Senate Anti-Semitism Bill Targets Student Activists While Letting Real Bigots off the Hook

Under the cover of the outrage that has accompanied the election of Donald Trump to the presidency and his appointment of Steve Bannon as his chief strategist, a man the Anti-Defamation League has condemned as a facilitator of “a loose-knit group of white nationalists and unabashed anti-Semites and racists,” two U.S. senators have fast-tracked the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act, a bill that is aimed less at fighting anti-Semitism and more at suppressing student activism for Palestinian rights. U.S. senators Bob Casey (D-PA) and Tim Scott (R-SC) introduced the bipartisan bill on November 29. Two days later, without any debate, the Senate passed the bill, which enlists the Department of Education to deprive students and others on campus of their constitutionally guaranteed rights.

A press release from Casey’s office declares that the bill aims to “combat increasing incidents of anti-Semitism on college campuses nationwide.” It added that the act would “codify the definition as one adopted by the U.S. State Department’s Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism," which the statement falsely claims is shared by the European Union.  

The press release describes the actions that would qualify for censure under the Act:

  • calling for, aiding, or justifying the killing or harming of Jews
  • accusing the Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust
  • demonizing Israel by blaming it for all inter-religious or political tensions
  • judging Israel by a double standard one would not apply to any other democratic nation

After putting forth this highly politicized criteria, the senatorial statement adds without any apparent sense of irony, “This act is not meant to infringe on any individual right protected under the First Amendment of the Constitution.”

If the Republican-dominated House passes a version of the Senate’s bill, anyone accused of “demonizing Israel” or “judging Israel by a double standard one would not apply to any other democratic nation” could fit the congressional definition of anti-Semitism. Those who support Israel’s far-right government and its policies toward the Palestinians, like the former Breitbart publisher and incoming White House chief strategist Steven Bannon, but fall short of outrageous anti-Semitic displays like Holocaust denial, would not be sanctioned by the congressional act. Bannon might have boasted that his website provided “a platform for the alt-right,” the country’s main base of open anti-Semites, but soon he will have an easy excuse to wield against those who accuse him of bigotry. And it will be thanks to the ADL, which has simultaneously accused him of anti-Semitism while sponsoring the congressional act that lets him and those in his ideological orbit off the hook.

The target of the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act is clear: Palestine solidarity activists on university campuses.

Tallie Ben-Daniel of the progressive group Jewish Voice for Peace, which supports Palestine solidarity actions across the country, noted the hypocrisy of the established Jewish organizations that sponsored the act. “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,” Ben-Daniel said. “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 editorial board of the Los Angeles Times has wondered about the University of California adopting this definition of anti-Semitism, saying that “parts of the document stretch the definition of anti-Semitism to cover criticism of Israel.”

There is another problem with this bill: The definition it relies on is no longer employed by the European Union. As the Times of Israel reported in 2013, the EU had dropped its “working definition” of anti-Semitism. In fact, the author of the definition says it should not be imposed upon universities and colleges. Writing in the Jewish Journal, Kenneth Stern unambiguously declared that the “official adoption of the State Department’s definition [on college campuses] would do more harm than good. I say this sadly, as the lead author of the somewhat more detailed European Monitoring Centre’s (EUMC) ‘working definition on antisemitism,’ upon which the State Department definition is based, and as a strong advocate of State’s use of the definition in its global work.”  

Stern continued: “to enshrine such a definition on a college campus is an ill-advised idea that will make matters worse, and not only for Jewish students; it would also damage the university as a whole.” Stern says in his article that applying his definition on college campuses “cheapens” the word anti-Semitism.

So why would the sponsors of the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act reach back so far to use a definition that has, contrary to their stated claims, been repudiated by the European Union? And why they would ignore the warnings of the author of the definition when it comes to its application on college campuses? Perhaps it has something to do with the way Washington works. On Capitol Hill, it seems that as long as you are advancing the pro-Israel lobby’s imperatives, virtually anything goes. When senators Casey and Scott brought a corrosive, constitutionally questionable bill to a vote, they got their way without a minute of debate and minimal scrutiny from mainstream media. Even before the Trump era begins, a bipartisan consensus has taken a disturbing step against free speech on the campuses.

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