Senate approves bill seen as threat to campus criticism of Israel

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 American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the Jewish Federations of North America, the Anti-Defamation League and the Simon Wiesenthal Center all support the act.

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.

Discredited definition

In 2010, the Department of State adopted a discarded and discredited working definition of anti-Semitism drafted by a European Union agency.

The lead author of the definition, Kenneth Stern, has opposed its adoption by universities, warning that it would be used by Israel advocacy groups to police speech.

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.”

Failed efforts

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.

In June, Brooke Goldstein, the director of The Lawfare Project, indicated that her group was preparing another Title VI challenge against US universities.

“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.”

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Palestinian people are also semites. There is nothing mentionend in factsheet with regards to denying the Palestinian people their right to self-determination, and denying Palestine /Palestinians the right to exist.
Therefore this state dept. factsheet definition of antisemtism is biased and incomplete!

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“Anti-semite” has lost its sting, because every justified criticism of the Zionist Israeli government is declared to be anti-semitism. The word is so overused and misapplied as to be useless. Indeed, to be declared “anti-semite” by the Israel Lobby is to be declared a person of high moral conscience.

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"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?"

NEVER....No free expression can be discriminatory, because the act of expressing your beliefs has absolutely nothing to do with what anyone else does, or wants to do. You may be offended, insulted, humiliated, or shamed, but none of this prevents any action on the part of the subject of the expression. It's only expression, but the problem here is that too many people are discovering the Zionist control of this country, and everything they know, so the only way for the crooks to remain in control is to silence their critics.

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This bill is preposterous. It should never have gotten out of committee- assuming, that is, that it was even submitted through normal channels. Its provisions violate the Constitution in several respects, most obviously the First Amendment. Enforcement will be impossible, since the offenses described are tendentious and subject to blatant political interpretation.

The day is coming, and it can't come too soon, when Zionists are flushed out and sent packing. No democracy can function under these strictures. And yes, I know that's the idea behind such pieces of "legislation"- elimination of democratic protections.

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Goldstein's group take previleges their victims shouldn't have, acting as judge and jury as if they were in Israel!
People who defend their rights to exist should have no say or suffer punishment.
“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.”

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Per the state department definition of criticism of izreel, (as I do not recognize it, I can't seem to get the spelling correct): From the website: http://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls...
is the following statement:
"However, criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic."
So, I'll go with that.

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Is it being too sanguine to dismiss the AASA as just being a bit of busy work by the Senate that is all for show and unlikely to have its desired effect if not be actually counter-productive? The legislation merely calls for the DOE to be aware of the State Dept definition of anti-semitism.

I'm not too impressed by the A-S definition, but it is couched in cautious language; it does require any determination of A-S to take into account the overall context. The examples it gives 'could be' A-S; so it follows that they could also not be.

As for 'denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, and denying Israel the right to exist' - if a pro-Palestinian organisation was taken by task on this, it would be a lawyer's picnic. No-one really knows what 'self-determination' actually means but we do know that it doesn't cover a dibs on the table colonization of land and the transfer of people from their ancestral land and homes, which is pretty much the continuing story of Israel. We all know that rights are rarely absolute but relative to other competing rights.

If I was a determined Zionist, the last thing I would want is a drilling down into all of this via a court challenge. I get that it may be stressful for an organisation or individual to fight back against a DOE charge of A-S, but bringing these issues out into the open can only be helpful to achieving a measure of justice for Palestinians.

The passing of this legislation is a sign of weakness and maybe panic from Jewish organisations which have not yet realized that their narrative is being legitimately and successfully challenged.

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Brilliant comments on this situation Eliza. I think too that the passing of this legislation is a sign of weakness and panic from those Jewish organisations so used to getting their own way by intimidation.
Bullies are always cowards.

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Charlotte Silver

Charlotte Silver's picture

Charlotte Silver is an independent journalist and regular writer for The Electronic Intifada. She is based in Oakland, California and has reported from Palestine since 2010. Follow her on Twitter @CharESilver.