Bill to Defund Pro-BDS Groups at CUNY Stalled in Assembly

Brooklyn College (CUNYer/Flickr)

A bill aimed at defunding pro-BDS organizations at the City University of New York passed the State Senate, but was never brought to a vote in the Assembly as the term’s session closed. Its supporters drew some satisfaction, even in ultimate defeat, saying that the prominence the attempted legislation gave the issue has moved the university’s administration to take more significant action to investigate the actions of such groups.

The measure called for funds to be stripped from organizations that support boycotts of any U.S. ally, but was driven by several incidents of harassment and assault of Jewish students associated with groups promoting divestment from Israel.

CUNY is in the midst of an investigation of the episodes, but Sen. Jack Martins (R-Mineola), the bill’s sponsor, felt that the process was not moving fast enough.

“A study that’s dealing with students being intimidated and having views imposed upon them should not be taking this long,” he told Hamodia.

Martins is presently running for the Congressional seat left open by Rep. Steve Israel, who is retiring.

A spokesperson for CUNY defended the delay in a statement to Hamodia, saying that “more interviews have been conducted than had been originally anticipated. A report is expected this summer. Diligence is imperative in such a review and haste is not an option.”

A growing number of Jewish students at the university have reported harassment in recent years from members of groups such as Students for Justice in Palestine and Palestine Legal. However, following wide media attention over a faculty meeting at Brooklyn College that was interrupted by protesters chanting “Zionists out of CUNY” and “Zionist pigs,” administrators ordered a formal investigation by outside counselors.

Assemblyman Dov Hikind, an early supporter of the failed bill, was disappointed that wrangling in the lower house kept the legislation from reaching a vote, but was hopeful that CUNY’s investigation would yield positive results.

“I think that if the report demonstrates what a problem the situation is for a lot of students, it will go a long way in moving towards a real solution,” he said.

Hikind also offered praise for the State Senate on their vote to advance the bill.

“This is why it’s so important that the Senate stays in Republican hands, and I’m saying that as a Democrat. They understand the issues and they get things done.”

A key factor in the bill’s opposition were claims that it was a punishment for the exercise of free speech.

“The University has an obligation to protect the rights of free expression and academic freedom which are critical to the mission of a university. By prohibiting funding of student organizations that ‘promote’ or ‘encourage,’ ‘directly or indirectly,’ intolerance, hate speech or certain types of boycotts, this bill may seek to penalize expression protected by the First Amendment,” said CUNY’s spokesman in his response.

Professor Tammi Rossman-Benjamin is the founder and director of the AMCHA Initiative, an organization that studies and fights anti-Semitism in institutions of higher learning in the United States. She said that media coverage and legislation that resulted from the incidents at CUNY had been essential in moving the university to take action.

“They [CUNY administrators] saw that they weren’t going to be able to whitewash it,” she told Hamodia. “It’s clear that these are not the isolated actions of a few students, but groups that have gone unfettered and are now out of control.”

Yet, Prof. Rossman-Benjamin was not supportive of defunding organizations along the lines of ideology.

“Unless they’re inciting violence, it’s protected by the First Amendment. People have the right to have ideas that we might not think are so smart.”

Sen. Martins took issue with accusations that his attempted legislation would hinder free speech.

“You have the right to say whatever you want, but the taxpayers of New York should not have to support it.”

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