Update, 4:18 PM, December 1, 2016. The bill passed the Senate by unanimous consent. Palestine Legal calls on all lawmakers in the House to vigorously oppose this attack on cherished First Amendment freedoms to criticize the government.
December 1, 2016 – The US Senate will consider a bill, today, aiming to impose a broad redefinition of antisemitism on the Department of Education (DOE). While purporting to address rising antisemitism on college campuses, the bill clearly takes aim at student advocacy for Palestinian rights, and criticism of Israel.
The proposed “Anti-Semitism Awareness Act” would require the DOE to take into consideration a discredited definition of antisemitism, sometimes called the “State Department definition,” in assessing whether alleged violations of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act are “motivated by anti-Semitic intent.” The definition uses broad and vague language that would allow virtually any criticism of Israel to be labeled as antisemitic, including any speech deemed to “demonize,” apply “double standards” to, or “delegitimize” Israel.
“As Trump calls for jailing flag burners, every lawmaker must stand up to protect cherished First Amendment freedoms to criticize the government. That means college students have the right to criticize the U.S. and foreign governments, including Israel,” said Staff Attorney Liz Jackson. “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 censor or punish campus speech critical of Israel.”
While the U.S. State Department’s Office for the Special Envoy on Antisemitism has maintained the definition on its website for the purposes of documenting incidents of antisemitism abroad, the definition was not written or adopted for application in the U.S.
Moreover, the DOE has repeatedly rejected complaints of discrimination by Israel advocacy organizations targeting campus speech critical of Israel because such criticism is protected by the First Amendment. The DOE dismissed four separate complaints alleging that advocacy for Palestinian rights causes a hostile environment for pro-Israel Jewish students, determining that campus debate about Israel-Palestine is the kind of “robust and discordant expression” to be expected on a college campus, and is protected by the First Amendment.
The University of California (UC) and other universities have also rejected the antisemitism definition endorsed by this Act because of free speech concerns. Israel advocacy organizations had pushed for its adoption in March 2015, causing an outcry from free speech advocates across the political spectrum, media, students, graduate student instructors, and Jewish and other civil rights organizations. Jewish commentators, including the definition’s original drafter, Kenneth Stern, repudiated its use on a college campus.
“At a time when forces of racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia and antisemitism have been unleashed at levels not seen in decades, this transparent attempt to attack political speech criticizing Israel is only fortifying efforts to undermine civil liberties,“ added Jackson. “Congress should fight antisemitism – together with all forms of racism – by holding accountable those responsible for perpetrating and inciting violence and harassment against vulnerable communities, not by attacking First Amendment protected expression.”
See Palestine Legal’s FAQ on the State Department definition of antisemitism here.
See Jewish Voice for Peace press release here.