Annapolis, MD – As the Maryland General Assembly completed its work on the state budget bill, legislators inserted language that weakly condemns the American Studies Association (ASA) decision to boycott Israeli academic institutions complicit in Israel’s long record of human rights violations. This language serves to placate proponents of HB998/SB647, which stalled in committee after civil rights and community groups resoundingly condemned the legislation as an unconstitutional assault on academic freedom. Delegate Ben Kramer of Montgomery County then introduced the bills’ language as an amendment to the state budget bill.
Earlier in the legislative session, Delegate Kramer introduced HB998/SB647. This legislation, had it passed, would have withdrawn some funding from Maryland universities and academic departments with ties to ASA and other groups supportive of boycott. Diverse voices called the bill an attempt to silence debate, including the UMD President’s Office, the ACLU, the Center for Constitutional Rights, Jewish Voice for Peace, the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, the Defending Dissent Foundation and others. Most recently, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, a Nobel Prize winner who played a central role in ending apartheid in South Africa criticized the legislation. Even staunchly pro Israel organizations, such as the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington opposed the bill.
On the house floor, Kramer described the ASA as a “racist organization” and compared supporters of Palestinian human rights to “Nazis.” Legislators of the GA’s conference committee revised Kramer’s language significantly. While they condemn the ASA boycott and academic boycotts generally, they also state: “official state control of intellectual inquiry and activity is a mark of authoritarian societies and is strongly disfavored in a pluralistic democratic culture.”
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“While we are grateful that the most egregious libels were removed from the budget bill amendment, we believe that boycott is a time-honored tactic that effectively and non-violently brings about social change. That legislators would condemn the use of the same tactic that brought an end to Jim Crow, apartheid in South Africa, and supported farm workers rights is deeply saddening,” said Dr. Asim Ali, member of ASA and professor at the University of MD at College Park.
“It is hard to understand why legislators chose the budget bill to do this as it seems pretty inappropriate. Why are they using our state budget bill to voice their personal opinions about Israel while simultaneously seeking to shut down those voices critical of Israeli policy?” said Shelley Cohen Fudge of Jewish Voice for Peace.
After the ASA endorsed a boycott of Israeli academic institutions in December of 2013, bills to punish pro-Palestinian boycotters have been introduced in several state legislatures around the country. In addition to the bills introduced in Maryland, similar bills have been introduced in New York, Illinois, Kansas, South Carolina, Florida and the U.S. House of Representatives. The bill in Illinois recently foundered in committee, and bills or resolutions are still pending in the other states.
Melinda Thompson, from coalition member group Sabeel DC Metro, said, “Working to defeat this legislation has actually made us stronger and reminded us of the importance of speaking out when our rights are under attack. We are committed to doing the educational work needed to make sure people know what the BDS movement is about. Efforts to curtail or suppress our right to speak out against the Israeli occupation of Palestine will be opposed whether such efforts take place in the State House, on college campuses, or in community institutions.”