Senators must end anti-Semitism awareness law | Notice

An unfortunate symbiosis has developed between pro-Israel culture warriors such as Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., and the more lenient fringe of pro-Palestinian campus protesters. Together, they are, wittingly or unwittingly, diverting attention from the pressing emergency in the Gaza Strip, where Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is poised to defy the United States and invade the southern city of Rafah, to the much smaller problem of anti-Semitism on campus.

Some pro-Palestinian protesters appear to believe, given the moral enormity of mass death, displacement and starvation in Gaza, that deferring to mainstream Jewish sensibilities means surrendering to so-called respectability politics, which whitewashes horror in the name of civility. “To the Jewish students, faculty and administrators who are blocking divestment and calling for violent crackdowns on campus: you threaten the safety of everyone,” said a recent statement from the Columbia Legal Section of the National Lawyers Guild, a left-wing group that provides legal support. to the demonstrators.

The statement scorns the ethos of nonviolence, quoting Black Panther leader Kwame Ture, formerly Stokely Carmichael: “For nonviolence to work, your opponent must have a conscience. The United States does not have one. » Within the movement, I imagine that such rhetoric functions as a sign of total commitment, an unrequited rejection of empty liberal pieties. Beyond that, to the extent that anyone takes this language seriously, it serves to stoke furious panic over protests, which both distracts from the war and fuels a growing backlash that threatens academic freedom.

This panic is the backdrop to a dangerous bill that overwhelmingly passed the House last week and could soon pass the Senate. Since 2016, pro-Israel politicians have pushed versions of a bill called the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act, which would codify, in an effort to enforce federal civil rights law in higher education, a definition of anti-Semitism including the rejection of Israel as a Jewish community. State. In the past, civil liberties advocates were able to prevent such legislation, but that has become more difficult in today’s febrile climate.

Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., a former constitutional law professor, wrote a statement explaining the bill’s problems at length, before justifying his “yes” vote with a sort of defeated shrug: “In this moment of anguish and confusion over the dangerous rise of anti-Semitism, authoritarianism and racism throughout the country and the world, it seems unlikely that this insignificant legislation will help much – but it cannot no longer do much harm, and it could now make some people despair in the face of the demonstrations. of anti-Semitism a feeling of consolation. There are few people in Congress I admire more than Raskin, but I disagree that the bill is harmless, and I hope someone in the Senate stops it.

The bill builds on a definition of anti-Semitism adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance in 2016, which lists several examples that could, given the “general context,” constitute anti-Semitism. . Among them are “the application of double standards towards Israel”, claiming that the country’s existence “is a racist enterprise” or using “symbols and images associated with classic anti-Semitism ( for example, claims that Jews killed Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis. “.

Even if you agree that all of these things are signs of anti-Jewish animus, there are serious problems with the First Amendment in trying to legally classify them that way. This is why, as I have written before, one of the main drafters of the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, Ken Stern, has consistently opposed the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act.

Stern, who directs the Center for the Study of Hate at Bard College, spent 25 years as an in-house expert on anti-Semitism at the American Jewish Committee, where he worked on what would become the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism. As he explained, the document was intended as a research tool and not as a basis for legislation. He offered an analogy: Someone who studies racism in the United States, he said, might want to look at opposition to affirmative action, Black Lives Matter and the removal of Confederate statues . But that’s very different from enacting a law declaring these attitudes racist. The law is supposed to address conduct, not ideas, which is why federal civil rights law does not define racism, sexism or homophobia.

“Once you start defining what speech is acceptable for teaching, for funding, for all sorts of things, how does that differ from what we did in the McCarthy era?” » asked Stern. It is true, as Raskin pointed out, that Donald Trump once issued an executive order, never repealed, directing the government to use the IHRA definition when enforcing the Civil Rights Act on college campuses. But Stern argues that enshrining the definition in law, with broad liberal assent, serves to cement it.

So far, much of the opposition to the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act has come from the Christian right, who want to be able to continue saying that Jews killed Jesus, as well as those who want to abolish anti-Semitism awareness laws. diversity, equity and inclusion programs. , rather than extending their protections to Jews. The bill, said Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., “could convict Christians of anti-Semitism for believing the gospel that says Jesus was handed over to Herod to be crucified by the Jews.” That’s not entirely fair; the legislation is civil, not criminal, and cannot be used to “convict” anyone. But she’s not wrong that the law could, in theory, be used against those who promote the classically anti-Semitic idea of ​​deicide, a belief that is both hateful and constitutionally protected.

Of course, the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act is not intended to target conservative Christians. Rather, it is about suppressing anti-Israel activism. “There are no two legitimate sides to this issue,” Rep. Marc Molinaro, R-N.Y., said in arguing for the bill. “Building encampments on college campuses is not speech; it is a direct threat to Jewish students.”

We have already seen administrators such as Columbia University’s Minouche Shafik crack down on protesters in response to congressional coercion, which only inflamed the movement, leading to the spread of encampments across the country. As troubled as I am by the rise of left-wing illiberalism, it is difficult to demand that pro-Palestinian activists submit to the rigors of open dialogue when the government decrees their opinions verboten.

If the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act were to become law, there is no reason to believe that only the views that liberals find most objectionable would be targeted. Stefanik and his allies, after all, are currently attacking Harvard for having the heroic Filipino journalist Maria Ressa, winner of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize, as its commencement speaker, because Ressa’s post called for a cease-fire. fire in Gaza and because she had signed an open agreement. letter on the killing of journalists in Gaza. As Israel’s war enters a brutal new phase, efforts to stifle those who speak out against it are also increasing.

Both the Republican Party and the radical wing of the pro-Palestinian left share an interest in discrediting the modern liberal university by making it appear both hypocritical and ineffective. The Liberals should not help them.

This article was originally published in the New York Times.