On Thursday the United States Senate quietly passed a bill that civil rights groups warn may be used to limit the free speech rights of college students expressing support for Palestinian rights.
The Senate unanimously voted for the so-called Anti-Semitism Awareness Act, introduced by Bob Casey, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, and Tim Scott, a Republican from South Carolina, only two days before the vote.
The following day, a bipartisan team introduced a companion bill to the US House of Representatives.
The Anti-Defamation League, which claims to have “played a central role” in “crafting and promoting the legislation,” celebrated its approval by the Senate.
The group stated: “The act addresses a core concern of Jewish and pro-Israel students and parents: When does the expression of anti-Semitism, anti-Israel sentiment and anti-Zionist beliefs cross the line from First Amendment protected free expression to unlawful discriminatory conduct?”
The bill is presented as a solution to what it calls rising anti-Semitism at schools, and the legislation urges the Department of Education to take into consideration the State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism when investigating schools for discrimination under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.
The State Department’s definition includes “demonizing” and “delegitimizing” Israel as examples of contemporary anti-Semitism.
The bill’s stated intention is to “provide guidance on the current manifestation of anti-Semitism, including discriminatory anti-Semitic conduct that is couched as anti-Israel or anti-Zionist.”
The senators refer to a recent FBI report finding that more than half of all “religiously-motivated hate crimes were due to the offender’s anti-Jewish leanings.”
But the Anti-Defamation League reports that anti-Semitic incidents on college campuses are at their lowest since 1999, when the organization started tracking them.
The Anti-Semitic Awareness Act directs the Department of Education to refer to a State Department fact sheet that lists “contemporary examples of anti-Semitism,” and purports to answer “What is Anti-Semitism Relative to Israel?”
The fact sheet says anti-Semitism can come in the form of:
“Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, and denying Israel the right to exist”
“Multilateral organizations focusing on Israel only for peace or human rights investigations”
“Applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation”
“Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis”
“Blaming Israel for all inter-religious or political tensions”
Palestine Legal condemned the bill, stating that “The definition uses broad and vague language that would allow virtually any criticism of Israel to be labeled as anti-Semitic.”
The Anti-Defamation League says the State Department definition would guide the Department of Education and Department of Justice “in understanding the changing nature of anti-Semitism in order to more effectively determine whether possible legal violations were motivated by targeted anti-Jewish animus.”
Israel advocacy groups have thus far failed to convince the Department of Education to investigate Palestine advocacy on college campuses as potentially violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.
In 2013, the US Department of Education threw out Title VI legal claims filed by students against the University of California at Berkeley, the University of California at Santa Cruz and the University of California at Irvine in relation to campus Palestine solidarity activism.
Earlier this year, the the University of California Board of Regents stopped short of adopting a proposal to equate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, despite coming under pressure from pro-Israel groups. Zionism is Israel’s state ideology.
In New York, state lawmakers failed to pass legislation that would “bar state universities, city universities, and community colleges from funding any student organization that ‘promotes, encourages, or permits’ boycotts against certain nations or permits ‘intolerance’ or ‘hate speech,’” according to FIRE, a group which defends free speech on campus and vigorously opposed the bill.
However, Israel advocacy groups have not been dissuaded.
“The goal is to make the enemy pay,” Goldstein said, “and to send a message, a deterrent message, that similar actions such as those that they engage in will result in massive punishments.”