New Jersey lawmakers are trying to amend the state’s discrimination laws to equate criticism of Israel with antisemitism

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Lawmakers in New Jersey have introduced an antisemitism bill that would prohibit certain criticism of Israel in public schools and universities. The proposed legislation comes on the heels of similar bills being passed in South Carolina and Florida. Last year, the Department of Education adopted a new definition of antisemitism to include criticism of Israel.

SB 4001 was introduced on June 24 by Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Sen. Robert Singer. It aims to ensure that antisemitism is treated the same way as other forms of discrimination by amending state law. However, the bill equates criticism of Israel with antisemitism in a number of places including:

-[D]emonizing Israel by using the symbols and images associated with classic anti-Semitism to characterize Israel or Israeli people, drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis, or blaming Israel for all interreligious or political tensions;

-[A]pplying a double standard to Israel by requiring behavior of Israel that is not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation, or focusing peace or human rights investigations only on Israel; and

-[D]elegitimizing Israel by denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination and denying Israel the right to exist.

In fact, the bill states that criticism of Israel can only avoid being considered antisemitic if “it is similar to criticism toward any other country.”

A group of 13 human rights groups (including Jewish Voice for Peace, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations) have sent a letter to the New Jersey Education Senate Committee urging lawmakers to reject the legislation:

We write to raise concerns with S. 4001/A. 5755, an Act prohibiting anti-Semitism in public schools and institutions of higher education (the Act), which fails to achieve this goal. The Act codifies a widely contested redefinition of antisemitism that includes protected speech critical of Israel.2 This vague and overbroad redefinition in the Act conflates political criticism of Israel with anti-Jewish hate, encouraging infringements on constitutionally protected speech related to a human rights movement, and undermining the fight against real antisemitism.

Indeed, in our experience defending civil rights on college campuses, we have seen firsthand how the redefinition that the Act would codify has been used as a tool to silence students, faculty, and staff who advocate for Palestinian rights.3 This experience makes clear that the primary aim of this bill is to censor First Amendment-protected criticism of Israeli government policies and speech calling for freedom, justice, and equality for Palestinians. It invites New Jersey schools and universities to violate free speech rights by discriminating against certain viewpoints and chilling one side of an important political debate.

SB 4001 is very similar to a Florida bill that was signed into law by Governor Ron DeSantis in May, just days after the state’s cabinet held a ceremonial meeting in Israel. Last year, South Carolina became the first state to pass such a law.

Last September, the Department of Education changed the criteria for investigating antisemitism to include criticism of Israel and reopened a 2011 case in which Jewish students at Rutgers University were allegedly discriminated against. That complaint was originally made by the Zionist Organization of America in response to a pro-Palestinian event on campus. This new interpretation is sometimes referred to as the “State Department Definition” because it’s listed on their website, but it hasn’t actually been formally adopted as federal law. However, Congress is currently trying to change that.

In March, Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) introduced the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act of 2019. The bill would adopt the definition listed on the State Department’s website “for the enforcement of Federal antidiscrimination laws concerning education programs or activities.” A previous version of the bill died at the end of the last congressional session. Scott’s legislation currently has 16 cosponsors, including Florida Senator Marco Rubio.

Liz Jackson is a founding staff attorney for Palestine Legal, an independent organization that defends the rights of people who speak out on issues of Palestinian freedom. “This definition is the result of a decades-long lobbying push by Israel advocacy organizations (and Israel itself) to codify the false equation of antisemitism and criticism of Israel, in order to censor calls for Palestinian rights,” she told Mondoweiss, “This is an Israel lobby priority because there is no other way to address critiques of Israel’s human rights record. They don’t want to talk about brutality towards Palestinians because they have no good answer. Their only response to Palestinians’ call for freedom and equality is to censor it.”

The push the redefine antisemitism began to gain steam over a decade ago after pro-Israel groups began promoting a paper by Tel Aviv University professor Dina Porat titled, “The International Working Definition of Antisemitism and Its Detractors.” Porat wrote that antisemitism could manifest itself with regard to Israel in the following ways:

• 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.

 • Applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.

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

• Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis. • Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel. 

Like the aforementioned state laws, Porat’s definition stipulates that criticism of Israel is antisemitic unless it’s “similar to that leveled against any other country.”

The proposed New Jersey bill comes amidst a national debate regarding the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) and potential laws that would prohibit participation in it. As of April 2019, 27 states had adopted anti-BDS laws and there have been various attempts to criminalize the movement at the federal level. 344 Representatives currently back a resolution condemning BDS, while Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar recently proposed legislation affirming that all Americans have the right to participate in such boycotts.

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