Instead of fighting antisemitism, new Senate bill threatens free speech

Update: Senate passes bill equating legitimate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism without debate

December 1, 2016 (5:30 pm)–Instead of combating the right-wing antisemitism on the rise in the wake of the election, the problematic “Anti-Semitism Awareness Act” takes aim at campus activism for Palestinian rights by codifying criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic.

The bill was fast-tracked through the Senate today, and passed by unanimous consent this afternoon, despite the hundreds of calls JVP members made to Senate leadership asking for an open debate on these issues. Civil and human rights groups also expressed concern about the bill. (Here is a statement from Palestine Legal, and one from the Friends Committee on National Legislation.)

Further context and commentary:


FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
December 1, 2016
Contact: Naomi Dann| media@jvp.org | 845-377-5745

Instead of fighting anti-Semitism, new Senate bill threatens free speech

Fast-tracked “Anti-Semitism Awareness Act” designed to condemn criticism of Israel

December 1, 2016–The United States Senate is due to consider the “Anti-Semitism Awareness Act,” a bill that, rather than fight anti-Semitism as it purports to do, will enable a crackdown against activism for Palestinian human rights on college campuses. Introduced and fast-tracked this week by Senators Bob Casey (D-PA) and Tim Scott (R-SC), the bill would codify a controversial State Department definition of anti-Semitism that broadly defines criticism of the state of Israel as anti-Semitic.

The bill is supported by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Jewish Federations of North America, the Anti-Defamation League, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center. “Given the silence of most of those organizations on the appointment of Bannon, an actual white supremacist anti-Semite to a position of power in the White House, and their poor track records of Islamophobia, it is outrageous that they are pushing through this legislation targeted at student activism for Palestinian human rights,” said Tallie Ben Daniel, academic program manager of Jewish Voice for Peace. “Instead of fighting the anti-Semitism entering the White House, this bill will go after 19-year-old students carrying protest signs against human rights abuses. This is not how to fight anti-Semitism, this is a recipe for restricting civil liberties like the right to criticize a government for its policies.”

The legislation would codify a problematic definition of anti-Semitism that right-wing Israel advocates have been trying for years to implement on college campuses in order to police student criticism of Israeli policy. The State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism includes vague wording regarding “demonizing” the state of Israel that can and has been interpreted to stifle legitimate criticism of Israel’s human rights abuses and discriminatory policies. Civil rights groups, free speech advocates and news outlets including the Los Angeles Times editorial board have raised free speech concerns about the implementation of this definition. Kenneth Stern, the lead author of the European Monitoring Centre’s definition upon which the state department definition is based, stated that to use this definition on college campuses would “do more harm than good.”

“We must be vigilant to fight against the intensified racism, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism that have been unleashed by Trump’s campaign and the threat of racist, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant policies promised by his incoming administration. It is more essential than ever that our lawmakers and Jewish communal leaders insist that fighting anti-Semitism go hand in hand with fighting racism and Islamophobia, not reinforce them with misguided legislation designed to defend Israeli policies, not Jews.” said Rabbi Alissa Wise, deputy director of Jewish Voice for Peace.

Liz Jackson, civil rights attorney with Palestine Legal and cooperating counsel with the Center for Constitutional Rights: “As Trump calls for jailing flag burners, every lawmaker must stand up to protect cherished First Amendment freedoms to criticize the government. That includes the right of college students to criticize the U.S. and foreign governments like Israel. Regardless of one’s views on Palestine-Israel, we should all be alarmed at this attempt to pile on top of Trump’s attacks on free speech rights. It is plainly unconstitutional for Congress, the Department of Education, a state legislature, or any public school to punish campus speech critical of Israel.

The Anti-Semitism Awareness Act merits full consideration and a public debate.

For further information, see:

Jewish Voice for Peace’s Rabbi Alissa Wise’s “Reflections on antisemitism in the Trump Era” (November 2016).

Jewish Voice for Peace’s Rebecca Vilkomerson “Anti-Semitism for the sake of Israel in the age of Trump” in The Hill (November 2016)

Jewish Voice for Peace’s Academic Advisory Council’s petition to the State Department regarding their definition of antisemitism (May 2015).

Foundation for Individual Rights in Education: “State Department’s Anti-Semitism Definition Would Likely Violate First Amendment on Public Campuses” (May 2015).

Los Angeles Times editorial board: “How far should UC go with an anti-Semitism policy?”  (July 2015).

Palestine Legal’s Frequently Asked Questions Brief on the State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism.

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