On Thursday, the US Senate quickly passed the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act, a bipartisan bill proposed by Senators Bob Casey (D-PA) and Tim Scott (R-SC), supported by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which aims to “codify the definition as one adopted by the U.S. State Department’s Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism.”
The Special Envoy, a project of the Global Anti-Semitism Review Act of 2004, uses the controversial definition of anti-Semitism produced by the European Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia which interprets anti-Semitism as “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.” The examples of anti-Semitism published by the Special Envoy include “blaming Israel for all inter-religious or political tensions”, “…focusing on Israel only for peace or human rights investigations”, and efforts to delegitimize Israel by “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, and denying Israel the right to exist”.
According to Jewish Voice For Peace, the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act, which requires the Department of Education to redefine violations of Title VI rules of alleged discrimination, “will enable a crackdown against activism for Palestinian human rights on college campuses.” Kumars Salehi, a graduate student and member of Students for Justice in Palestine at UC Berkeley, tells Mondoweiss that “adopting the State Department definition would mean that, according to the government, anti-Semitism would include not only attributing most of the responsibility for Palestinian suffering to Israel, but also even the act of questioning whether Israel is a “democratic state”. “That’s what the last two bullet points of the State Department guidelines say,” Salehi argues. “These are mainstream and empirically grounded critiques of Israel within Palestine solidarity as well as broader progressive and intellectual circles. If the government forces universities to label and punish such critiques as bigotry, it would have the effect of silencing the growing plurality of young and old minds who are, thanks to the critical discourse on college campuses, thinking outside of traditional US parameters on this issue.”
Gabi Kirk, graduate student at the University of California, Davis, rank-and-file member of UAW 2865, and an alum of University of California Santa Cruz where she also witnessed the repression of Palestine solidarity organizing her undergraduate years, tells Mondoweiss that the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act “will have a definitive chilling effect on campus organizing for Palestinian human rights around the country.” Kirk explains that the bill’s reliance on the US State Department’s definition of antisemitism, “known as the “3 D’s” for saying it is anti-Semitic to “demonize of Israel, apply a “double standard” to Israel, or “delegitimize” Israel”, can be used “to criminalize organizing for human rights and criticism of Israel and its government’s actions.” Additionally, Kirk says, “this definition conflates the state of Israel with Judaism and Zionism with Judaism, despite the fact that the political movement of Zionism is not the same as Judaism as a religion. At a time when President Elect Donald Trump has called for criminalization of flag burning and called criticism of Mike Pence at a theater show ‘harassment,’ we need more speech protections, not fewer.” Kirk expressed dismay “that some of these bill’s supporters, notably the Jewish Federations of North America, want to criminalize free speech in support of human rights, but declines to condemn Stephen Bannon, Trump’s appointee who has a track record of fostering bigotry, white nationalism, and antisemitism.” “It is beyond hypocritical,” Kirk says, “to turn college students into criminals for exercising our free speech rights in support of justice, while ignoring the Anti-Semitism growing in the highest halls of power in this country.”
If the bipartisan Anti-Semitism Awareness Act were to pass, and thereby become legally enforceable, it would join a growing list of US legislation which targets Palestine solidarity efforts, including Senate Bill S6086 and Assembly Bill 8220, both of which have the intent of penalising those boycotting Israel. The advocacy group Palestine Legal reports that anti-BDS legislation has already been enacted in 13 states—the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act compounds the threat against freedom of speech, and, whether it passes or not, it highlights the mounting struggle facing Palestine solidarity activists and organisers. But as we’ve seen before, organisers are resilient, creative, and will respond to any threats against their ability to assemble and protest freely, all while expressing solidarity with communities impacted by hate crimes.
According to the latest numbers from the FBI, of the 1,402 recorded victims of anti-religious hate crimes in 2015 “52.1 percent were victims of crimes motivated by their offender’s anti-Jewish bias”—a confronting number marking a larger trend in discrimination and violence directed at American Jews. Since the election of Donald Trump, the targeting of Jews has come in the form of swastikas drawn across doors, graffiti reading “Heil Trump”, and xenophobic rhetoric from white supremacists—who are attempting to rebrand themselves as “alt-right”—all of which is undoubtedly, and understandably, terrifying Jews and minority groups across the United States. The response to this rise in hate crimes has been creative, and it’s included the creation of solidarity networks like the anti-fascist group ‘MuJew Antifa’, a organization of Muslim and Jewish activists who recently drove Steve Bannon out of New York. The Anti-Semitism Awareness Act offers no resolution to those most impacted by anti-Jewish bias and violence, but instead will undoubtedly work to undermine protected speech and do further harm to pro-Palestine organisers.