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US contemplates sanctions against Israel boycotters

Dimitar Dimitrov |

US contemplates sanctions against Israel boycotters

US congressmen Peter Roskam and Dan Lipinski have introduced a bill that would deny funding to American academic institutions that choose to boycott Israel, Al Jazeera reports.


The Protect Academic Freedom Act, introduced by Roskam and Lipinski in early February, is Congress' first effort to enforce penalties on higher learning institutions that receive government money and boycott Israel. It follows similar efforts at the state level in Maryland and New York.


"These organisations are clearly free to do what they want to do under the [US Constitution's] First Amendment," Roskam said on the House floor while introducing the bill. "But the American taxpayer doesn't have to subsidise it. The American taxpayer doesn't have to be complicit in it. And the American taxpayer doesn't have to play any part in it."


Prominent Israeli backers such as Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador to the US, have lent support to the bill. "The Protect Academic Freedom Act represents the first legislation that defends Israel against discriminatory boycotts which impede rather than advance the peace process and that seek to deny Israelis the right to free speech on American campuses," Oren said in a statement released by Roskam's office.


The Simon Wiesenthal Center and Christians United for Israel also support the bill. "Generally speaking, we like to keep the government out of any issues that have to do to with speech," said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. "But institutions that boycott Israel, they certainly should not in any way be subsidised from the public domain."


The most recent institution to join the protests against the Israeli occupation and violations of Palestinian human rights is the American Studies Association (ASA). This group is comprised of about 5,000 academics and scholars dedicated to the study of American culture.


The ASA boycott is part of a larger protest called Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS), which wants to pressure Israel to amend its policies in the occupied Palestinian territories by isolating the country. This movement supports Palestinian refugees' right to return to their territories. Opponents of the movement claim that it is attempting to dilute Israel's primarily Jewish population.


Last week, BDS called on the Rolling Stones to cancel concerts planned in Israel this coming summer. The movement also played a role in the recent decision of Dutch pension fund PGGM, which oversees about $200bn in assets, to withdraw money from five Israeli banks.


"Given the day-to-day reality and domestic legal framework they operate in, the banks have limited to no possibilities to end their involvement in the financing of settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories," the fund said in a statement.


Other organisations participating in the boycott include the Association for Asian-American Studies, the 100,000-member Federation of French-Speaking Belgian Students, and the Teachers Union of Ireland.


The boycotts recently sparked a diplomatic row between the United States and Israel. Speaking at the Munich Security Conference earlier this month, US Secretary of State John Kerry said that allowing peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians to fail would give ammo to critics of Israel, among them those in the BDS movement.


"You see, for Israel there's an increasing de-legitimisation campaign that has been building up. People are very sensitive to it. There is talk of boycotts and other kinds of things," Kerry said. "Today's status quo absolutely, to a certainty, I promise you 100 percent, cannot be maintained. It's not sustainable. It's illusionary. There's a momentary prosperity, there's a momentary peace."


Economy Minister Naftali Bennett criticized Kerry for linking peace and economic sanctions. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu added, "No pressure will force me to give up the vital interests of the state of Israel, above all the security of the citizens of Israel".


US State Department officials remarked that Secretary Kerry has always expected opposition and difficult moments in the process, but he also expects all parties to accurately portray his record and statements.


While it's not certain whether the bill would receive broader backing in Congress, 134 US lawmakers have written a letter to ASA condemning the boycott. "While ASA has every right to express its views on policies pursued by any nation or government," reads the letter, "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".


Interestingly a number of important US Jewish groups such as AIPAC and the Anti-Defamation League have not backed the bill. Maybe this is due to concerns that if it became law, it would violate the US constitution's First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech.


"This legislation is one of the many ways that the government and various pro-Israel organisations are trying to suppress efforts to change the status quo in Israel/Palestine and in US policy towards Israel," said Dima Khalidi, director of Palestine Solidarity Legal Support. "For legislators to punish universities for the speech activities of an academic organisation because of their disagreement with the political viewpoint it expresses is offensive to First Amendment principles." She added that according to Supreme Court rulings boycotts to spur political, social and economic change are protected under the First Amendment.


In New York, a group consisting of dozens of Columbia University professors, the New York State United Teachers union, CCR and the New York Civil Liberties Union have also come out to publicly oppose similar legislation at the state level.

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