It started with a bang and ended with a whimper. Or as the Turks used to say (and Israelis still say), “The mountain gave birth to a mouse.”
In the wake of the American Studies Association’ decision to boycott Israeli institutions of higher education, bills were introduced in the Maryland Senate and House of Delegates that would forbid state colleges and universities from using state funds for institutional memberships in the American Studies Association (the University of Maryland at Baltimore County is a member), and travel to and from its conferences. The penalty for such travel? A 3% deduction from the state allocation to that university.
It seemed like an easy sell. After all, some of the presidents of the universities had harshly criticized the ASA decision, and nobody supported it. All of them oppose BDS. How can Palestinians and/or leftwingers compete with the power of the Baltimore and Suburban Maryland organized Jewish communities?
Yet in the end the bill stalled in committee, and relatively tepid language condemning the ASA and opposing the global BDS movement, produced in committee, was ratified as an amendment to the budget narrative– not even as a separate resolution.
Anti-boycotters will say, rightly, that for the first time the state had declared its opposition to the global BDS movement. But oh, boy, did they lose this round.
From the beginning, legislative sources indicated to me that the 3% penalty was dead in the water. That became quickly apparent after public disagreement broke out between the Baltimore Jewish Council and the Washington Jewish Community Relations Council, which thought the bill went too far. The universities were dead-set against the bill. The principle advocate of the bill, delegate Ben Kramer, thought the penalty essential: He was quoted as saying “Why have a law if there are no sanctions, no penalties? Penalties are what cause people to abide by the law…The penalty will mean nothing unless a university decides to violate the law.”
So Kramer and the anti-BDS movement lost round one big time. But round two was more interesting, since the universities effectively dropped out of the picture. And here’s where the anti-Boycott movement was emasculated. Here’s the original language, which was provided to Kramer by some pro-Israel group (or Israeli government agency). Identical language is cropping up in other state legislatures.
The [Maryland] General Assembly finds that anti-Semitism is an intolerable and ugly form of bigotry, prejudice, and hostility directed toward individuals of the Jewish faith and the State of Israel, often based on ethnic, cultural, or religious identity; Israel, a democratic nation, the only country in the Middle East that is a democracy, is a strong ally of the United States based on shared values and interests and invaluable cooperation in cybersecurity, medicine, biotechnology, agriculture, and bilateral trade and commerce, as well as educational, research, and cultural exchanges; the American Studies Association is an academic organization composed of approximately 5,000 members, all of whom are members of academia specializing in the interdisciplinary study of American culture and history; the American Studies Association, through a vote of its members, has endorsed a boycott of Israeli academic institutions and their scholars who are serving as representatives from those institutions; the boycott adopted by the American Studies Association is consistent with a movement known as Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, designed to delegitimize the democratic State of Israel; and the State of Maryland has ratified a Declaration of Cooperation with the State of Israel resulting in the successful exchange of commerce, culture, technology, tourism, trade, economic development, scholarly inquiry, and academic cooperation, which has served to improve the quality of the lives of their respective peoples for well over two decades.
The General Assembly further finds that an academic boycott of Israel: is antithetical to the principles of academic freedom and to the free and open exchange of ideas; results in the restriction and stifling of Israeli scholars and Israeli institutions of higher education; disengages Israeli scholars and Israeli institutions of higher education from invaluable global academic collaborations and conferences; and invokes fear among the international academic community by creating a hostile learning environment and condoning the use of an academic community as a political pawn.
The General Assembly declares that it is the policy of the State to condemn, in the strongest terms possible, the American Studies Association’s academic boycott against Israel as an inappropriate act on the part of the academic community; recognize that such conduct, particularly within centers of academic study, is unacceptable and must be denounced; and strongly encourage that all colleges and universities support the open flow of public discourse, debate, and academic freedom, particularly with respect to nations with which Maryland has a ratified Declaration of Cooperation;
Here is some of how Kramer defended the amendment on the floor or the house:
Now the ASA is welcome to its discriminatory boycott. It is welcome to be as racist as they choose. That is called freedom of speech. However, the people of the state of Maryland do not have to use their public dollars to support such a racist organization. Particularly when it undermines Maryland’s state policy as articulated in the declaration of cooperation which MD and Israel have shared since 1988 and every one of you should have a copy of that declaration sent to you by email this morning. As a result of that relationship, as established through the referenced document, the people of MD and Israel have benefited greatly financially, intellectually, and academically. The amendment that I am offering would simply prohibit the use of public dollars by a public university by being used to pay for membership in or travel to an organization that has declared a boycott against Israel or its universities. it’s just that simple. Allowing public dollars to be used for such a purpose is antithetical to our state policy and completely undermines the beneficial relationship that we share with Israel and that serves Maryland's people so well. There is nothing that will prohibit anybody from being a member of this organization. Nothing at all. There is nothing that will prohibit someone from attending one of this organization’s events. Absolutely nothing. there is no sanction of any kind against any professor who chooses to do this.They are free to be members in the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan if they so choose. But must we subsidize their travel costs with public dollars to attend the cross-burnings? I say ‘no.’ We have no responsibility to use public dollars for that purpose.
The ASA members who support BDS are free to be members of the Ku Klux Klan!
Due to a concerted effort by progressives in the state, aided by a direct appeal from Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Senate and House of Delegates budget reconciliation committee watered down the Kramer amendment to the following:
The General Assembly finds that: (1) intellectual and academic freedom are essential to democracy, human rights, human enlightenment, and human progress; (2) academic boycotts against institutions of higher education and their faculty are anathema to free societies and free minds; and (3) official state control of intellectual inquiry and activity is a mark of authoritarian societies and is strongly disfavored in a pluralistic democratic culture. The General Assembly declares that it is the policy of the State to: (1) reaffirm our Declaration of Cooperation with the State of Israel that has resulted in the successful exchange of commerce, culture, technology, tourism, trade, economic development, scholarly inquiry, and academic cooperation for well over two decades; (2) oppose Maryland public institutions’ support of the movement known as Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, designed to delegitimize the democratic State of Israel; (3) condemn the American Studies Association’s boycott against institutions of higher education in Israel; (4) affirm intellectual and academic freedom in Maryland and our reputation as a leader in intellectual inquiry and dialogue; and (5) strongly encourage that all colleges, universities, faculty, staff, and students protect and advance the open flow of public discourse, debate, and academic freedom.”.
BDS as anti-semitic or racist? Gone. Forbidding the use of public funds to support travel to ASA conferences? Gone. Condemnation of institutional membership in the ASA? Gone. Condemnation of the ASA “in the strongest possible terms”? At least half-gone.
Instead, you have “opposition” to the “the movement known as Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, designed to delegitimize the democratic State of Israel.” Heck, the sentence is ambiguous enough to actually allow support of any BDS movement against Israel that is not designed to delegitimize the democratic State of Israel, but simply to call upon it to honor human rights.
In short, the global BDS movement.
The State of Maryland is known as liberal and overwhelmingly democratic, so I wouldn’t infer anything from the defeat of the Kramer bill for other states.
But it is heartening to know that under severe pressure in an election year, the legislature took a position that is articulated by J Street and other liberal Zionists, and rejected a position that has overwhelming support in the activist pro-Israel community.