A bi-partisan group of lawmakers have introduced legislation aimed at curbing a recent rise in anti-Semitism on colleges across the country.
“The Anti-Semitism Awareness Act” directs the Department of Education to use the U.S. State Department’s guidelines — which detail several forms of anti-Israel speech that target Jews — as their standard for determining how to classify claims of bias. If passed, the Department could then demand that schools and colleges follow adopted guidelines.
It seeks to address an uptick in incidents targeting Jews on campuses, documented by information collected by several anti-Semitism watchdog organizations. Some link the trend to colleges with active boycott campaigns against Israel, which they say often spills over into anti-Jewish expression.
One of its leading sponsors, Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.) said that he felt setting clearer guidelines could be an important aid in fighting the trend.
“There is no place for anti-Semitism or religious discrimination on our college campuses,” he said. “Across the nation, we’re witnessing a significant rise in Jewish students being targeted and harassed for no reason other than their identity … This legislation would ensure that the Department of Education is properly able to identify all forms of anti-Semitic incidences when investigating illegal discrimination on campus.”
The Congressman cited data from his own state of Illinois, where he said anti-Semitic incidents have doubled in recent years, with numerous acts of vandalism, propaganda and harassment at colleges.
Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), another leading sponsor, noted that “Jewish students, like students of any religion, should not live in fear of attacks because of their religion…As we work to combat all forms of discrimination and hate, Congress must act to protect Jewish students on campus, and this legislation would help the Education Department stem this troubling trend.”
Supporters of the bill argue that, as much of the recent spike in incidents against Jews on campuses is tied to anti-Israel activity, it has become difficult for administrators to differentiate between acceptable political dialogue and speech that could incite acts against Jewish students.
Noted attorney Alyza Lewin serves as chief operating officer and director of policy for The Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, which has played a key role in crafting and lobbying for the legislation. She told Hamodia that the changing nature of threats facing Jews on campus demonstrates the need for such a bill.
“Everybody can agree that drawing a swastika or pulling off someone’s yarmulke or a Magen David necklace is anti-Semitic, but the problem now is that the anti-Semitism we are seeing today comes from an anti-Zionism that crosses over and often ends up manifesting itself with the same anti-Semitic tropes and stereotypes that we have seen for a long time,” she said. “This bill will provide a definition that university officials can and will be obligated to use to fulfill their responsibility to protect their Jewish students.”
One of the key points of the bill is its direction to use the definition of anti-Semitism as laid out by a 2010 memo issued by the State Department, which includes attempts to “demonize” or “de-legitimize” Israel or to hold it to a “double standard” as examples of possible manifestations.
Additionally, the legislation instructs the Department of Education to include religious groups that trace themselves to a “shared ancestry” such as Jews, Muslims, and Sikhs in how they interpret the Civil Rights Act’s anti-discrimination laws. The 1964 law identifies race, color, national origin, gender, age and disability as protected groups, but does not mention religion. The concept of including religious groups with common heritage under the statute is called for by several internal memos in the Departments of Justice and Education, but was never codified into law.
While the bill has picked up wide support in Congress from members of both parties, it is not without detractors, as many fear that it could impede free speech on campuses.
“Anti-Semitic harassment has no legitimate place in government-funded institutions … Unfortunately, the proposed bill risks chilling constitutionally protected speech by incorrectly equating criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism,” said American Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Anthony Romero. “We worry that the law will lead colleges to suppress speech, especially if the Department of Education launches investigations simply because students have engaged in speech critical of Israel.”
Others have noted that Kenneth S. Stern, who co-authored the State Department’s definition, has noted publicly that it was intended to assist diplomats to identify anti-Semitism, but was never meant to become legally binding.
The present legislation is co-sponsored by Representatives Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and Doug Collins (R-Ga.) in the House of Representatives, and by Senators Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and Bob Casey (D-Pa.) in the Senate. A similar bill was introduced in 2016 and was unanimously passed in the Senate, but stalled in the House Judiciary committee amid concerns over its effect on free speech. The present version contains some changes that aim to assuage those fears.
A similar bill was passed into law in South Carolina this past April.
Mrs. Lewin noted that the bill makes note of the guarantees to freedom of expression, and deflected criticism to the contrary.
“It [the bill] had no intention of restricting speech, but just because you have a First Amendment right doesn’t meant that Universities shouldn’t investigate or condemn this type of speech just like they do … racist or other such expressions, and that makes students pause before they make such statements. All this would do is extend that protection to Jewish students as well,” she said.