On December 1, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed the “Anti-Semitism Awareness Act.” A companion bill was introduced in the House of Representatives a day later. These bills would require the U.S. Department of Education to adopt deeply flawed guidelines that codify criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic. Its passage represents a serious attack on pro-Palestine activists and free speech rights.
It is doubtless that anti-Semitism has been on the rise lately. Donald Trump’s victory has been accompanied by hundreds of reported instances of hateful harassment, including one hundred anti-Semitic attacks. Recently, a group of white nationalists held a conference in Washington, D.C. in which speakers quoted Nazi propaganda in German and attendees hailed Trump’s victory with Nazi salutes.
Trump and his supporters were also criticized for trafficking in anti-Semitic images and stereotypes during his campaign. Additionally, the appointment of Steve Bannon, a leader in the white nationalist “alt-right” movement, to the position of senior presidential adviser has received stiff protest led by Jewish groups.
The proposed law would not, however, impact these very real and disturbing forms of anti-Semitism. Instead, it would primarily target critics of Israel on college campuses.
Under its widely criticized definition of anti-Semitism, the law prohibits “demonizing” or “delegitimizing” Israel. As Palestine Legal, a legal aid NGO dedicated to protecting those who speak for Palestinian freedom, writes, this “broad and vague language would allow virtually any criticism of Israel to be labeled as anti-Semitic.”
Supporters of Israel have long used accusations of anti-Semitism to silence criticism of Israel. For example, Palestine Legal found that in the first four months of 2015, sixty accusations of anti-Semitism were made on college campuses, “based solely on speech critical of Israeli policy.” The new law is, as such, one part of a larger assault on free speech regarding Palestine, which has caused professors to lose jobs, led to the passage of local bans on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, and involved the outlawing of pro-Palestinian groups.
Last year, the University of California (UC) system attempted to adopt the same definition of anti-Semitism embraced by the Congressional legislation. It was met with stiff resistance from Jewish groups, civil society organizations and the Los Angeles Times editorial board, which argued that the definition was a clear violation of free speech principles. The UC system eventually scrapped the measures.
The proposed bill also hampers efforts to stamp out the anti-Semitism so apparent today. Several groups which have publicly supported the bill have also welcomed Trump’s election victory and accepted his appointment of Bannon. They argue that Trump and Bannon’s support for Israel overshadows any potential anti-Semitic attitudes or language. Of course, this approach obscures the very real concrete examples of anti-Semitism for an overly broad and politically slanted definition that impermissibly conflates anti-Semitism with anti-Israel attitudes.
Instead of confronting the explosion of hate speech that has followed Donald Trump’s victory, Congress is attempting to censor criticism of Israel’s policies. For the sake of free speech and the struggle against anti-Semitism, this bill must be stopped.