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US mulls bill punishing Israel boycotters

Congress could remove federal funding from academic institutions that decide to boycott Israel.

Last updated: 19 Feb 2014 09:12
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BDS calls for boycotting Israel for its policies in the occupied Palestinian territories [Reuters]

The United States Congress is the latest front in the battle over boycotting Israel.

Two congressmen, Peter Roskam and Dan Lipinski - a Republican and Democrat respectively, both from the state of Illinois - have introduced a bill that would strip American academic institutions of federal funding if they choose to boycott Israel.

The move follows a growing international movement to protest the Israeli occupation and violations of Palestinian human rights. The most recent to join the boycott is the American Studies Association (ASA), a group composed of about 5,000 academics and scholars dedicated to the study of American culture.

The ASA boycott is part of a larger movement called Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS), which wants to pressure Israel to change its policies in the occupied Palestinian territories by isolating the country. Opponents of BDS say the movement - which calls for Palestinian refugees' right to return - is an attempt to delegitimise Israel and dilute its majority-Jewish population.

Last week, BDS called on the Rolling Stones to cancel concerts planned in Israel this coming summer. The movement also played a role in the recent decision of Dutch pension fund PGGM, which oversees about $200bn in assets, to withdraw money from five Israeli banks. 

"Given the day-to-day reality and domestic legal framework they operate in, the banks have limited to no possibilities to end their involvement in the financing of settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories," the fund said in a statement.

Other organisations participating in the boycott include the Association for Asian-American Studies, the 100,000-member Federation of French-Speaking Belgian Students, and the Teachers Union of Ireland.

Diplomatic kerfuffle

The boycotts recently sparked a diplomatic row between the United States and Israel. Speaking at the Munich Security Conference earlier this month, US Secretary of State John Kerry said that allowing peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians to fail would give fodder to critics of Israel, including those in the BDS movement. 

Inside Story - Boycotting Israel

"You see, for Israel there's an increasing de-legitimisation campaign that has been building up. People are very sensitive to it. There is talk of boycotts and other kinds of things," Kerry said. "Today's status quo absolutely, to a certainty, I promise you 100 percent, cannot be maintained. It's not sustainable. It's illusionary. There's a momentary prosperity, there's a momentary peace." 

Israel quickly fired back, with Economy Minister Naftali Bennett blasting Kerry for linking peace and economic sanctions. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu added, "No pressure will force me to give up the vital interests of the state of Israel, above all the security of the citizens of Israel".

This prompted US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki to respond, "Secretary Kerry has always expected opposition and difficult moments in the process, but he also expects all parties to accurately portray his record and statements".

First Amendment issues

The Protect Academic Freedom Act, introduced by Roskam and Lipinski in early February, marks the first time Congress has tried to create penalties for higher learning institutions that receive government money and boycott Israel. It follows similar efforts at the state level in Maryland and New York.

"These organisations are clearly free to do what they want to do under the [US Constitution's] First Amendment," Roskam said on the House floor while introducing the bill. "But the American taxpayer doesn't have to subsidise it. The American taxpayer doesn't have to be complicit in it. And the American taxpayer doesn't have to play any part in it." 

The bill has already received support from prominent Israeli backers, including Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador to the US. "The Protect Academic Freedom Act represents the first legislation that defends Israel against discriminatory boycotts which impede rather than advance the peace process and that seek to deny Israelis the right to free speech on American campuses," Oren said in a statement released by Roskam's office.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center and Christians United for Israel have also backed the bill. "Generally speaking, we like to keep the government out of any issues that have to do to with speech," said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. "But institutions that boycott Israel, they certainly should not in any way be subsidised from the public domain." 

He likened doing nothing to prevent institutions from boycotting Israel to "a young arsonist that gets caught with matches by his parents and gets a slap on the wrist".

While it's not clear whether the bill would receive broader backing in Congress, 134 US lawmakers have written a letter to ASA condemning the boycott. "While ASA has every right to express its views on policies pursued by any nation or government," reads the letter, "we believe that the decision to blacklist Israeli academic institutions for Israeli government policies with which ASA disagrees demonstrates a blatant disregard for academic freedom". 

Notably, major US Jewish groups such as AIPAC and the Anti-Defamation League have not backed the bill - perhaps due to concerns that if it became law, it would violate the US constitution's First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech. Abe Foxman, the director of the Anti-Defamation League, said his group is "not sure that this bill would be the most effective means of recourse".

Opposition

Dima Khalidi, director of Palestine Solidarity Legal Support, said she was opposed to the bill. "This legislation is one of the many ways that the government and various pro-Israel organisations are trying to suppress efforts to change the status quo in Israel/Palestine and in US policy towards Israel. For legislators to punish universities for the speech activities of an academic organisation because of their disagreement with the political viewpoint it expresses is offensive to First Amendment principles." 

Khalidi noted that the Supreme Court has ruled that advocating boycotts to spur political, social and economic change are protected under the First Amendment.

In New York, a group consisting of dozens of Columbia University professors, the New York State United Teachers union, CCR and the New York Civil Liberties Union have also come out to publicly oppose similar legislation at the state level.

The original New York bill targeting academic institutions that boycott Israel was killed last month after protests. However, it has been re-introduced with lighter penalties for schools. In Maryland, a similar bill has drawn 50 co-sponsors, and lawmakers in Illinois are expected to introduce their own version this week.

Follow David Francis on Twitter: @davidcfrancis

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Al Jazeera
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