Those both for and against a bill that would penalize any state university involved in an academic boycott of Israel had strong words for the legislature last week during committee hearings in the Maryland state Senate and House of Delegates.
The bill, which has its roots in the American Studies Association’s boycott of the Jewish state, faces an uphill battle in Annapolis, pitting those who condemn any attempt to stifle academic freedom against those who equally condemn all attempts at delegitimizing Israel.
In its current form, the legislation would levy a 3-percent penalty against any Maryland public college that uses public money to send professors and other staff to conferences hosted by organizations that support a boycott of any country that has a declaration of cooperation with Maryland, a list of nations that includes Israel.
However, the legislators also discussed an amendment that would eliminate the financial penalties but still ask public universities not to spend public funds at any place supporting an academic boycott of a cooperating country.
“We agreed to strip the penalties,” said Arthur Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, adding that the amendment makes the bill more acceptable to a wider range of people.
Abramson, who just weeks ago was backing the stronger version of the bill, said his organization has worked hard to educate and accommodate as many people as possible to affirm Israel’s rights. His counterpart at the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, executive director Ron Halber, staked out a position against the bill.
A vote on the bill has not yet been scheduled.
Supporters and detractors of the bill made for some interesting partners. The BJC joined local Methodist and Baptist churches, the Maryland Israel Development Center, Agudath Israel of Maryland and the Baltimore Israel Coalition, a 23-member consortium of local organizations working to support Israel.
Joining the JCRC in opposing the bill are the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, all 12 presidents from the University System of Maryland and pro-boycott groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace.
Hearings on the proposed legislation were held March 5 in the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee and March 6 in the House of Delegates Appropriations Committee.
Abba David Poliakoff, chairman of the Maryland Israel Development Center and a member of the executive committee of the Baltimore Jewish Council, called those who support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement “abhorrent; as a Jew, it is intolerable and unacceptable.”
During his testimony before the appropriations committee, he went on to caution, “Let’s not forget the slippery slope in the Republic of Germany between 1933 and 1938. We cannot let that happen again, not here, not anywhere, never again.”
Michael Friedman, vice president of the JCRC of Greater Washington, told the legislators that while the ASA’s resolution to boycott Israel is “anti-Israel and anti-Semitic,” the proposed law “is offering a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. Not a single university in the United States has agreed to participate in the boycott.”
He called the bill a hindrance to academic freedom, as “it would undermine the efforts of our allies within academia who will not be able to offer opinions contrary to those propagandizing against Israel and alienate potential allies, who will see this prohibition as challenging cherished values and limiting their professional development.”
Shelley Cohen-Fudge, coordinator for the D.C. metro chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, said she opposed the legislation and didn’t believe the boycott movement “against Israel’s illegal military occupation of the Palestinian territories is discriminatory or anti-Semitic.” She said the ASA’s boycott is not an attack on academic freedom and that “the bill itself, if it were passed, would actually squash debate on college campuses.”
Del. Benjamin Kramer (D-District 19), who introduced the bill in the House of Delegates, stressed people can conduct boycotts, but that public funds should not be involved.
“This issue is not what Jews do or do not support. It’s about the appropriate use of public dollars,” he testified.
During the Senate subcommittee hearing, Sen. Roger Manno (D-District 19) pressed P.J. Hogan, the University of Maryland’s associate vice chancellor for state relations, on whether or not the Budget and Taxation Committee has the authority to dictate where state funds go.
“You have the authority to do anything you want,” said Hogan, calling dictating which conferences faculty members attend “micromanaging,” adding, “But do you want to do that?”
Suzanne Pollak is senior writer at Washington Jewish Week; Heather Norris is staff reporter for the Baltimore Jewish Times.