By Josh Nathan-Kazis / Forward
December 5, 2016
“Before Congress imposed its discredited redefinition of anti-Semitism on the DOE [Department of Education], civil rights investigators consistently found that actions critical of Israel — like mock military checkpoints, or teach-ins on Gaza — are the kind of free-speech expression to be expected on a college campus and are not anti-Jewish harassment. After this legislation, it could go the other way.”
After pro-Palestinian student activists set up mock West Bank checkpoints on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, in 2012, Jewish groups filed a civil rights complaint with the federal government.
Jewish organizations charged that the mock checkpoints, meant as a protest against the Israeli government, combined with other incidents to create a hostile environment for Jewish students.
The federal Department of Education dismissed the complaint, saying that the protest was an instance of free expression.
Now, a new bill speeding through Congress could change the way the Department of Education reviews such complaints. If it succeeds, critics say, the federal government could determine that protests like the mock checkpoint constitutes civil rights violations.
The bill “opens the door to considering anti-Israel political statements and activities as possible grounds for civil rights investigations,” said Michael Macleod-Ball, chief of staff of the American Civil Liberties Union’s legislative office in Washington. “Whether you agree with the BDS movement or not, aligning oneself with it and even participating in the effort should not subject someone to a civil rights investigation.”
Sponsored by Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, the bill passed the U.S. Senate with bipartisan support on Thursday, just days after its introduction. Congressman Peter Roskam of Illinois introduced a companion bill in the House on Thursday afternoon.
The bill would instruct the U.S. Department of Education to consider a definition of anti-Semitism that includes “demonizing Israel” or “judg[ing] Israel by a double standard” when investigating federal discrimination claims.
The bill has the support of AIPAC and the Anti-Defamation League, among other mainstream Jewish groups.
“The intent here is simple,” said Casey in a speech on the Senate floor on Thursday morning. “To define anti-Semitism at long last . . . so that the Department of Education can effectively investigate allegations of discrimination motivated by anti-Semitism under the Civil Rights Act.”
Casey and Scott’s bill would have the DOE’s Office of Civil Rights take into consideration the State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism when considering claims of discrimination on the basis of race or national origin. The bill states within its text that it does not impinge on First Amendment rights.
The State Department definition of anti-Semitism cited in the bill says that applying a double standard to Israel, blaming Israel for “all inter-religious or political tension,” or delegitimizing Israel all constitute anti-Semitism.