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February 17, 2014 12:25 pm

Legislating Against BDS

avatar by Kenneth L Marcus

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London protesters supporting an anti-Israel BDS campaign. Photo: BICOM / khaled via Flikr.

London protesters supporting an anti-Israel BDS campaign. Photo: BICOM / khaled via Flikr.

The backlash continues against the anti-Israel boycott resolution that the American Studies Association adopted last month. Over 200 university presidents have distanced themselves from it. Numerous other organizations, including the American Association of University Professors, have condemned it too. Some critics argue that it violates academic freedom. Others go further, observing that the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction (BDS) Israel amounts to discrimination against the Jewish state. Now legislators are joining the burgeoning anti-BDS movement, introducing bills to curb anti-Israel abuse. The first few efforts out of the box may be imperfect vehicles, but they have begun a necessary conversation about how public policy can best address the misuse of taxpayer funds to support BDS.

On February 6, Congressmen Peter Roskam (R-IL) and Dan Lipinski (D-IL) introduced the “Protect Academic Freedom Act“ (H.R. 4009), which would ban federally funded universities from boycotting Israeli academic institutions or scholars. As they introduced the bill, the congressmen denounced the bigotry surrounding the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, as well as the threat which anti-Israel activists pose to academic freedom.

Representative Roskam had been justly lauded for his co-authorship of a January letter, signed by 134 members of Congress, to “strongly condemn” the American Studies Association (ASA) for its recent endorsement of the academic boycott against Israel.  “While ASA has every right to express its views on policies pursued by any nation or government,” the congressmen wrote, “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.” In addition, the congressmen complained that the ASA’s boycott resolution “exhibits flagrant prejudice against the Jewish State of Israel.”

While Rep. Roskam’s letter was well received, reaction to the new Roskam-Lipinski bill has been more mixed. AIPAC officials have been quoted as saying that they are “reviewing the text.” The Anti-Defamation League’s Abraham Foxman has praised the purposes of the legislation but conceded that he’s “not sure that this bill would be the most effective means of recourse.” On the other hand, several other groups support the legislation, including the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Christians United For Israel, and The Israel Project. Ambassador Michael Oren has been an effusive supporter, arguing that Roskam-Lipinski “can be the turning point in the struggle against the delegitimization of the Jewish State.”

Some groups have worried that the bill would infringe on universities’ freedom of speech. Just days before Roskam and Lipinki introduced their bill, New York assemblymen pulled a similar state bill. The New York bill, which has passed the state senate, faced opposition from civil liberties groups who argued that it violates freedom of speech. But the New York bill has subsequently been reintroduced, with softer language, and similar bills are now under consideration in other statehouses. More recently, Professor Eugene Volokh, widely respected First Amendment expert at UCLA School of Law, has largely put free speech concerns to rest. As Volokh notes, Roskam-Lipinski would not impose content- or viewpoint-restrictions on any university and is narrower than existing federal anti-discrimination laws.

In fact, the main problem with the Roskam-Lipinsky bill is not that it goes too far but rather that it does not go far enough. An effective anti-BDS law must accomplish three things. The first goal, which Roskam-Lipinski satisfies, is that it must prevent taxpayer funds from supporting anti-Israel boycotts. The point is not to prevent individuals from expressing their views but rather to prevent tax funds from being used to promote a boycott of one of America’s strongest allies. Roskam-Lipinski does so while upholding academic freedom and protecting against a resurgent form of anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic prejudice.

Second, an effective anti-boycott bill must address the “D” as well as the “B” in the BDS movement. That is to say, it must curb divestment as well as boycotts. Anti-Israel Boycotts are hardly the most dangerous aspect of the BDS movement. On American college campuses, anti-Israel activists are urging university administrators to Divest from Israeli companies, from companies that do business with Israel, or from companies that conduct business from the West Bank. An effective anti-boycott bill would prevent taxpayer funds from supporting divestments too. Roskam-Lipinksi does not do this but should.

Third, an effective anti-boycott bill must include effective enforcement mechanisms. American anti-discrimination law provides a strong tripartite approach to address most forms of discrimination: Justice department enforcement for the most serious violations, administrative remedies for run-of-the-mill cases, and private party lawsuits for when governmental agencies are unavailing.  Roskam-Lipinski, as currently drafted, provides only an administrative remedy. An effective anti-BDS bill should treat anti-Israel prejudice like other forms of bias and provide the same three enforcement approaches.

There is now tremendous energy going into the anti-BDS legislative efforts, and this is a good thing. Rather than simply supporting or opposing the initial legislative initiatives in their preliminary forms, those who care about fighting discrimination and upholding academic freedom should join this necessary dialogue about the proper role that legislatures can play. The ideal anti-BDS bill may not yet have been introduced, but the initial drafts have provoked a healthy conversation. For this, Representatives Roskam and Lipinski are owed a substantial debt of gratitude.

Kenneth L. Marcus is Founder and President of the Louis D. Brandeis Center (www.brandeiscenter.com), which combats anti-Semitism in higher education. He is also author of the newly issued LDB Best Practices Guide to Combating Campus Anti-Semitism and Anti-Israelism.

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