Why the “Protect Academic Freedom Act” Must be Stopped

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On January 28, a bill passed in the New York State Senate punishing universities that use state funds in support of academic groups, such as the A.S.A., that boycott Israel. Universities transgressing this ban would lose all state funding. It was fought relentlessly by civil rights groups, unions, academic institutions, and many Jewish groups. It was thought defeated until it resurfaced Thursday with weakened penalties—universities would only lose as much as they invested in the offending organization—but the same fierce opposition. Similar bills have since been introduced in the Illinois and Maryland legislatures and the Orwellian Protect Academic Freedom Act recently introduced into the House of Representatives by House Chief Deputy Whip Peter Roskam (R-Ill.) and Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.).

I have spoken out against the B.D.S. movement here before, and I fully agree with New Voices blogger Amram Altzman’s assessment of the huge mistake that is the A.S.A. boycott—academic boycotts solve little while unfairly punishing students, those most likely to become empowered to solve today’s crises through the education and opportunities for dialogue the university setting offers.  

So if an academic boycott of a government is a bad idea, then a government boycott of academics is an absolutely atrocious one. Academics and the institutions they form have the right to make their own decisions, even poor ones. Other academics and institutions have the right to support or deride those decisions. No government body should ever have the right to withhold funding from universities based on the geopolitical stances of its employees. Period. Because when lawmakers turn educational money into a political football with which to prove their pro-Israel bonafides it will always be the students who suffer the most. Under the Protect Academic Freedom Act, if a university so much as sends a professor to an A.S.A. conference, it will lose all state funding for a year. This could result in higher tuition, cut programs, lost jobs, and, ultimately, fewer Americans receiving a higher education,  and believe it or not, this would all likely have zero impact on anything in the Middle East.

This, then, is clearly not about helping Israelis or Palestinians to some day live in peace, or anything else related to justice, this is pure political maneuvering. Read the quotes from the bill’s sponsors, they all sound like finalists in a contest for who can construct the most pro-Israel sentence. A Democratic strategist told BuzzFeed it is meant to embarrass the Democrats who sponsor it.

For years, those on the right have exposed public university professors expressing anti-American sentiment in class, such as Ward Churchill, and calling for them to be fired.  An unapologetic homophobe teaches physics at Washington University. Though Northwestern is a private university, it still receives federal funding, and there is a member of the Weathermen and a Holocaust denier teaching there, yet Illinois lawmakers apparently think going to an A.S.A. conference is worse. Since when does the First Amendment not extend to the right to criticize the Israeli government?

This worries me not only as a free-speech advocate, but also, no, especially, as a Jew. In an editorial reprinted in New Voices on January 30, UCSD student Zev Hurwitz notes that the University of California’s recent decision to push back move-in week by cutting two weeks out of winter break in order to “accommodate” Jewish students during the High Holiday season has caused a feeling of resentment there toward Jewish students who had no say in the changes. Similarly, if these measures pass, Jews all over the country will feel a similar rise in animosity directed toward them for something most of us (I really, really hope) likewise think is ridiculous. University students, especially, who might have their educations ruined by a stupid bill could very well direct their animus towards Jewish organizations and Israel. Though campus is not the anti-Israel or anti-Semitic battleground many on the far-right would have you believe it is, ironically, these they bills could turn them into one. We must not let this happen.

Even normally right-leaning Jewish groups seem to understand this. The Anti-Defamation League and American Jewish Committee have both come out against it, and according to J.N.S., even AIPAC is indicating that it might come out against the bill. When a pro-Israel” piece of legislation is so obviously against America’s best interests that even AIPAC won’t touch it, it becomes painfully clear just what kind of monster all the years of knee-jerk “Israel right or wrong” politics in this country has created.

This bill is dangerous to higher education, an assault on free speech, bad for the Jews, and stands to do nothing to help Israelis or Palestinians someday find peace; if anything, it promises to only bring the animosities from the Middle East to the college campus. Jewish students across the country, do everything in your power (which is a lot) to prevent these bills from passing.

 

Derek M. Kwait graduated from the University of Pittsburgh and is editor in chief of New Voices.

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