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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.

Michael Arria

Michael Arria is the U.S. correspondent for Mondoweiss.

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11 Responses

  1. Misterioso on July 20, 2019, 9:42 am

    Not precisely on topic, but relevant and important:

    “Democratic Party Dilemmas—An Analysis” (20 July 2019) by Professor Lawrence Davidson

    Part I—On the Domestic Front

    The rise to power of Donald Trump destroyed the traditional Republican Party. Most of the moderate conservatives fled into the ranks of the independents and were replaced by a radical right amalgamation of racists, misogynists, conspiracy theorists, assorted “tea party” types and warmongers. In the background also exists support from religious fundamentalists yearning for Armageddon. If you want to get a snapshot of Trump’s new Republicans, just read up on the 200 rightwing social media radicals the president hosted at the White House on Thursday, 11 July 2019. Perhaps their greatest collective desire is to smear Democrats generally and, specifically, malign progressives. These are Trump’s new Republicans. They certainly reflect a segment of the American population. A crucial question is just how large a segment are they.

    While Trump was transforming the Republican Party for the worse, the Democrats held on to their traditional party leadership and makeup. Alas, this is not necessarily for the better. This can be seen in the timid behavior of the traditionalists, who still hold party power: Nancy Pelosi in the House and the “divinely inspired” Chuck Schumer in the Senate. These Democrats are following the traditional strategy of accommodation and compromise even as they face, more and more, a political opposition of thugs.

    Such adherence to old ways even as the nation spins off in a different, more dangerous right-wing direction, has raised up opposition within the Democratic Party. The challenge comes from an as yet small number of House of Representatives progressives such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY, and her so-called “squad”: Rashida Tlaib, D-MI, Ilhan Omar, D-MN, and Ayanna Pressley, D-MA. In the Senate there is, of course, the ever-energetic Bernie Sanders, D-VT and Elizabeth Warren, D-MA. They seem to understand, much more than the traditionalists do, that pursuing a strategy of compromise with those “across the aisle” is no longer a reasonable goal. Indeed, the goal should now be Democratic Party dominance and the marginalization of the Trump Republicans. Such a hard line on the part of the Democrats is no doubt what the present political environment calls for, but like all leaders too long in power, Pelosi and Schumer are loath to give up control, or change strategy.

    This dilemma has manifested itself mostly in domestic policy. The latest failure on the part of the Democratic leadership to hold a progressive line came with a bill that provided $4.5 billion in emergency money for facilities housing immigrants on the nation’s southern border, and especially for children separated from their parents under Trump’s draconian anti-immigrant policies. The original bill specified “new safety and care standards for the border authorities working with migrants — provisions demanded by liberals.” However, congressional Republicans as well as “moderate” Democrats who are unwilling to aggressively challenge the racist anti-immigrant voters of their own districts forced the deletion of any specific standards. For the Democratic progressives this equaled throwing money at Trump to spend as he wishes. The equivalent Senate bill, without specific standards to guide the use of the funds, passed easily. The Senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer, seemed unwilling to challenge it, leaving the House progressives in a nearly hopeless position. As one Democratic House aide put it, “We’re toast. Schumer f—ed us.”

    So we now have a split in the Democratic Party, at least in the House, as progressive voices become louder and stronger. The Democrats in the Senate, however, remain largely traditionalist.

    Part II—On the Foreign Policy Front

    It is painfully clear that most Democrats are confused and inconsistent when it comes to foreign policy. Consider this sequence of events:

    — Back in March of 2019, “Nearly 400 members of Congress, from both chambers—roughly 75 percent of all federal US lawmakers—signed an open letter calling on President Trump to escalate the war in Syria, in the name of countering Iran, Russia, and Lebanese Hezbollah. … Among the signatories are 2020 Democratic presidential candidates Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Cory Booker.” Also signing the petition was Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer.

    — Then four months later, in July of 2019, “Lawmakers passed two amendments to the House’s more than $730 billion national defense budget that would restrict Trump’s ability to go to war with Iran without congressional approval, and also put a check on Trump’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, an alliance the administration has been using to escalate tensions with Iran.”

    So what happened between these two events? Between March and July the Trump administration increased its sanctions on Iran and has threatened the Europeans with sanctions if they fulfill their contractual obligations to Iran under the original nuclear agreement. Then the president sent a naval and air armada to the Persian Gulf area. This constituted a form of brinkmanship whereby any small accidental encounter of American and Iranian forces could escalate into war.

    Part III—Theory and Practice

    We can look upon the March petition as a form of theory. Probably drawn up by real warmongers in the Congress, almost everyone jumped on board. They did so to show—to show whom?—that they were tough on the nation’s alleged enemies. At the time, it seemed a costless show of face. Then, come July, theory looked like it was about to turn into practice and the ghosts from wars in Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan started to appear before the bipartisan eyes of members of Congress.

    While very few lawmakers will admit it publicly, Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah represent absolutely no threat to the United States. Take the case of Syria. The Syrian government has all but won its war against rebelling factions and fanatical religious elements. Its interests and capabilities are limited to consolidating that hard-fought victory. The continuing violence in the country comes largely from the military activity of the U.S., Britain, Israel, and Turkey. At least in the case of the U.S. and Israel, the main reason for this continued victimization of the people of Syria is to keep the country destabilized and fragmented.

    Specifically, why would the American government want to see Syria destabilized and fragmented? Is it because Syria constitutes a real threat to the national security of the United States? That proposition is almost laughable. Is it because Iran, an ally of Syria, constitutes a real threat to the United States? In no practical terms is this the case, though it is certainly the case that the U.S. constitutes a real threat to the national security of Iran.

    So why the hostility to Syria, Iran and even Hezbollah? Whom were all those March petitioners trying to impress? And who would really benefit from continuing turmoil in Syria? The answer to all these questions is Israel.

    The unfortunate truth is that American leaders from President Trump, Vice President Pence, Secretary of State Pompeo, and National Security Adviser Bolton on down to most run-of-the-mill congresspersons and senators have no clear and accurate knowledge of what is going on in the Middle East. They have a large and expensive intelligence apparatus with whom they get irritated and angry every time their experts tell these politicos what they don’t want to hear. And what is it that they do want to hear? Well, that might depend on ideology, religion, financial arrangements and other such things that can warp an objective picture of national interest and security. And who manages to tell them things that seem to satisfy most of these ideological, religious, and financial considerations? The answer is again Israel.

    Putting aside all the real damage the Zionists actually do—I really don’t want to sound like a broken record—there is a an outstanding irony in this present situation. And that is, from all we know, President Trump does not want war with Iran. It’s just that his abrasive and blusterous personality, which seems never to have outgrown the spoiled bullying nature of his youth, has literally led him to the habit of a blitzkrieg approach to whatever passes in his mind for negotiations. In the case of Iran, he has unthinkingly destroyed the painstakingly wrought nuclear deal of his predecessor (perhaps for no other reason than he hates everything Barack Obama accomplished), and is now trying to force the Iranians into new negotiations by economically and militarily threatening them. This is a form of brinkmanship which is dangerous in the extreme.

    Congress suddenly woke up to the reality of this situation—that is, many in Congress have gone from petitioners trying to be tough guys, to understanding just how dangerous Trump’s tactics can be. The result is the bipartisan amendments embedded in the House version of the Defense Appropriations Bill designed to rein in the delinquent in the White House.

    Part IV—Conclusion

    Compared to Barack Obama, who certainly had his own problems, the United States has gone from hopeful purgatory to a Trump inspired reactionary version of hell. This is particularly the case when it comes to domestic affairs. This writer is a child of the 1960s. A staunch supporter, and indeed, a participant in the Civil Rights Movement that did away with segregation and unequal treatment between races within the public sphere. It was a major advance for America’s claim to be a civilized nation. Unfortunately that same movement did not have the power to reform the country’s private sphere, nor did it do nearly enough to thoroughly desegregate neighborhoods so that, in this case, Blacks and Whites would be brought together as Americans—one people. As a consequence White resentment over the loss of public cultural privilege has festered in the largely unchanged, segregated private sphere. It has done so in rural regions and white suburbs alike. Now with Donald Trump, who is little more that an opportunistic demigod, that resentment has been empowered and our status as a civilized society is in danger.

    In the realm of foreign policy the United States has much less to lose for here national behavior has always been uncivilized. The names of presidents who have lied so as to manufacture wars, steal other people’s lands, and rein havoc and devastation upon innocent people, rank among many of our most easily recognized leaders.

    Yet, for all the horrors our foreign adventures have wrought, the real present danger is that we will turn on ourselves and destroy our precarious democracy. Under these circumstances, the Democrats, for all their shortcomings, represent not only the party of choice, but the potential salvation of the United States. All they have to do is recognize this fact and, taking a cue from the progressive “squad” in the House, act accordingly.

    Lawrence Davidson
    [email protected]


  2. Talkback on July 20, 2019, 3:31 pm

    “• 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.”

    Ok. Than eat this:

    I support the liberation of Palestine and the restoration of its territorial integrity within former mandated territory and acknowledge the right to self determination of everyone living in it (whether Jewish or Arab) or having the right to return to it. That is a real, secular democracy/majority rulinng with minority rights.

  3. eljay on July 20, 2019, 5:50 pm

    || … -[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; … ||

    I agree that Israel should be associated with “Israeli” and not with “Jewish”.

    Zionists should be taken to task for constantly and anti-Semitically conflating Israel with all Jews and all Jews with Israel.

    Zionists and Israel must be held accountable for the (war) crimes they actually do commit.

    || … -[A]pplying a double standard to Israel … ||

    I look forward:
    – to (pro-)Zionists being demonized for constantly doing this; and
    – to Israel being treated as harshly as every other state is treated that is supremacist and engages deliberately in oppression, colonialism and (war) crimes.

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

    No-one should be denied the right to choose to embrace the religion-based identity of Jewish. But the choice to embrace that religion-based identity does not comprise a right:
    – to be a supremacist;
    – to have a supremacist; or
    – to do evil unto others.

    Referring to these acts of injustice and immorality as the “right to self-determination” of “the Jewish people” doesn’t make them any less unjust or immoral or unacceptable.

  4. JWalters on July 20, 2019, 8:37 pm

    Criticism of Israel EQUALS criticism of all Jews, claim the Israelis. That claim is OBVIOUSLY incorrect on BOTH logical and factual grounds. Any modestly intelligent, modestly educated person can see that claim is literally absurd. So why do so many prominent people make this claim? The clear answer is CORRUPTION. Such massive corruption is deadly to society and all the individuals in it. It is imperative to follow such corruption to its root and eradicate it completely.

    Note: I prefer the term “equate” over “conflate”, because “conflate” is a fuzzier term and less familiar to the public at large. The term “equate” is universally known and crystal clear. As Mark Twain noted, the difference between the right word and almost the right word is the difference between lightening and a lightening bug.

  5. Brewer on July 21, 2019, 12:42 am

    “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic (AKA “capitalist”) society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, and our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of…. It is they who pull the wires that control the public mind.” – Edward L. Bernays

    Having now passed 70 years of what I thought was a fairly high level of political and social awareness I am astonished at how long it took me to understand that man is susceptible to almost any belief, no matter how illogical.
    Having crossed that bridge quite some time ago however, it is relatively recently that I have reached the conclusion that such knowledge is well known to some and used extensively by them to manipulate and control.

    Those “men we have never heard of” who wish to establish the equation of political dissent with any such concept as racism are indulging in this practice. It is precisely the type of evil that has brought otherwise sensible and moral men to unspeakable evil many times before.

    I studied History for many years but it has only been through the study of contemporary events that I have realized that the common man can only be manipulated into War by such manufactured beliefs.

    This push the redefine antisemitism must be resisted.

    • JWalters on July 22, 2019, 3:15 am

      It seems that society needs to implement some new laws to block such a “Bernays government” from occurring. These new laws would not endanger freedom of speech, since they would be designed specifically to protect freedom of speech from the power of the Bernays government. Just looking at the example of today, we see a truth-killing monopoly. It even seeks to silence dissent by illegal means.

  6. Ossinev on July 21, 2019, 12:38 pm

    Jawohl Herr Scott !!!

  7. James Canning on July 21, 2019, 2:31 pm

    Yet more attempts to suppress free speech, in an effort to benefit Israel. Pathetic, and foolish.

  8. Marnie on July 21, 2019, 10:21 pm

    ‘Compared to Barack Obama, who certainly had his own problems, the United States has gone from hopeful purgatory to a Trump inspired reactionary version of hell. This is particularly the case when it comes to domestic affairs. This writer is a child of the 1960s. A staunch supporter, and indeed, a participant in the Civil Rights Movement that did away with segregation and unequal treatment between races within the public sphere. It was a major advance for America’s claim to be a civilized nation.’

    Decades of work, blood, sweat and tears destroyed in the almost 1000 days of #45. With his ADHD unchecked and repubs & state television F&F appealing to his worst impulses, the united states is officially just an incredibly violent and stupid nation. I also think his latest ‘racist as I wanna be’ style may be in reaction to Jeff Epstein’s arrest and denial of bail. That’s got a lot of men and one Ghislaine Maxwell shitting themselves. If the democrats or independents don’t get their stuff together I think this will be the last election in the u.s.

    • echinococcus on July 22, 2019, 12:10 am

      “This writer is a child of the 1960s”
      and still child enough to believe in a “hopeful purgatory” in the Demopublican-Repucrat sewer.
      Let’s not be too obvious, please.

  9. Talkback on July 22, 2019, 4:37 pm

    What if someone claims that if Israel has a right to exist in 80% of Palestine and claim Jerusalem for itself, so does Palestine?

    Would be pretty hard to call that antisemitic without being accused of double standards. LOL. It think that’s a very good tactic, no?

    Here’s another one: If Jews have the right to return to this land, so do the Palestinians.
    And another one: If Jews have a right to maintain control over all of Palestine foe security reasons, so do the Palestinians.

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