House Judiciary Committee Discusses Bill to Curb Campus Anti-Semitism

by Kim Szarmach

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Anti-semitic incidents in the U.S. have increased by 67 percent during 2017, according to research conducted by the Anti-Defamation League. Many of these hate crimes have occurred on college campuses from UCLA to a number of CUNY schools.

“We are sadly at one of those moments where the volume of anti-semitism in American life is turned way up,” Pamela Nadell, Director of American University’s Jewish Studies Department told members of Congress on Tuesday.

Nadell was one of nine witnesses who spoke at a hearing where the House Judiciary Committee discussed a bill that could potentially put a stop to anti-semitic acts on campuses. The proposed legislation, the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act, would require the U.S. Department of Education to use the State Department’s definition of anti-semitism when reviewing and adjudicating instances of alleged anti-semitism.

While this legislation may seem relatively controversial at first glance, proponents of free speech find the State Department’s definition of anti-semitism concerning because they say it is too broad and conflates criticism of Israeli policy with anti-jewish sentiment.

Many scholars and first amendment advocates think that the definition proposed by the bill could make campus political activism and even classroom discussion regarding Israel or Judaism punishable when it’s not meant to be hateful.

“It’s not difficult to conceive of scenarios—A model UN debate addressing resolutions targeting Israel, speeches by Israeli leftists or an event by Breaking the Silence, a group of former Israeli soldiers who oppose their government’s policies—in which speech could meet the definition of anti-semitism contained in the act without being anti-semitic at all,” said Suzanne Nossel, Executive Director of the free speech advocacy group PEN America, said.

Barry Trachtenberg, a Jewish History professor at Wake University, said he thinks the speech that would most likely be targeted by the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act would be critical of the state of Israel.

Israel is a representative, democratic nation and there is no reason it should not be held to the same standards and subject to the same public debate as other countries, Trachtenberg said. People in and outside of the Jewish community have a right to critique Israeli policies, according to him.

“To insist that Israel can not be protested or objected to, to mandate that collective Jewish power cannot be analyzed or debated or to conclude that Jews because they were once victims of humanity’s genocidal crimes are somehow immune from becoming perpetrators of violence against other people reinforces the anti-semitic belief that Jews are a fundamentally different people,” Trachtenberg said.

Not only does Nadell agree that the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act would quash healthy political debate regarding the state of Israel, she said the bill is targeting an issue that is not as widespread as the public believes.

“We have more noise than actual information on what is actually happening on campuses around anti-semitism,” Nadell said.

According to a survey conducted by Stanford University, Jewish college students said they recognize anti-semitism as a significant problem in American society, but don’t generally characterize their campuses as anti-semitic.

“Is anti-semitism at the epicenter of campus intolerance?” Nadell asked. “Has it created a climate of fear that impinges on Jewish students ability to learn and experience college life to the fullest? My impression by social science research and my Jewish studies colleges? An unequivocal no.”

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, another witness at the hearing and proponent of the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act, stood by his belief that the bill is necessary throughout the discussion. He presented the committee with reports of Jewish students experiencing harassment from Anti-Israel groups. Reported instances of violence included rock-throwing and spitting.

Cooper said he believes that when these instances occur, college administrators are too soft on perpetrators of anti-semitic violence.

“We’re seeking the committees help because too often university administrators have been tolerating a level of intimidation of Jewish students that would never dream of allowing against other demographic groups because they know that until now there are no consequences,” he said.

While the Senate passed the bill in December, 2016, Congress has yet to approve or deny its passage into law.

Despite the controversy, all witnesses who spoke at the hearing did agree on the fundamental needs to eradicate anti-semitism on American college campuses and simultaneously protect the free speech of students.

“While we must ensure a campus learning environment free from discrimination we must also be sure not to stifle legitimate and hard-edged political debate on controversial topics,” said Congressman John Conyers.  

 

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