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Dima Khalidi: The NY anti-boycott bill is aimed at shutting down the growing movement opposing Israel’s discriminatory policies against the Palestinians

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JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.

The New York State Senate has passed a bill that would bar the use of state funds to any institution engaging in boycotting of countries or higher education institutions. The bill was passed in response to the passage of a resolution by the American Studies Association endorsing the boycott of Israeli academic institutions that violate the human rights of Palestinians. A discussion on the bill in the New York State Assembly was recently taken off the agenda for discussion, though the bill will be considered later in a different form, according to Mondoweiss.

Now joining us to discuss this is Dima Khalidi. She’s the founder and director of Palestine Solidarity Legal Support and cooperating counsel with the Center for Constitutional Rights.

Thank you so much for joining us.


NOOR: So can you start off by giving us an update of where this bill stands right now in the New York State Assembly?

KHALIDI: Yeah. It was passed very quickly [inaud.] State Senate, and it was supposed to be considered by the Assembly on Monday. This bill was really fast-tracked in the Assembly. It was supposed to be considered by the Higher Education Committee, the Ways and Means Committee, and the Rules Committee. Originally, the Higher Ed Committee was supposed to consider it on Tuesday. We learned [inaud.] that it had been moved to Monday. So it was clear that there was a large effort to get this passed very quickly. So it was our understanding that it could get to the floor of the Assembly by Monday.

So at this point what happened was that after a huge effort to mobilize people in opposition to this bill, it’s been delayed. The Higher Ed Committee took it off its agenda on Monday. And it’s now yet to be seen what will happen with it. It may be introduced in a different form. So we’re not sure at this point what will happen with it.

But the opposition was [inaud.] and came from a lot of different organizations, including the Center for Constitutional Rights and PSLS, as well as Jewish Voice for Peace, the CUNY faculty and staff union. So there were a lot of forces mobilized against this bill once it became clear what it was about and the real threat that it poses to First Amendment speech.

NOOR: And so it appears that this pushback was successful in at least watering down some of the language in the version being discussed in the Assembly versus the Senate bill, which was passed, you know, really quickly, as you said, and seemed much more draconian and much harsher.

KHALIDI: Well, it’s not necessarily the opposition that affected that [inaud.] there were always two separate versions of the bill, the one in the Senate and the one in the Assembly.

NOOR: And so a supporter of the bill said the First Amendment protects every organization’s right to speak, but never requires taxpayers to foot the bill. Give us your response. And what is your response overall to this bill and what it means for academic freedoms and the freedom of speech in this country?

KHALIDI: It’s very clear that this bill was aimed at shutting down the growing movement for boycotts and divestment against Israeli institutions, the Israeli state, and its discriminatory policies against Palestinians. So the real problem with it is that it’s [inaud.] on First Amendment speech activities. The United States Supreme Court has said very clearly that boycotts intended to affect social, economic, and political change are protected First Amendment activities. And it’s very clear that that’s what the American Studies Association boycott resolution was aiming to do, which is what this bill was focused on. It was a clear response, reaction to the ASA boycott resolution. So that’s the first fundamental problem with it is that it violates the First Amendment free speech principles.

The second problem is that it’s an attempt by public officials–in this case, state legislators–to in effect censor what can be said in an academic environment by academics who are debating controversial issues. It’s an effort to coerce those who have a certain position into silence. If the state is saying that anybody who holds this or who advocates for this particular political position cannot use state funds to go to a meeting or to, you know, advocate for this position, it’s taking a clear stance on a political issue. So it’s clear that it’s inappropriate for public officials to censor speech in that way, to coerce speech in that way, by denying public funds. So it’s not a matter of whether the state, you know, has an obligation to pay for it. It’s about whether the state can deny it in an effort to silence a particular political viewpoint.

NOOR: This overall targeting of Palestinian rights activists or Palestinian solidarity activists, it hardly ever gets mentioned in the mainstream press, and even in the progressive media as well. Can you talk about how this fits into this broader attack on the rights of people that support boycott, divestment, sanctions across the country?

KHALIDI: Yes, and it’s not just the BDS movement, but those who sympathize with Palestinians, with the Palestinian plight, who might advocate for Palestinian rights. So we’re talking about a wide spectrum of people who might be sympathetic with Palestinians in general.

What we’re seeing (and I think the reaction to the ASA boycott really illuminates this): frontal attacks from a lot of different places. So in the case of the ASA boycott, we saw not only this legislation in New York; there are similar bills being proposed in Maryland, possibly California, possibly even the United States Congress. We’re seeing attacks on universities themselves. There’s been a huge campaign to pressure universities into condemning the academic boycott that the ASA endorsed, as well as on professors themselves, who might have voted in favor of this academic boycott. We saw, in Georgia, Hillel posting names of professors who voted for the academic boycott and in effect putting them out there to be targeted. We also saw, in the ASA case, a threat to sue the ASA for allegedly discriminating, engaging in discrimination against Israelis, people of Israeli nationality. So it really reflects the level of organization and mobilization against these efforts to promote Palestinian rights.

Now, what PSLS has done in the last year alone, we have gotten–we have responded to over 100 incidents of intimidation, of, you know, suspected surveillance of activists, of threats, legal threats against activists because of their advocacy for Palestinian rights. And this has included Title 6 complaints against universities, alleging that Palestinian rights activism on campus is creating a hostile [inaud.] for Jewish students.

Several of these complaints were actually dismissed. And the Department of Education, which investigated these cases, clearly said that what the complaints were based on were protected First Amendment speech activities, that just because somebody might be offended by this activism doesn’t make it harrassment or discrimination under Title 6.

So we’re seeing, in fact, the courts responding in a positive way. There was a federal lawsuit, as well, alleging a Title 6 claim. We’re seeing the Department of Education responding in a positive way, affirming the right to talk about Palestine, to advocate for Palestinian rights. And there’s huge support for the right to do so, despite the pressure that activists, that academics are under.

There have–dozens of cases in which academics have been harrassed for their advocacy, as well as students. The most common allegation against students, against professors, against activists in general is that their advocacy for Palestinian rights is inherently anti-Semitic, that it amounts to discrimination against Jewish students or Jewish individuals. And that’s also the basis of this New York bill against the ASA boycott, against the ASA in general. The underlying accusation is that it’s anti-Semitic to engage in this human rights advocacy because it targets Israel, which is self-described as a Jewish state.

So it’s a real widespread problem, and we are working around the country to respond to these kinds of attacks on activists.

NOOR: Thank you so much for joining us.

KHALIDI: Thank you.

NOOR: You can follow us @therealnews on Twitter. Tweet me questions and comments @jaisalnoor.

Thank you so much for joining us.


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Dima Khalidi is the founder and Director of Palestinian Legal (formerly Palestine Solidarity Legal Support), and Cooperating Counsel with the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR). Her work includes providing legal advice to activists, engaging in advocacy to protect their rights to speak out for Palestinian rights, and educating activists and the public about their rights.

Dima has a JD from DePaul University College of Law, an MA in Comparative Legal Studies from the University of London - School of Oriental and African Studies and a BA in History and Near Eastern Studies from the University of Michigan.