NY Senate plans how to punish academic supporters of boycott
The Electronic Intifada article on Michael Oren is followed by one from Mondoweiss on the legislative efforts to scupper free speech for critics of Israel.
By Steven Salaita, Electronic Intifada
February 19, 2014
Former Israeli ambassador Michael Oren has called on Congress to pass laws to suppress the boycott of Israeli academic institutions. (USC Center on Public Diplomacy)
On 20 December 2013, Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the United States, published an article in Politico in which he smears American Studies Association (ASA) President Curtis Marez as anti-Semitic.
I wrote the following in response to that completely unfounded (and libelous) accusation, as well as to Oren’s deeply troublesome arguments in general. Oren, readers may remember, is the same person who tried to kill a 60 Minutes story on Palestinian Christians and encouraged prosecution of the Irvine 11.
Politico declined the article without comment, after having sat on it for many weeks. I repeat my insistence here that Oren offer Professor Marez a public apology.
Congress has no business legislating academic freedom
In a recent Politico piece, Michael Oren expresses concern about the growing movement to boycott Israeli academic institutions, urging the United States Congress to intervene in the governance of both scholarly organizations and university departments: “Laws could be passed withholding federal or state funding from any academic program that knowingly blacklisted Israeli scholars or institutions or cooperated with associations that did.” (Note: Earlier this month two members of Congress did introduce a bill precisely along the lines Oren proposed in December).
This is a troublesome idea for various reasons. First, Oren misrepresents academic boycott, which is deeply opposed to any sort of blacklisting and carefully avoids targeting individuals.
Oren’s language erroneously suggests that Israeli scholars are somehow put in danger by boycott, which in fact is a nonviolent tactic.
The luxury of safety is unavailable to the Palestinian university employees who must survive a military occupation.
More important, Oren’s call for Congress to legislate the conduct of scholarly communities is not in any way an endorsement of academic freedom.
To the contrary, it opens the door to all kinds of interference that would profoundly restrict the ability of faculty and students to practice free speech.
A key function of academic freedom is to allow scholars to articulate controversial viewpoints without fear of recrimination from the state.
Oren wants American Studies scholars punished for exercising their legal right to express opposition to a nation-state’s behavior.
Michael Oren. American Israeli ambassador to the US, 2009-13, has consistently been named as one of the most influential Jews in the US, i.e. the world.
Errors of fact litter Oren’s argument. He claims that the Palestinian Authority is opposed to the boycott; in reality, the PA has spoken in its favor.
Oren also observes that because of boycott, Israeli novelist Amos Oz “could not attend a seminar on conflict resolution in the United States.” This is simply untrue.
Nothing in boycott principles precludes Oz from traveling wherever he likes; nothing precludes institutions from hosting him unless he is acting as a representative of the Israeli government.
Oren’s invocation of the 1977 boycott laws is apocryphal. Those laws have nothing to do with private nonprofit organizations like the American Studies Association.
Likewise, Oren is on shaky moral and legal ground when he celebrates the arrest and prosecution of 11 UC Irvine students who interrupted one of his speeches.
Israel is virtually untouchable as a subject of open criticism. Oren pays lip service to the notion that criticizing Israel is acceptable while making clear that there is no such thing as prejudice-free criticism of Israel, the very sort of exceptionalism those students, and academic boycotters, aim to undermine.
Who is the bigot?
Oren spends much time characterizing academic boycott as “racist” and “bigoted,” an odd claim for somebody defending a nation whose very identity (and main criterion for citizenship) is predicated on the exclusion of non-Jews.
Indeed, Ehud Olmert, the prime minister immediately prior to the one Oren served, admitted that Israeli discrimination against Arabs is longstanding and deliberate.
Oren’s accusations of racism and bigotry are devoid of evidence. Nothing in the literature or actions of ASA boycott advocates even hints at racist or bigoted behavior.
In actuality, the commitment of boycott advocates to combat all forms of racism and bigotry, including anti-Semitism, is unimpeachable, and certainly much more impressive than Israel’s record on such matters.
Oren’s claims are serious, worthy of careful scrutiny and strong evidentiary backing, yet he deploys them seemingly with none of the former and certainly with none of the latter.
The most troublesome feature of Oren’s piece, however, is his contention, rendered in a conveniently all-encompassing passive voice, that ASA president Curtis Marez is anti-Semitic.
Oren bases this contention on a New York Times article in which Marez, asked about the ASA’s focus on Israel, is quoted as replying, “one has to start somewhere.”
This quote is decontextualized from a much longer and more thoughtful response Marez had provided, something Oren could have learned had he bothered to contact Marez.
The Times later added a more complete version of Marez’s comments to the online version of the story in which he said that Americans have “a particular responsibility to answer the call for boycott because [the US] is the largest supplier of military aid to the state of Israel.”
This addition was published well before Oren’s essay.
Oren’s slipshod methodology doesn’t cut it when a writer presents an argument he knows will impugn his subject’s character.
Marez is well-known in the community of American Studies scholars. His reputation is impeccable; his skill as a scholar and administrator is widely admired. He has never been implicated in any iteration of anti-Semitism. Oren should offer a clarification and apologize to Marez.
Oren’s approach to the issue of boycott is that of a person scared of a growing nonviolent resistance to Israel’s occupation.
Boycott has opened a conversation
The fear is warranted; boycott has opened a conversation that Oren himself has worked hard to suppress. Even so, getting Congress – or the New York State legislature – involved in the affairs of academe is a terrible idea.
Oren need only look at the closure of the department of politics at Israel’s Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and its deleterious aftermath to see what kind of disaster awaits the arrival of the politicians’ oversight.
Influential Jewish group pushes New York bill aimed at Israel boycott
Alex Kane, Mondoweiss
February 11, 2014
[The original article includes a photo of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver speaking at the Jewish Community Relations Council’s 2009 rally in support of Israel during Operation Cast Lead.]
The Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) takes legislators on free trips to Israel and spearheaded the campaign against boycotting the country at Brooklyn’s Park Slope Food Coop. Now, the JCRC has opened up a new front in the battle against the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement: helping to draft legislation aimed at academic organizations that support BDS.
On Friday, the Jewish Daily Forward‘s Hody Nemes reported that the JCRC was working closely with the New York legislators who are behind a bill prohibiting state funds from flowing to academic groups that boycott Israel–a reaction to the American Studies Association’s (ASA) endorsement of BDS last December. The JCRC helped draft New York Senate legislation against the boycott that passed two weeks ago, and is working with New York Assembly leaders on their own bill.
The JCRC is a key umbrella organization that acts as a central coordination body for the organized Jewish community in New York. Other Jewish organizations that are members of the JCRC–like the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee–say they don’t support the New York bills.
“Speaker Silver and Senator Klein are taking a stand against this extremist movement and in support of academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas,” the JCRC’s Hindy Poupko told the Forward’s Nemes, referring to the legislators who drafted the anti-boycott bills.
The original Assembly legislation prohibits state cash from going to pro-BDS academic groups. It would have cut off state aid for a year to any school in New York that used taxpayer dollars to fund travel or departmental membership in groups like the ASA.
After an outcry last week from Palestine solidarity groups, the New York teacher’s union and civil liberties organizations that called it an attack on free speech and academic freedom, it was withdrawn. The backlash worried some Israel advocates, like former New York Assemblyman Ryan Karben, who, in a blogpost, called the withdrawal of the bill a “political earthquake” because it showed that “Democrats and the interest groups that fire the party’s base and fill its coffers are moving away from global pro-Israel talking points.”
But now, the bill is back, with Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver amending the punishment for schools in violation of the bill. Instead of withdrawing all state aid for a year, the exact amount spent would be withdrawn from state aid to the school. In other words, if $100 of taxpayer money is used by a teacher to travel to the ASA convention, the state would deduct $100 from the school the teacher works for. While it’s less punitive than the original bill, the constitutional concerns–that the state is punishing speech based on its content–remain.
The New York Senate legislation has not been amended. As the Senate measure stands, any school in violation of the law would lose all state aid for a year. Jeff Klein, the Democratic author of the Senate bill, praised the JCRC’s work on the legislation to the Forward.
Klein “worked very closely with the JCRC,” which helped him draft the legislation. ”I was on a conference call with their board [on February 4] and they were very, very excited and supportive of the bill passing the Senate and they wanted to figure out a strategy for the bill passing the Assembly as well,” he said in an interview with Nemes.
The JCRC’s involvement in drafting the bill is the latest demonstration of its clout in state government. It is the go-to address for legislators looking to display their pro-Israel bonafides, and has forged close relationships with powerful officials such as Assembly Speaker Silver. In October 2011, the JCRC worked with Silver to pass a bill banning companies that invest in Iran’s energy industry from being able to obtain state contracts. And as Phan Nguyen noted on this site, Silver toured Israel and the occupied West Bank in December 2008 on the JCRC’s dime. He was pictured next to Shaul Goldstein, then-mayor of the Gush Etzion Regional Council, which administers illegal settlements.
The JCRC is not the only Jewish organization to get behind the anti-boycott bills. The Forward‘s Nemes also reported that the Baltimore Jewish Council in Maryland helped draft that state’s bill, which is similar to the New York one. Another bill aimed at state funds for universities is set to be introduced in Illinois, according to the Forward. Less punitive resolutions condemning the ASA are pending in Pennsylvania and Florida.
And some Jewish and pro-Israel groups are backing the Congressional bill introduced last week that would cut off federal funds to academic institutions in support of BDS. The conservative Washington Free Beacon‘s Adam Kredo reported last week that The Israel Project and the Simon Wiesenthal Center supported the legislation.
Notes and links
‘POLITICO is consistently ranked the No. 1 most read Capitol Hill publication online and in print.
It rates itself as having ‘The Most Influential Audience’,’the biggest effect on Washington’ and ‘driving the agenda’. Bad news for the 99%.
The JCRC has three mottos: “Building relationships, Connecting comunities, Meeting challenges”. It is hard to see its attempts to get repressive legislation through Congress, in a fearful response to the boycott challenge, fulfils any of those mottos.