May 13, 2024

Antisemitism Awareness Act

The House passed legislation [earlier this month] that would establish a broader definition of antisemitism for the Department of Education to enforce anti-discrimination laws… The proposal, which passed 320-91 with some bipartisan support, would codify the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s [IHRA] definition of antisemitism in Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a federal anti-discrimination law that bars discrimination based on shared ancestry, ethnic characteristics or national origin.” AP News

The IHRA includes the following examples, among others, of antisemitism:

  • Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor
  • Applying double standards by requiring of [Israel] a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation
  • Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis IHRA

All sides are critical of the bill, arguing that it is likely to chill protected speech:

“The vague nature of [the] IHRA standards, including inevitable ambiguity about the definition of ‘double standards’ regarding the state of Israel, has led the definition to be widely condemned as a Trojan horse for defining any criticism of Israel as antisemitism… In Europe, where there is no First Amendment, the IHRA definition of antisemitism has already been widely used to criminalize speech that is critical of Israel…

“The Antisemitism Awareness Act doesn’t quite go so far as to challenge the First Amendment. Instead, the bill gives the ‘sense of Congress’ about the IHRA language. On Capitol Hill, it is a familiar technique: Resolutions that carry no criminal weight are used to mainstream language and ideas that are later used to enact more stringent statutes. The purveyors of the Washington IHRA bill have already suggested that the legislation is, indeed, a first step toward something more concrete.”
Murtaza Hussain, The Intercept

“The alliance’s definition includes examples of antisemitism that encompass a broad range of statements that are protected by the First Amendment… The [examples] don’t just implicate the First Amendment, they also breed confusion around the very concept of harassment itself. Hearing unpleasant or even hateful thoughts or ideas isn’t ‘harassment.’ That’s an inescapable part of life in a free, pluralistic nation. Harassment is something else entirely…

“[The Senate should] strip the problematic incorporation of the alliance’s antisemitism definition and examples from the bill entirely. Instead, simply amend Title VI itself to make it explicit that discrimination based on ‘actual or perceived shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics’ is prohibited by the statute and that antisemitic discrimination meets that definition.”
David French, New York Times

One of the lead drafters behind the IHRA definition of antisemitism, Ken Stern, has consistently opposed the Antisemitism Awareness Act. Stern, who directs the Center for the Study of Hate at Bard College, spent 25 years as the in-house expert on antisemitism at the American Jewish Committee, where he worked on what would become the IHRA’s definition of antisemitism. As he explained it, the document was meant as a research tool, not a basis for legislation…

“‘Once you start defining what speech is OK for teaching, for funding, for all sorts of things, how does that differ from what we were doing in the McCarthy era?’ Stern asked… [Rep. Elise] Stefanik and her allies, after all, are currently attacking Harvard for having the heroic Filipina journalist Maria Ressa, winner of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize, as a commencement speaker, because Ressa’s publication called for a cease-fire in Gaza and because she signed an open letter about the killing of Gazan journalists. As Israel’s war moves into a brutal new phase, so do efforts to stifle those speaking out against it.”
Michelle Goldberg, New York Times

It is not the business of the state to legislate how we feel or to make us into nice people by fiat. True freedom of expression entails the right to say things that others find disagreeable. I may believe fervently in the existence of Israel, but I believe just as fervently in the right of anyone else to say that they don’t believe in it or even that the country is racist…  

“These laws easily slippery-slope to criminalizing ideas. If you criticize the Islamic faith as predatory and intolerant, isn’t that anti-Muslim? It’s a commonplace for the media to conflate being anti-immigration with being anti-immigrant. By now, we’re all exhausted by the never-ending debate over whether being anti-Zionism or anti-Israel is unavoidably antisemitic. We can keep arguing, but it shouldn’t be up to the state to settle that dispute.”
Lionel Shriver, Spectator World

“What if, instead of defining and suppressing mere speech about Israel and Palestine that crosses some threshold of bigotry, Americans recognized that colleges in a pluralistic, multiethnic society include lots of students who hold all sorts of discriminatory beliefs? And that part of being an educated person is learning how to respond to people with wrongheaded viewpoints, and even to persuade those people to abandon them?…

“After all, the problem is that people hold bigoted views, not that they say them aloud. Whatever happens with Title VI, and the Antisemitism Awareness Act’s attempts to entrench a particular approach to enforcing it, lots of people aligned with Palestine will continue to hold positions that many Jews understandably interpret as hostile. Lots of people aligned with Israel will continue to hold positions that many Palestinians understandably interpret as hostile. How could it be otherwise? If hostile-feeling positions become unsayable on campus even as they are widespread in society, academia will become irrelevant in a vital debate, denying all students the benefits of an uncensored education.”
Conor Friedersdorf, The Atlantic

Other opinions below.

See past issues

From the Left

Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY) writes, “If Congress is serious about fighting antisemitism, there is a better way. Last year, the Biden administration outlined a comprehensive National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism…

“President Biden proposed a 27 percent increase in funding to the [Office for Civil Rights] for that purpose; House Republicans countered with a 25 percent decrease in funds. Congress ‘compromised’ by holding funding flat… If we are going to effectively and meaningfully protect students on campus, then we must back up existing protection.”

Jerry Nadler, Washington Post

From the Right

“You don’t have to defend antisemitism to recognize the First Amendment dangers inherent in empowering federal agencies to crack down on campus speech. Republicans may be supporting the bill now, but it’s generally conservative speech that gets throttled at universities…

“Besides, the current chaos on campuses — vandalizing property, for example — is already illegal. Illegal activity and actions that prevent students from attending class deserve punishment from universities and local law enforcement, not Congress.”

Brianna Lyman, The Federalist

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