Boycott Update

March 27, 2014
BY Heather Norris
Amid communal divide, bill prohibiting use of state funds for academic boycotts stalls in committee

Maryland’s anti-boycott bill may not be dead, but it’s on life support.

Two weeks after hearings on the bill in the Senate Budget and Taxation and House Appropriations committees, the bill that dropped in the House of Delegates with 51 co-sponsors has undergone a lot of trimming, including an amendment that would strip it of the penalties that had put the Baltimore Jewish Council and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington at odds earlier this month.

“This has been a tough issue for us,” said Cailey Locklair, deputy director of the BJC. “To have the community divide in front of legislators was not something anybody wanted to see.”

With just 10 days left before the end of the Maryland General Assembly’s 2014 legislative session, proponents of the bill have a few options left before time is up. If the session closes without action on the measure, supporters must wait until 2015 to reintroduce similar legislation, something they say they are more than willing to do.

According to Locklair, one option includes drafting a resolution in which the state would publicly condemn academic boycotts of states with which Maryland has a declaration of cooperation.

The bill stems from the American Studies Association’s boycott of Israel and set those who condemn any attempt to stifle academic freedom against those who equally condemn all attempts at delegitimizing Israel.

In the weeks since the March 5 and 6 hearings, the BJC has worked with legislators and representatives of the Maryland system to edit the bill into something both parties can agree on. Where there was once a 3 percent penalty on schools using public funds to reimburse faculty for ASA expenditures, there is now a preamble singling out the boycott of Israel and denouncing anti-Semitism and academic boycotts.

Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, predicted that the bill is headed in the direction of what the JCRC had argued for from the start.

“Now the solution that is developing is the same solution that we called for in the first place,” said Halber. “Legislators in Annapolis don’t want to pretend that they’re the House Foreign Affairs Committee.”

According to Halber, all the bill accomplished was to give those in support of the boycott the platform to voice their views.

“The ASA has actually used this bill as a way to grow their membership substantially by claiming to be defending academic freedom,” he explained. “By having this bill proposed, there had to be a hearing, which gave a wonderful opportunity for several anti-Semites and several anti-Israel activists to appear in Annapolis before the legislature, giving them their day in the sun.”

Delegate Ben Kramer (D-District 19), who sponsored the House bill, said he was disappointed in the lack of JCRC support for the bill.

“As a consequence of their aligning themselves with the pro-Palestinian organizations, there is a lot of push back from the Jewish community in the Washington area,” said Kramer. “I’ve had a number of calls from folks who are incensed at what the JCRC has done. … It has created confusion among legislators.”

Although the current form of the bill and the version Halber said his organization would support are, at this point, nearly identical, Kramer said he is no longer seeking JCRC backing.

“I certainly have no interest in their support,” he said.

For his part, Halber said he hopes the two Jewish organizations can work together in the future to accomplish shared goals.

In the case of the bill turning into a resolution, Halber said, “Our goal is that we would join together with the Baltimore Jewish Council in maybe issuing a joint statement or maybe working with the Baltimore Jewish Council and sending out a similar action alert and encouraging our people to support it.

“Hopefully, this one-time public faux pas or miscommunication will just remain that,” he added, “and it will just go into the annals of history as one that everybody forgets about a few years from now.”

hnorris@jewishtimes.com

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