In Search of Contemporary Heroes

The Jewish community is threatened. Queen Esther not only is silent, but also opposes the activism of Morde-chai. The response of Mordechai is blunt: “If you persist in keeping silent at a time like this, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from elsewhere, and you and your father’s house will perish.” A chastened Esther intervenes with the king and foils Haman’s evil plot.

This passage from the Megillah is directly applicable to the current campaign to enact legislation in Maryland that will bar taxpayer funding for boycotts of Israel. While a few Jewish organizations are following Morde-chai and Esther’s example by supporting the bill, all too many are either silent or worse yet, on the wrong side of this critical issue.

Last December, the American Studies Association, of which the University of Maryland, Baltimore County is a member, voted to boycott Israeli institutions and scholars. The boycott is part of the pernicious BDS movement, which seeks to isolate Israel politically, culturally and economically through boycotts, divestment and sanctions.

The Baltimore Jewish Council deserves tremendous credit for its quick and forceful response to the BDS threat. The BJC worked with legislators to  introduce legislation in Maryland’s General Assembly that would prohibit public institutions of higher education from using public funds to pay for membership, travel expenses or other costs to organizations boycotting countries with which Maryland has a declaration of cooperation. This measured and appropriate response is supported by the Baltimore Zionist District, Agudath Israel of Maryland, the Maryland Israel Development Center and the Baltimore Israel Coalition.

Unfortunately, the response of others to the ASA boycott has been deafening silence. At the recent legislative hearings considering the anti-boycott legislation, the leadership of the UMBC Hillel and Jewish members of the university’s board of regents were conspicuous in their absence. The failure of these individuals to take even the minimal step of issuing a public statement denouncing UMBC’s continued membership in the ASA bespeaks a timidity and passivity that is the antithesis of the character traits exhibited by Mordechai and Esther so long ago.

Even more contrary to the teachings of the Megillah, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee have condemned the proposed legislation for violating academic freedom. Setting aside the sheer perversity of ostensibly pro-Israel advocacy groups actively campaigning to defeat anti-BDS legislation, the stated basis for their opposition is bogus.

Academic freedom protects academics from having their scholarly work judged according to extraneous moral, religious or political criteria and from being punished for expressing controversial or unpopular ideas. It does not require taxpayers to fund such purely political activities as university membership in groups that boycott Israel.

Should pending anti-boycott legislation fail to pass or be enacted in a watered-down form, credit will go to the contemporary leaders who lack the resolve exhibited by the hero and heroine of the Megillah so long ago.

Jay Bernstein is chair of the advocacy committee of the Baltimore Zionist District and host of Shalom USA Radio.

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