Queens pols sign on to keep state money from groups opposing Israel

AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner
By Sarina Trangle

A majority of Queens’ state legislators support bills designed to penalize colleges that use state funds to pay membership fees or attend conferences hosted by groups boycotting Israel.

Every state senator from the borough except Sen. James Sanders Jr. (D-Laurelton) helped propel a bill through the chamber Jan. 28 that would prohibit private and public colleges from using state money to contribute to academic organizations that have formally boycotted Israel. The measure would penalize schools by revoking state funding during the year when violations occurred.

The bill was pulled from the state Assembly in early February amid an outcry from academics and civil liberties organizations that the measure sought to pressure professors and academic organizations out of their First Amendment right to free speech.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) has since reintroduced the bill with an amendment that would only dock schools for the amount they directed toward boycott supporters, such as annual membership fees for the American Studies Association or paying for professors to travel and attend conferences hosted by the Association for Asian American Studies. Both groups have boycotted Israel because of its actions on Palestine.

Ten of Queens’ 18 Assembly members have signed on as co-sponsors.

Amid state budget negotiations, advocates and opponents of the measure say it has been hard to gauge whether the revised bill will make it to the floor of the Assembly.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office did not respond to inquiries about his thoughts on the legislation.

A memo attached to the bills describes them as a response to the boycotts’ violation of academic freedom and infringement on students’ and professors’ exchange of research and ideas across countries and cultures.

But the bills would not apply to boycotts of all countries, just Hungary, Lebanon, the Czech Republic and Israel.

Sen. Jose Peralta (D-East Elmhurst) said in a statement that he voted for the bill because students need access to international educational institutions to succeed in the modern world.

Likewise, Sen. Joseph Addabbo Jr. (D-Howard Beach) said he worried such boycotts could curtail students options, particularly for studying abroad.

Others were not shy about Israel’s role in inspiring the bill.

Sen. Toby Stavisky (D-Whitestone) said she recalled becoming interested in the issue when a founder of the Campaign for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, a movement boycotting Israel over its actions in Palestine, spoke at Brooklyn College last winter.

Stavisky said she and other Democrats were confident the Senate bill would fail in the Assembly and voted for the measure partially because they did not want its sponsor, Senate Co-Majority Leader Jeff Klein (D-Bronx) and his Independent Democratic Conference, to say they did not stand by Israel.

The senator said she thought the Assembly version of the bill struck an appropriate balance.

“So you can’t reimburse the institutions $170 for membership in an anti-Semitic organization — I think it’s a perfectly legitimate way to go,” she said.

But groups that oppose the bills, including the American Association of University Professors and unions representing CUNY and SUNY faculty, said the bills blunder in attempting to show boycotts are wrong by resorting to another boycott.

Sanders voted against the bill because he believed it was an infringement on academic freedom, according to his office.

The New York Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights said the legislation violates the First Amendment by attempting to use the distribution of state funds as a tool to control academics’ speech.

“It may be less Draconian than the first bill, but it’s just as unconstitutional,” Maria LaHood, a senior staff attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, said of the amended Assembly bill.

LaHood said if Cuomo signed the legislation into law, the center would challenge it in court.

She said she did not think the measure applied to student organizations that had boycotted Israel, but was unsure about whether the legislation would forbid colleges from using state money to host a forum featuring speakers who had boycotted Israel.

When asked, Silver’s office would not specify whether the legislation targeted student clubs or lectures and events with speakers that had boycotted Israel.

“This bill takes a stand in support of academic freedom by ensuring that the taxpayers of New York are not compelled to support institutions that violate their basic values,” Silver’s spokesman Michael Whyland said in an e-mail.

Reach reporter Sarina Trangle at 718-260-4546 or by e-mail at strangle@cnglocal.com.

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