House Passes Bill to Define Antisemitism

The U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Capitol Dome are seen on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

The House passed legislation Wednesday that would establish the definition of antisemitism for the Department of Education to enforce anti-discrimination laws, the latest response from lawmakers to a nationwide student protest movement over the Israel-Hamas war.

The proposal was introduced by Rep. Mike Lawler (R-NY 17) and Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ 5), and passed 320-91 with bipartisan support, with 70 House Democrats and 21 House Republicans voting against it. It would codify the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitism in Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a federal anti-discrimination law that bars discrimination based on race, color or national origin. It now goes to the Senate where its fate is uncertain.

Action on the bill was just the latest reverberation in Congress from the protest movement that has swept university campuses. Republicans in Congress have denounced the protests and demanded action to stop them, thrusting university officials into the center of the charged political debate over the war in Gaza.

If passed by the Senate and signed into law, the bill would broaden the legal definition of antisemitism to include the “targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity.” Critics say the move would have a chilling effect on free speech throughout college campuses.

“Speech that is critical of Israel alone does not constitute unlawful discrimination,” Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., a Jewish representative, said during a hearing Tuesday. “By encompassing purely political speech about Israel into Title VI’s ambit, the bill sweeps too broadly.”

Advocates of the proposal say it would provide a much-needed, consistent framework for the Department of Education to police and investigate the rising cases of discrimination and harassment targeted toward Jewish students.

“It is long past time that Congress act to protect Jewish Americans from the scourge of antisemitism on campuses around the country,” Rep. Russell Fry, R-S.C., said Tuesday.

The expanded definition of antisemitism was first adopted in 2016 by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, an intergovernmental group that includes the United States and European Union states, and has been embraced by the State Department under the past three presidential administrations, including Joe Biden’s

Previous bipartisan efforts to codify it into law have failed. But the Oct. 7 terrorist attack by Hamas militants in Israel and the subsequent war in Gaza have reignited efforts to target incidents of antisemitism on college campuses.

Separately, Speaker Mike Johnson announced Tuesday that several House committees will be tasked with a wide probe that ultimately threatens to withhold federal research grants and other government support for universities, placing another pressure point on campus administrators who are struggling to manage pro-Palestinian encampments, allegations of discrimination against Jewish students and questions of how they are integrating free speech and campus safety.

The House investigation follows several high-profile hearings that helped precipitate the resignations of presidents at Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania. And House Republicans promised more scrutiny, saying they were calling on the administrators of Yale, UCLA and the University of Michigan to testify next month.

The House Oversight Committee took it one step further Wednesday, sending a small delegation of Republican members to an encampment at nearby George Washington University in the District of Columbia. GOP lawmakers spent the short visit criticizing the protests and Mayor Muriel Bowser’s refusal to send in the Metropolitan Police Department to disperse the demonstrators.

Bowser on Monday confirmed that the city and the district’s police department had declined the university’s request to intervene. “We did not have any violence to interrupt on the GW campus,” Bowser said, adding that police chief Pamela Smith made the ultimate decision. “This is Washington, D.C., and we are, by design, a place where people come to address the government and their grievances with the government.”

It all comes at a time when college campuses and the federal government are struggling to define exactly where political speech crosses into antisemitism. Dozens of U.S. universities and schools face civil rights investigations by the Education Department over allegations of antisemitism and Islamophobia.

Among the questions campus leaders have debated is whether phrases like “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” should be considered under the definition of antisemitism.

The proposed definition faced strong opposition from several Democratic lawmakers, Jewish organizations as well as free speech advocates.

In a letter sent to lawmakers Friday, the American Civil Liberties Union urged members to vote against the legislation, saying federal law already prohibits antisemitic discrimination and harassment.

“H.R. 6090 is therefore not needed to protect against antisemitic discrimination; instead, it would likely chill free speech of students on college campuses by incorrectly equating criticism of the Israeli government with antisemitism,” the letter stated.

In response to the House passing the Antisemitism Awareness Act, Agudath Israel of America applauded the vote in the House of Representatives “which will provide another critical weapon in the fight against the scourge of antisemitism on campus.

“This legislation helps ensure that the U.S. Department of Education, now and in the future, will have a clear, statutorily-based definition when investigating whether and when anti-Israel or antisemitic incidents cross over from free speech to unlawful activity and behavior,” said Rabbi Abba Cohen, Agudath Israel’s Vice President for Government Affairs and Washington Director and Counsel. “Agudath Israel urges the Senate to pass this important piece of legislation as soon as possible.”

In a statement applauding the passage of the Antisemitism Awareness Act (AAA) by the House of Representatives, the Orthodox Union said, “The IHRA definition of antisemitism includes essential examples that capture not only traditional anti-Jewish hatred and Holocaust denial but also modern antisemitism, which uses opposition to the State of Israel as a mask for Jew-hatred.

“In the wake of the terrible surge of harassment and violence towards Jewish students on America’s “elite” college campuses, the AAA will empower the U.S. Department of Education to better protect Jewish students in the face of hatred.

The House’s passage of the Antisemitism Awareness Act today is crucial to combating the chaos spreading on America’s college campuses. The debate surrounding anti-Zionism as masked antisemitism is conclusively over and must be acted upon. This bill is an important step towards that,” said Nathan Diament, Executive Director of Public Policy at the Orthodox Union.

The bill has been introduced in the Senate by Senators Kirsten E. Gillibrand (D NY), Susan Collins, (R-Alaska), Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and John Fetterman (D-Pa.)

With Reporting by AP/Hamodia

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