Senators Need to Stop the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act

An unfortunate symbiosis has developed between pro-Israel culture warriors like Republican Representative Elise Stefanik and the most self-indulgent fringe of pro-Palestinian campus protesters. Together they are, wittingly or unwittingly, shifting attention from the urgent emergency in Gaza, 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 campus antisemitism.

Some pro-Palestinian demonstrators seem to believe, given the moral enormity of mass death, displacement and starvation in Gaza, that deferring to mainstream Jewish sensitivities means buckling to so-called respectability politics, which whitewash horror in the name of civility. “To the Jewish students, faculty and trustees blocking divestment and urging the violent crackdowns on campus: You threaten everyone’s safety,” said a recent communiqué from the Columbia Law chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, a left-wing group that’s been providing legal support to the protesters.

The statement disdains the ethos of nonviolence, quoting Black Panther leader Kwame Ture, formerly Stokely Carmichael: “In order for nonviolence to work, your opponent must have a conscience. The United States has none.” Within the movement, I imagine such rhetoric functions as a sign of total commitment, a no-going-back rejection of hollow liberal pieties. Outside of it, to the extent that anyone takes this language seriously, it serves to stoke a raging panic about the protests that both distracts from the war and feeds a growing backlash that threatens academic freedom.

That panic is the backdrop for a dangerous piece of legislation that passed the House overwhelmingly last week and could soon be taken up by the Senate. Since 2016, pro-Israel politicians have pushed versions of a bill called the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act, which would codify, for the purpose of enforcing federal civil rights law in higher education, a definition of antisemitism that includes rejection of Israel as a Jewish state. In the past, civil libertarians were able to head such legislation off, but that’s become harder in the current fevered climate.

Jamie Raskin, a House Democrat and former constitutional law professor, wrote a statement explaining the problems with the bill at length, before justifying his “yes” vote with a kind of defeated shrug: “At this moment of anguish and confusion over the dangerous surge of antisemitism, authoritarianism and racism all over the country and the world, it seems unlikely that this meaningless ‘gotcha’ legislation can help much — but neither can it hurt much, and it may now bring some people despairing over manifestations of antisemitism a sense of consolation.” There are few people in Congress I admire more than Raskin, but I don’t agree that the bill is harmless, and I hope someone in the Senate will stop it.

The bill relies on a definition of antisemitism adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance in 2016, which lists several examples that could, accounting for “overall context,” constitute antisemitism. Among them are “applying double standards to Israel,” claiming that the country’s existence “is a racist endeavor” or using “the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism (e.g., claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis.”

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