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Desert Sage

Antisemitism bill stigmatizes legitimate speech


The ancient scourge of antisemitism is a real threat, and reports of anti-Jewish harassment and threats have risen since Hamas’ Oct. 7 massacre in Israel and its overwhelming military response. Opposing antisemitism while enhancing safety and security for Jewish people throughout society, including college campuses, is important, especially in the context of public anger over civilian devastation in Gaza.

Unfortunately, the bill that passed the House of Representatives last week — with the support of southern New Mexico’s Gabe Vasquez along with most of his fellow Democrats and the Republican majority — overreaches by branding legitimate speech and debate about Israel as antisemitic. 

The Antisemitism Awareness Act, if it becomes law, would establish a broad definition of antisemitism for the purposes of enforcing Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination against protected groups in programs or activities receiving federal funds — such as academic institutions. Department of Education policy has for decades included Jews among the groups protected by the Act. Antisemitic discrimination is, thus, already prohibited.

This bill codifies the definition used by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, including its suggestions that antisemitic speech might include not just Holocaust denial and demonization of Jewish people but also criticism and argument about the state of Israel itself, from its founding to its current actions in Gaza, past warfare and occupation of lands — perhaps even zionism as a political viewpoint.

For example, “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor,” “drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis,” “applying double standards” to Israel and not other nations, and other propositions that might be contested, well or poorly, in an academic environment would, under this law, potentially constitute antisemitism and invite policing of speech or loss of federal funding.

The Anti-Defamation League, for its part, has acknowledged that parts of the IHRA definition are protected speech under the First Amendment. Ironically, Jewish critics of Israel or zionism could be targeted for censorship under a law said to protect them. 

The Civil Rights Act protects people from targeted harassment and discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin. Somehow, the House was persuaded this requires prohibitions on criticizing nation-states and political viewpoints. There is, for instance, a case in process in international court alleging genocidal acts by Israel. Discussing this case in an academic setting might veer toward forbidden comparisons to other historical acts of genocide, putting the discussion off-limits lest the feds investigate. 

This novel, and chilling, use of the Civil Rights Act drifts far from its original purpose. It also seems to be a transparent effort at bringing academic institutions to heel, a prominent project on the political right. Here, that project seems to have been joined by a majority of House Democrats, like Vasquez, who failed to defend a distinction between threats to people and the policing of ideas.

Congress, House of Representatives, censorship, free speech