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par Charlotte SILVER
Legislators around the United States are pushing forward bills, resolutions and blacklists to combat the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. This month, lawmakers in New York and Illinois advanced the countrywide anti-BDS effort.
New York senators voted to cut $485 million in state funding to City University of New York (CUNY), shifting the cost burden to the city. Meanwhile, a CUNY professor who advises Students for Justice in Palestine was hauled before an investigative panel. Republican State Senator Ken LaValle, who chairs the chamber’s committee on higher education, said the funding cut was meant to “send a message” to the university that it had not done enough to fight anti-Semitism on its campuses.
The slash to the state budget was originally proposed by Governor Andrew Cuomo as a way of trimming the state’s operating costs. However, on 14 March, 2016, senators discovered that the Republicans had worded the budget proposal as a penalty to the school for its supposedly insufficient response to alleged anti-Semitic incidents on four of its 11 campuses.
Democratic Senator Liz Krueger from Manhattan said the resolution was “breathtakingly shocking”. “This was one giant "what the heck ?" moment”, she told reporters.
Marty Golden, the sole Senate Republican who represents Brooklyn, criticized the resolution, calling it politically motivated.
The allegations of anti-Semitism at CUNY originated in a 14-page letter authored by Zionist Organization of America president Morton Klein accusing the school’s Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) group of carrying out anti-Semitic acts over the last three years. The letter alleges incidents including swastikas appearing on campus and protesters shouting “Zionists go home !” “The SJP has created a hostile campus environment for many Jewish students, causing them to feel harassed, threatened and even physically unsafe, in violation of the law”, Klein claims. The letter calls on the university to publicly condemn the group and investigate its funding. Klein includes no evidence to support the allegations of swastikas on campus or that they were produced by members of SJP.
Radhika Sainath, an attorney at Palestine Legal, who is also advising members of SJP, told the Wall Street Journal that the ZOA inaccurately pinned “some instances of real anti-Semitism” on Palestine activists. “Here in New York City, the ZOA seems to think that the First Amendment doesn’t apply to students supporting Palestinian rights at CUNY”, Sainath told The Electronic Intifada last week.
ZOA has made similar allegations against campus groups around the country, prompting investigations by the federal Department of Education under Title IV of the Civil Rights Act. The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights dismissed two of these complaints at Rutgers University and the University of California, Irvine. A third complaint was settled before the government could finish its investigation.
In response to the ZOA letter, CUNY Chancellor James B. Millikin hired two lawyers, Paul Schechtman and Barbara Jones, to review Klein’s claims. CUNY also established two task forces, one to review the school’s “policies on speech and expression” and another to assess how the school can best encourage “a climate of mutual respect and civil discourse”. In his response to ZOA, Millikin wrote that the school “cannot infringe on the constitutional rights of free speech and association of its students, faculty and staff”.
The Anti-Defamation League praised CUNY’s response, while Klein said he was disappointed, insisting Millikin condemn SJP. Klein is nonetheless pleased with the Senate’s resolution. In response to the Senate’s plan to cut CUNY’s budget, Millikin reiterated that his institution cannot infringe on free speech.
Sarah Schulman, a professor of English at CUNY’s Staten Island campus, where ZOA claims swastikas appeared, was called to testify before the CUNY task force on anti-Semitism that Jones and Schechtman are heading. Schulman, who is Jewish, has been specifically targeted by the pro-Israel groups. The New York Daily News ran an “exclusive” story echoing the ZOA’s accusations of anti-Semitism against her and quoting tweets she made criticizing Israel’s summer 2014 attack on Gaza that killed more than 2200 Palestinians. Schulman is a school adviser of the SJP chapter at the College of Staten Island. Jones presented Schulman with the ZOA’s list of accusations. In a Facebook post recounting her testimony on 22 March, Schulman states all the accusations were “fabricated or absurd”. Schulman says there is no record that any swastikas were drawn on the walls of the college. “There is no incident report of anyone ever doing such a thing at [College of Staten Island], even the president of the college does not recall this ever happening”, according to Schulman. “The letter was really a list of slanders against Muslim students”, Schulman writes of the ZOA accusations. “Over and over there were vague charges that ‘a Muslim student’ said something unpleasant to a Jewish student. But never was there any evidence that this composite Muslim student had anything to do with SJP”. Schulman told the investigators that the ZOA has been been harassing her on the Internet, sending a daily barrage of tweets to her publisher, reviewers and colleagues and publishing false information on her Wikipedia biography page, including that she visited Gaza as a “guest of Hamas”. “At the end of the meeting I was asked what I thought the task force should include in their final report”, Schulman writes. “My suggestion : "That Students for Justice in Palestine should be treated like every other student group”.
Meanwhile, in the wake of Klein’s accusations against CUNY, the New York City Council’s Jewish caucus is moving forward with a bill that would require the university to implement a more stringent mechanism to monitor alleged anti-Semitism on campus.
Last July , Illinois became the first state to blacklist foreign companies that boycott or abstain from conducting business with Israel’s occupation or settlements in the West Bank or Gaza Strip. The law compels the state’s pension fund to divest from those companies. On Tuesday, the Illinois Investment Policy Board blacklisted 11 companies. The list includes financial institutions and supermarket chains which have divested from or stopped conducting trade with businesses and growers in the occupied Palestinian territories. It includes several European banks, such as Nordea and ASN, that have divested from companies that violate Palestinian rights by participating in Israel’s settlements in the West Bank, all of which are illegal under international law. The global security and imprisonment firm G4S also appears on the list. Earlier this month, the UK-based firm, which provides equipment and surveillance technology to Israeli prisons and checkpoints, announced plans to end all business in Israel within the next two years. The firm’s planned exit from Israel came after it had lost millions of dollars worth of contracts as a result of activist campaigns.
The Illinois investment board also maintains a list of companies the state is blacklisting for failing to boycott Sudan.
In January 2016, Human Rights Watch issued a landmark report calling on all corporations to completely end their business activities in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, including Jerusalem. “The only way for businesses to comply with their own human rights responsibilities is to stop working with and in Israeli settlements”, Arvind Ganesan, director of the business and human rights division at Human Rights Watch, said.
The Illinois law and similar bills around the country seek, in effect, to penalize firms for respecting human rights.