On its surface, legislation being discussed in Annapolis is an effort on the part of the state to stand up to those who would boycott Israel. But the inclusion of financial penalties and ambiguous wording now pits two Jewish communal advocacy organizations on opposite sides, with the Baltimore Jewish Council facing off against the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington over what the measure’s backers say is a solid pro-Israel bill.
Similar bills in the state Senate and House of Delegates, if adopted, would prohibit public universities from paying for its employees to attend conferences or use public funds in any way that would directly or indirectly support academic boycotts of countries that have a declaration of cooperation with Maryland.
Legislators are being asked to support the bill as “a strong way to attack those who are trying to delegitimize Israel,” according to Arthur Abramson, executive director of the BJC; conversely, lawmakers are being lobbied to oppose the effort as “over reaching,” with the possible result of stifling a pro-Israeli voice at those conferences, according to Ron Halber, executive director of the JCRC.
While not stated in the legislation under consideration, the idea behind the language stems from the American Studies Association’s boycott of academic institutions in Israel. The University of Maryland, Baltimore County is a dues-paying member of the ASA.
Sen. Richard Madaleno Jr. (D-District 18), a member of the budget and taxation committee that will hold a hearing on the Senate bill March 5, said this is not the first time he has been lobbied in opposite ways by the Jewish community. He pointed to LGBT and same-sex marriage issues, in with the JCRC in suburban Washington spoke out in support, while the Baltimore Jewish Council stayed silent.
As for the proposed legislation, Madaleno said, “I think both want the same goal, to make sure they realize the boycott movement is wrong and should be stopped.” He added, “The strategy is different, but the end goal is the same.”
He said that while he understands the JCRC’s fear of unintended consequences, “on the other hand, it doesn’t make sense for an American or a Maryland institution to try to boycott an Israeli institution.
“We are not talking about a North Korea or a Syrian institution,” he continued. “The Israeli higher education facilities operate much like ours do. Why would I want to boycott them?”
Del. Benjamin Kramer (D-District 19) introduced the House bill, which lists 51 co-sponsors. He said the BJC “has been very, very actively involved in supporting our bill. They have been spending a good [amount of] time in Annapolis.”
He has not spoken directly with the JCRC but said, “I have the impression that they are not going to support it, which to me is astonishing.
“If that is the case,” he continued, “they are playing right into the hands of Palestinian sympathizers. I am just astonished. I think that is just absolutely shameful.”
Halber said that while he is opposed to the bill “in its current form,” he would rather come up with a resolution both sides could get behind.
Many universities, including the 12 institutions that comprise the University System of Maryland, have already come out strongly against the ASA boycott, leading Halber to ask of the legislative front, “What are we trying to accomplish?”
If passed, the legislation would prohibit the use of public funds at institutions involved in boycotts and would reduce by 3 percent the amount the university would receive the following year.
There are “very robust ties between Maryland universities and Israel,” explained Halber. But if the bill becomes law, that could change, he said.
“We want professors to go to that conference. Why would we do anything to prevent pro-Israel discussion?” he questioned, calling that against JCRC policy. “There is a point where you go too far and you overreach. We’ve now reached that point.”
If the legislators want to go on record against the ASA boycott, a resolution condemning it would be appropriate, suggested Halber. “We despised what ASA called for. We had an action alert against it.”
“Sometimes you have to realize when you actually won and not beat it to death,” he said.
But Abramson disagreed.
“We feel that the bill that Delegate Kramer and Sen. [Joan Carter] Conway (D-District 43) have submitted is a strong means to attack those who are trying to delegitimize Israel,” he said. “The whole bottom line of all of this is this is not all about the Arab-Israel war. What this is, is very, very fair. … We believe that you should not be using public dollars to discriminate. That’s what this bill is all about.”
According to Abramson, the original idea for the bill’s language, which was based on a similar bill proposed in New York, risked not making it to the hearings stage. The scope was too broad, and portions hedged close to being unconstitutional. With this in mind, the BJC worked with legislators to draft a version that singled out countries or countries with academic institutions with which the state of Maryland has a declaration of cooperation. A provision was also inserted that ensures that public university employees are free to join an organization like the ASA using their own funds, an addition Abramson said protects free speech.
Abramson believes that the fact that the current bill lacks JCRC support could hurt the effort in the long run.
“Their not being behind it certainly doesn’t help,” he said.
“Quite frankly,” he said, “I am confident if this bill does not pass, all of Israel’s enemies that are supporting the boycott will be popping the corks off the champagne bottles and toasting the JCRC.”
He questioned how the JCRC can be against a law because it includes a penalty.
“Why have a law if there are no sanctions, no penalties? Penalties are what cause people to abide by the law,” argued Kramer. “The penalty will mean nothing unless a university decides to violate the law.”
The JCRC isn’t the only organization coming out against the bill. The 12 presidents from the University System of Maryland “stand united against ASA’s call to boycott Israeli academic institutions” and also “stand opposed to Senate Bill 647/House Bill 998,” they announced in a Feb. 24 letter to members of the General Assembly. “This well-meaning but ultimately misguided response to ASA’s actions would only serve to undermine academic freedom further.”
In a phone interview, Patrick J. Hogan, vice chancellor of government relations with the University System of Maryland, said the bills were too broad and could penalize a university for following a boycott that actually makes sense, like what happened with the apartheid movement in South Africa.
“We feel it does impinge upon academic freedom,” said Hogan. “We are worried about the unforeseen circumstances.”
In late January, a bill passed the New York Senate that would prohibit the use of state funds to pay for membership in academic institutions participating in a boycott of a country or academic institutions in a country chartered by the state’s Board of Regents. Both the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League took positions against the legislation.
The Assembly version of the New York bill was held up when one of the sponsors removed it from consideration. A similar, revised version is expected to be reintroduced.
In Congress, Reps. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.) and Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.) introduced the Protect Academic Freedom Act, which, according to Roskam’s press office, would “block federal funding for American universities engaging in a boycott of Israeli academic institutions or scholars, to ensure that taxpayer dollars are not used to fund bigoted attacks against Israel that undermine the fundamental principles of academic freedom.”
Suzanne Pollak is senior writer at Washington Jewish Week. Heather Norris is staff reporter at Baltimore Jewish Times.