New York Senate passes bill penalizing academic group for Israel boycott

American Studies Association argues decision was in solidarity with Palestinian students deprived of academic freedom

Israeli students study at a university in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Ariel in this photo from Feb. 2, 2010.
Moti Milrod/File/AP

In response to the American Studies Association (ASA) passing a resolution calling for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions, the New York state Senate passed a bill this week that would prevent universities from allowing funds to be spent on ASA activities.

The bill still needs to be signed into law by the governor, but if it is, New York universities and colleges will be prohibited from funding organizations, such as the ASA, that “have undertaken an official action boycotting certain countries or their higher education institutions,” according to the legislation.

The bill, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Jeff Klein, passed by a vote of 56-4.

“This legislation sends a very simple message, which is that we should never ask taxpayers to support religious, ethnic or racial discrimination,” Klein’s office said in a release.

“I will not allow the enemies of Israel or the Jewish people to gain an inch in New York.”

Klein’s bill would prevent academic institutions from using state aid to pay for membership fees to organizations like the ASA or to reimburse state employees for travel or lodging associated with ASA travel.

It would not, however, prevent the use of state money to boycott any countries that are “state sponsors of terrorism, or are engaged in an ongoing labor dispute or are engaged in an unlawful discriminatory practice as determined by New York state law.”

The ASA argues their boycott is in solidarity with Arab Israeli and Palestinian scholars and students who have been deprived of their academic freedom and says Israeli academic institutions are complicit in the state's crimes.

Arab and Jewish citizens are highly segregated in Israeli society and Palestinians in the occupied territories are often prevented from attending school by checkpoints, segregated roads and Israeli military presence.

ASA president-elect Lisa Duggan said the New York Senate legislation is a thinly veiled attempt to hide Israel’s “ongoing violations of international law and human rights.”

“This law’s supporters claim to oppose discriminatory boycotts, but they have designed their legislation to let Israel off the hook for restricting the academic and other freedoms of Palestinians, while punishing those who protest those injustices,” Duggan said in an emailed statement to Al Jazeera.

'Legal bullying'

Palestine Solidarity Legal Support, an advocacy group for human rights activists, said in a release, “the Supreme Court has held that political and human rights boycotts are protected under the First Amendment.”

It added that “legal threats in response to academic boycott are part of a pattern of legal repression designed to intimidate and silence critics of Israel.”

The group called the move “legal bullying” and explained that the academic boycott does not violate anti-discrimination laws, New York State Human Rights Laws, International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination or federal anti-boycott laws.

But not everyone agrees that academic boycotts are effective. The New York Times reported that presidents of 80 U.S. colleges have condemned the vote and that five universities withdrew from ASA membership in response to the boycott.

On Dec. 16, 66 percent of the ASA’s 5,000 members voted to uphold an academic boycott of Israel as part of an international campaign called Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS). BDS aims to hold Israel accountable for human rights violations carried out as part of the occupation of Palestine.

ASA is an academic association devoted to the study of American culture and history, and follows the Association for Asian Studies and the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association in voting to boycott Israel.

The BDS campaign is modeled after a similar international initiative to boycott South Africa during its apartheid. BDS advocates say Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and Arab citizens of Israel is tantamount to apartheid in South Africa.

The origins of Palestine's BDS campaign go back to 2004, at the end of the second intifada (uprising) against the Israeli occupation, when Palestinian civil society formed the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI).

PACBI called for a boycott of all Israeli academic and cultural institutions — asserting that Israeli universities had been explicit or implicit supporters of three aspects of the Israeli occupation of Palestine: denial of its responsibility for the Nakba — when Israel was founded creating generations of Palestinian refugees; military occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem; and the “entrenched system of racial discrimination and segregation against the Palestinian citizens of Israel.”

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