinois politicians have introduced legislation into the U.S. House of Representatives that would remove federal funds from universities in a similar manner.

Groups such as Adalah-NY, the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, Jewish Voice for Peace, the Center for Constitutional Rights and the National Lawyers Guild are continuing to organize against the revised anti-boycott bill, but the slightly less harsh version has not yet drawn the high-profile condemnation that stopped its predecessor.

It's not yet clear when the bill will come up for debate in the state legislature's Higher Education Committee, but New Yorkers can call their representatives at any time to voice their opposition.

Activists in New York and across the country need to keep fighting to defend the gains of the BDS movement and stop this wave of legislation in its tracks. New Yorkers can find detailed information on the bill and ways to contact their legislators at the Jewish Voice for Peace website. Outside of New York, check Jewish Voice for Peace's Academic Freedom page for the latest on legislation in your state.

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