Anti-Semitism Awareness Act Would Damage Free Speech

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Wheeler Hall at University of California, Berkeley. (photo: Los Angeles Times)

By Liz Jackson / Los Angeles Times
December 6, 2016


The State Department standard . . . conflates criticism of Israeli policies with anti-Jewish hatred, shutting down debate by suggesting that anyone who looks critically at Israeli policy is somehow beyond the pale. It has no place on college campuses in particular, where we need students to engage in a vigorous exchange of ideas.


Since Donald Trump’s election, a wave of hate attacks have targeted Jews, Muslims and other vulnerable groups.

What’s the government doing about it? Nothing.

But the U.S. Senate did pass a bill last week called the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act, which cracks down on the constitutional rights of college students and faculty to criticize Israel. The House will vote on it any day now.

The Anti-Semitism Awareness Act endorses the State Department definition of anti-Semitism, which includes “delegitimizing” Israel, “demonizing” Israel or holding Israel to a “double standard.” The bill directs the Department of Education to consider this definition when investigating complaints of anti-Semitism on campus. But the bill does not add any new protections for Jewish students; the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Department of Education’s interpretation of the statute, already protects Jewish students against discrimination.

The State Department standard is highly controversial because it conflates criticism of Israeli policies with anti-Jewish hatred, shutting down debate by suggesting that anyone who looks critically at Israeli policy is somehow beyond the pale. It has no place on college campuses in particular, where we need students to engage in a vigorous exchange of ideas — especially around our world’s most intractable problems, such as Israel’s nearly 50-year military occupation of Palestine.

The University of California rejected the same definition in 2015 after an outcry from free-speech advocates across the political spectrum, newspapers, students, graduate student instructors, and Jewish and other civil rights organizations. Jewish commentators, including the definition’s original drafter, Kenneth Stern, repudiated its use on college campuses.

As a Jewish student at Berkeley Law in 2010, I joined the campaign pushing the university to divest from companies complicit in Israel’s occupation and violations of Palestinian rights. I was shocked when Israel advocacy organizations claimed that our support for Palestinian equality was so distressing for some Jewish students that the university should not even let us debate the issue.

[Read the full article here . . . ]

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