The subject of antisemitism has become a hot topic in our current political cycle, largely because of the war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The war was initiated when Hamas breached the Israeli border on October 7, 2023, and went on an appalling rampage of rape, murder, and kidnapping. Israel’s response has been absolutely merciless and they are under investigation for committing genocide by The International Court of Justice. The country’s leaders are concerned that the International Criminal Court may soon issue warrants for their arrest. Protests against Israeli’s actions have sprouted on campuses small and large, public and private, north, south, east and west. As a student movement has developed in opposition to the State of Israel’s war policies, Jewish students and faculty have sometimes been intimidated and left feeling vulnerable. Pressure has increasingly been brought on college and university administrators to do more to protect Jews on campus, and to stop the protests. This pressure has been enhanced by the sometimes antisemitic rhetoric used by protesters, many of whom are not actually students.

Congress decided to get into the act this week, with the House passing the Antisemitism Awareness Act of 2023, a bill cosponsored by 46 Republicans and 15 Democrats. The purpose of the bill is “To provide for the consideration of a definition of antisemitism set forth by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance for the enforcement of Federal antidiscrimination laws concerning education programs or activities, and for other purposes.” You can read the IHRA definition of antisemitism here.

One of the Democratic cosponsors is California congressman Brad Sherman who lobbied his fellow Democrats to support the bill. Rep. Sherman said he “can’t say I’ve turned anybody around,” but justified using the IHRA definition by arguing “you can’t fight antisemitism if you won’t define it, and it’s not like somebody is putting together a rival definition.”

Sherman is correct that legal responses to antisemitic acts and policies require a definition of antisemitism, but many Democrats and some Republicans opposed the bill because they had quibbles about elements of the IHRA definition. It’s easy to see why, and I just want to go through some of the problems.

The first bullet point reads

  1. Calling for, aiding, or justifying the killing or harming of Jews in the name of a radical ideology or an extremist view of religion.

The only problem with this is that I see no reason to require that this is done in the name of ideology or religion. Calling for harm or worse to be done to Jews is antisemitic, full stop.

  1. Making mendacious, dehumanizing, demonizing, or stereotypical allegations about Jews as such or the power of Jews as collective — such as, especially but not exclusively, the myth about a world Jewish conspiracy or of Jews controlling the media, economy, government or other societal institutions.

For this to work, the heavy emphasis needs to be on dehumanizing and demonizing allegations. It should not be controversial that Jews hit above their population weight in terms of media ownership, among top executives in Hollywood, and among reporters and on-air news talent. This has an influence, and discussing the manifestations of that influence is a perfectly proper if highly sensitive subject of debate, including on campuses. When it comes to protecting free speech, you have to err on the side of allowing it, and so it matters greatly whether or not debate is malicious.

  1. Accusing Jews as a people of being responsible for real or imagined wrongdoing committed by a single Jewish person or group, or even for acts committed by non-Jews.

This is a no-brainer.

  1. Denying the fact, scope, mechanisms (e.g. gas chambers) or intentionality of the genocide of the Jewish people at the hands of National Socialist Germany and its supporters and accomplices during World War II (the Holocaust).

This introduces the difficulty of making definitions. What qualifies as “denying the scope” of the Holocaust? I get the target here. It’s people who minimize or deny the impact of the Holocaust. But researchers’ job is to investigate the scope. Every time new information is unearthed, the estimated scope is altered and open to new interpretations. We don’t want an academic arguing for the low end of an estimate to be accused of antisemitism.

  1. Accusing the Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust.

The reason this definition works better than the last one is that it doesn’t pertain to an opinion on scope, but involves collective attacks on Jews. Saying the Holocaust was “invented” is clear antisemitism. Saying it has been exaggerated by the collective of Jews is classic generalized bigotry. Arguing that the State of Israel has exaggerated is at least confined to one entity and can be debated, but I don’t think these are likely to be good faith debates on the part of Israel’s detractors.

  1. Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.

This one has a real problem. Is it possible for an American citizen to be more loyal to Israel than to America? Of course it is. Making a generalized accusation against American Jews’ loyalty is blatant antisemitism. Making the charge against an individual based on evidence and opinion cannot be banned speech anymore than making the same accusation about a Russian or Chinese citizen whose behavior and rhetoric arouses suspicion.

  1. Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.

This introduces one the most annoying arguments I hear made against Israel, which is part of a more general accusation of European imperialism in the creation of the state. The State of Israel is not “a racist endeavor” but a response to relentless persecution at the hands of Europeans. The early Zionists in Palestine were as anti-imperialism as the Arabs under British occupation. Having said that, the argument may be stupid, but I can’t go so far as to call it inherently antisemitic, or call for such debate to be barred from campuses. The paternalistic and racist attitudes of European colonizers is well established, and it carries over even to the attitudes of Zionist transplants to Palestine who felt they were building civilization in the underdeveloped world. This doesn’t condemn Israel as illegitimate, but it is also not a subject that should be taboo. As for “the right of self-determination,” that’s synonymous with the question of whether Israel should have been created or not, which is again at least a matter of opinion even among Jews, and it cannot be called necessarily antisemitic to believe Israel’s creation was either a mistake or an injustice to the Palestinians.

  1. Applying double standards [to Israel] by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.

I notice this happening quite often, especially if we also apply it to Israel’s non-democratic neighbors. Why, for example, is Syria’s government not subject to the same level of international condemnation that Israel’s faces? But applying a double standard is far too loose of a term to qualify for the charge of antisemitism. Just to make a simple observation, defense lawyers in court make little effort to avoid double standards because they’re arguing only for their clients. Likewise, activists for a cause are focused on their cause, not every similarly situated cause in the world.

  1. Using the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism (e.g., claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis.

Why is this limited to Israeli Jews? It should apply to all Jews.

  1. Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.

This probably sounded better before Israel destroyed Gaza. When a country is being investigated for committing genocide by more than one international court, you cannot avoid comparisons to other countries that have committed genocide. This is true even when denying the comparison is valid.

And, lastly:

  1. Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.

This should be uncontroversially considered antisemitic and not allowed in academia.

Now, I reiterate that the Antisemitism Awareness Act of 2023, which passed in the House of Representatives on Wednesday adopted the above definitions of antisemitism. And they did so in order that Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which “prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin in programs and activities receiving Federal financial assistance (in this case, institutions of higher learning)” can have a clear, enforceable and legal idea of what constitutes antisemitism.

Fortunately, this bill will not be passed by the Senate so it won’t come to President Joe Biden’s desk for his signature. The impulse here is good, which is to find a way to better combat antisemitism in college education. But the bill has fatal flaws related to the adopted definition. It’s too imprecise and broad and would stifle academic debate. It also seems it was brought up in bad faith by Speaker Mike Johnson in an effort to divide Democrats, in which it greatly succeeded. A different bill called the Countering Antisemitism Act was offered by Democratic Rep. Kathy Manning of North Carolina and not taken up by Johnson. It was preferred by Democratic Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries. This bill defines antisemitism succinctly: “The term ‘antisemitism’ means a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

I don’t think this latter definition is very clear either, but it avoids arbitrating arguments and focuses on overt acts and expressions of hatred. Rep. Manning’s bill, which is broader in scope and not limited to academia, would establish a position within the Executive Office of the President called “the National Coordinator to Counter Antisemitism.” This would formalize what the Biden administration is already doing with its antisemitism task force which met on Wednesday to discuss antisemitism and protests on campuses. The bill would require the president to “establish an Interagency Task Force to Counter Antisemitism.” It would mandate reports from these new groups, as well as an annual threat assessment from the larger Intelligence Community. On the whole, Manning’s bill has a better chance of winning enough bipartisan support in both chambers of Congress to become law, but Johnson and the Republicans are using the protests as a campaign issue and they’re trying to highlight disorder on the nations’ campuses rather than actually protecting Jews from violence, intimidation and discrimination.

It’s a point made Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), “a Jewish progressive with concerns about the IHRA antisemitism definition” who said on Wednesday that he voted for the bill “on the theory that it’s basically meaningless and harmless.” In other words, he wasn’t going to cast a vote that could be misconstrued as supporting antisemitism, and since the bill isn’t going anywhere, he doesn’t care overly much about it’s definitional deficiencies.

On Thursday, President Biden spoke to the nation from the Roosevelt Room in the White House and addressed student unrest and expressions of antisemitism. Here it is reported by the Times of Israel which puts an emphasis on the “anti-Israel” component that is not actually expressed in Biden’s remarks.

United States President Joe Biden condemned on Thursday the anti-Israel protests that have been wreaking havoc on college campuses across the country.

“There’s a right to protest, but not the right to cause chaos… Destroying property is not a peaceful protest — it’s against the law. Vandalism, trespassing, breaking windows, shutting down campuses, forcing the cancellation of classes and graduations — none of this is a peaceful protest,” he asserted, referring to the range of actions taken by anti-Israel protesters at Columbia University, the University of Southern California, the University of California, Los Angeles, and other schools.

“Threatening people, intimidating people, instilling fear in people is not peaceful protest — it’s against the law,” Biden added.

“There should be no place on any campus — no place in America — for antisemitism or threats of violence against Jewish students,” he said, referring to widespread documentation of antisemitic and pro-terror expressions during the protests, before subsequently condemning all forms of discrimination.

“I understand people have strong feelings and deep convictions. In America, we respect the right and protect the right for them to express that, but it doesn’t mean anything goes,” Biden clarified. “It needs to be done without violence, without destruction, without hate and within the law.”

“Make no mistake, as president I will always defend free speech, but I will always be just as strong in standing up for the rule of law,” he asserted.

“We’ve all seen images, and they put to the test two fundamental American principles: The first is the right to free speech — for people to peacefully assemble and make their voices heard. The second is the rule of law. Both must be upheld. We are not an authoritarian nation where we silence people or squash dissent. The American people are heard.”

“In fact, peaceful protest is the best tradition of how Americans respond to consequential issues. But neither are we a lawless country. We are a civil society, and order must prevail,” he insisted.

“Throughout our history, we’ve often faced moments like this because we are a big, diverse, free-thinking and freedom-loving nation,” the US president continued. “In moments like this, there are always those who rush in to score political points. But this isn’t a moment for politics. It’s a moment for clarity.”

“So let me be clear, violent protest is not protected, peaceful protest is,” Biden added.

The Biden administration clearly felt compelled to respond to what it perceives is a Republican advantage on this issue. They’re probably reminded of Richard Nixon’s success in 1968 in using “law and order” and campus protests as a cudgel to defeat Hubert Humphrey.

This is the first time I’ve written about the protests, and that’s because it’s personally painful to me. I am genuinely alarmed by both the actions of the Israeli government and the resulting negative repercussions for American Jews who are facing violence, intimidation and discrimination as a result. I’m also, absolutely appalled by the actions of Hamas and anyone who makes apologies for what they’ve done and continue to do.

We are definitely experiencing a dangerous spike in antisemitism and I think the Manning bill is potentially valuable. I’m very concerned about how this is shaking out in academia, however, because most protestors are sincere and not hateful, and they’re coming from a place of humanitarianism and idealism that we want to encourage in our youth. Yet, they’re being demonized and scapegoated for the actions a few bad apples. And the Republicans are using the fallout to attack elite learning institutions in general and free speech in particular. It’s a tragic thing to watch, and a big element in how the presidential election will turn out.

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