Illinois congressmen submit anti-boycott bill

Bipartisan legislation would deny federal funding to universities participating in the academic boycott of Israel

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

Peter Roskam (CC BY-SA Gage Skidmore, Flickr)
Peter Roskam (CC BY-SA Gage Skidmore, Flickr)

WASHINGTON — Only one day after the New York state legislature withdrew a bill that sought to punish would-be participants in academic boycotts of Israel, two Illinois congressmen introduced a bipartisan bill that would block federal funding for American universities engaging in a boycott of Israeli academic institutions or scholars.

Representatives Peter Roskam (R-IL) and Dan Lipinski (D-IL) introduced the bipartisan Protect Academic Freedom Act (H.R. 4009) in response to what the legislators see as “the growing threat of unjustified boycotts against the Jewish State of Israel.” The bill’s sponsors cited the December decision by the American Studies Association (ASA) to support an academic boycott as impetus for the legislation.

In a statement released Thursday, the sponsors said that the measure was designed “to ensure that taxpayer dollars are not used to fund bigoted attacks against Israel that undermine the fundamental principles of academic freedom.”

“This bipartisan legislation seeks to preserve academic freedom and combat bigotry by shielding Israel from unjust boycotts. It is ludicrous for critics to go after our democratic friend and ally Israel when they should be focusing on the evils perpetrated by repressive, authoritarian regimes like Iran and North Korea,” said Congressman Roskam, the co-chair of the House Republican Israel Caucus.

“These boycotts not only threaten educational cooperation between the United States and Israel, but ultimately undermine the academic goals of all nations,” Roskam continued. “Congress has a responsibility to fight back against these hateful campaigns, which contradict academic freedom and are designed to delegitimize the Jewish State of Israel.”

Roskam noted that former Israeli ambassador to Washington Michael Oren had been instrumental in his work on the issue.

In a rare instance, Oren included a statement together with the bill’s announcement.

“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,” said Oren. “As a citizen of Israel and its former ambassador to the United States, as well as an historian and visiting professor on leading American campuses, I strongly support this courageous initiative. It can be the turning point in the struggle against the delegitimization of the Jewish State.”

Roskam’s co-sponsor, Lipinski, like Oren, is a former professor who said that academic discourse is central to his concern on the issue.

“As a former university professor, I appreciate the value of academic exchanges involving universities and individuals, particularly between strong international allies with robust academic programs like the United States and Israel. Scholarship and research should be about the pursuit of knowledge, and universities have been and always should be a community where different opinions and ideas are encouraged and nourished,” Lipinski said.

Lipinski argued that the boycott of such international exchange of scholarship “would lead to negative effects on educational and research institutions in both nations.”

The Democrat legislator said that hoped that his legislation would have a deterrent impact on the decision by individual universities to join the academic boycott.

Although nearly 900 universities receive federal funding, particularly for research and development, recent studies suggest that very few universities are the main beneficiaries of federal largess. Some 20% of federal research funds went to a mere ten universities, with Johns Hopkins University leading the pack with $1.9 billion in federal funds in 2011. Johns Hopkins President Ronald Daniels was quick to reject the possibility of an academic boycott, circulating a letter to faculty and students stating his position shortly after the ASA’s decision.

Around 100 other university presidents also spoke out against the ASA decision, and the Association of American Universities issued a letter slamming the vote, emphasizing that “any such boycott of academic institutions directly violates academic freedom, which is a fundamental principle of AAU universities and of American higher education in general.”

Last month, Roskam began to circulate a letter in the House condemning the ASA’s decision; 134 representatives have since signed the missive, which is directed to ASA President Curtis Marez and describes the boycott as an “ignorant smear campaign.”

But in the battles already underway over similar bills in state legislatures, opponents of financial measures against boycotting institutions claim that defunding, and not boycotts, restrict academic freedom.

The bill in the New York legislature, which would remove state funding for boycotting institutions, was pulled from committee Wednesday for retooling, after a number of organizations complained that it violated academics’ freedom of speech.

The New York bill’s opponents, which included the New York State United Teachers Union, got a leg up when the American Jewish Committee applauded the bill’s withdrawal.

In a statement issued late Wednesday, Steven Bayme, AJC’s director of Contemporary Jewish Life, said that although “the academic boycott against Israel is a gross violation of academic freedom,” such legislation “raised academic freedom questions” and was “not the answer to discriminatory acts against Israeli academics, such as boycotts.”

A more restricted defunding bill was also introduced last month in the Maryland Senate. That legislation would impose a 3% reduction in funding to any college that used any funds – even not state subsidies – to pay membership fees or travel expenses related to academic groups that boycott Israel.

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