Tweaks Assembly’s pro-Israel legislation after free speech complaints.
The State Assembly has modified a much-criticized bill that would bar state funds from being used for groups that boycott Israeli universities.
A spokesman for Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, the bill’s sponsor, said Friday that the measure was altered to make clear that it did not ban institutions from using other money to fund boycotters.
“We are simply saying you cannot use state funds — taxpayer dollars — to participate in a hateful and bigoted boycott,” Michael Whyland said in a statement sent to The Jewish Week. “It does not limit an academic entity or organization from participating in such a boycott; it only says you cannot use state funds to do so. The use of state funds to an entity participating in any boycott (aimed at the certain countries) would be violating the provisions of the bill.”
Last week the American Jewish Committee joined those opposing the original bill because they perceive it as penalizing people for expressing opinions. The state teachers’ union and a civil liberties group also opposed it.
“There is no question that the academic boycott against Israel is a gross violation of academic freedom,” Steven Bayme, AJC’s director of Contemporary Jewish Life, said in a statement. “But the proposed legislative action, which itself raised academic freedom questions, is not the answer to discriminatory acts against Israeli academics, such as boycotts.”
The bill and its companion passed last month in the New York Senate technically target boycotts of universities overseas that are also chartered in New York — including, among others, Israeli universities — but its sponsors have made clear that the impetus was a number of boycotts of Israeli academic institutions launched last year by U.S. academic groupings.
The lead among these, the American Studies Associations, has said that such bills are unlawful.
A bill introduced on Jan. 31 in the Maryland state Senate would reduce by 3 percent state funding to colleges that used any monies, including tuition fees, to pay membership dues or travel expenses to boycotting groups.
A non-binding resolution condemning such boycotts is under consideration in the Pennsylvania Legislature.
A version of the New York bill easily passed the state Senate last week, and was watered down for its journey through the lower house. But it was still pulled at the last minute before a vote in the education committee after objections from the powerful teachers’ union.
“The enactment of this legislation would serve to regulate speech based on content and the message it conveys,” New York State United Teachers said in a statement published by the Albany Times Union. “The denial of government funding to suppress speech made in a public forum on an issue of public concern violates the First Amendment.”
Ryan Karben, a Rockland County-based public affairs consultant and former assemblyman said the development suggests critics of Israel are gaining an upper hand in politics.
“When the teachers union stands against a bill sponsored by the speaker and politics permit that, it raises a lot of difficult questions,” Karben told The Jewish Week.
He said pro-Israel lobbyists should increase their efforts to reach out to liberal Democrats in addition to conservative Republicans who are traditionally the strongest supporters of the Jewish state.
Adam Dickter contributed to this report.
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