On July 25, Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA), Ranking Member of the House Judiciary Committee, announced that he was reintroducing The Anti-Semitism Awareness Act. While supporters claim that the legislation will allow the Department of Education to more effectively investigate charges of anti-Semitism on college campuses, critics point out that the bill adopts a broad definition of anti-Semitism that will inevitably lead to the censoring of pro-Palestinian students. Similar versions of the bill were introduced in 2016 and 2018, but failed.
The Anti-Semitism Awareness Act directs the Department of Education to use a definition anti-Semitism developed in 2016 by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). Under that definition some criticisms of Israel can be considered anti-Semitic, including applying “double standards” to the country and claiming that the state is a racist endeavor.
The bill is being reintroduced amidst a seemingly reinvigorated crackdown on students advocating for Palestinian rights. In June, the Department of Education began investigating a campus conference on Palestine that was held at Duke University in March and co-sponsored by Duke and the University of North Carolina. The announcement came in response to GOP Rep. George Holding asking for federal action over the conference’s “severe anti-Israeli bias.” Recently, three anonymous UMass Amherst students also tried to sue their school over panel on Palestine that featured speakers like Marc Lamont Hill and Roger Waters.
“Supporters of Israel have become more brazen in painting almost any critique of Israel as anti-semitic while discarding free speech and academic freedom,” Aman Aberra, a PhD candidate at Duke University, told Mondoweiss’ Yumna Patel in June. “This produces a chilling effect, where students are less willing to wade into this issue, since it’s perceived as dangerous to their reputations or careers.”
The legislation is backed by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) ,and when the bill was first introduced in 2016, the organization declared that it had “played a central role” in drafting it. It’s also regarded as a legislative priority by Christians United for Israel (CUFI), the Christian-Zionist organization founded by infamous megachurch pastor John Hagee. At the three-day CUFI summit last month, multiple speakers called on the assembled activists to lobby Washington in support of the bill. The bill is also being pushed by the Brandeis Center, the human rights group that Kenneth Marcus ran before becoming the Trump administration’s Assistant Secretary of Education for Civil Rights. In 2018, the State Department’s website was updated to reflect the IHRA’s working definition of anti-Semitism.
“[The Anti-Semitism Awareness Act] would codify Marcus’ strategy and enable his agenda at the DOE by requiring the agency to equate campus advocacy on Palestine with antisemitism,” reads a 2018 statement on the legislation from Palestine Legal. “It will lead to increased scrutiny, investigation, censorship, and possible punishment for students and academics who promote Palestinian rights. Such actions would violate the First Amendment and free speech principles.”
The previous attempts to pass the act fell apart as a result of First Amendment concerns. The Senate version of the legislation actually passed at the end of 2016, but it’s also repeatedly died in Congress as it’s yet to clear the House. Collins’ new version of the bill currently has nine co-sponsors, all of them are Republicans. There have also been various attempts to pass similar bills on a state level. In 2018, South Carolina became the first state to adopt a broad definition of anti-Semitism that includes criticism of Israel. New Jersey lawmakers are also trying to enact such a bill.