US House introduces version of Senate campus antisemitism bill

The bill has the backing of senior House members, including Reps. Eliot Engel, D-New York, Nita Lowey, D-New York and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Florida.

December 5, 2016 23:31
2 minute read.

Anti-Israel demonstrators rally in New York. (photo credit: REUTERS)

A bipartisan slate of leading members of the US House of Representatives has introduced a bill that would expand how the Department of Education defines antisemitism in advising learning institutions on how to identify discrimination.

The bill, introduced December 2 by Reps. Peter Roskam, R-Illinois, and Ted Deutch, D-Florida, replicates a similar bill passed last week by the Senate, which was sponsored by Sens. Tim Scott, R-South Carolina, and Bob Casey, D-Pennsylvania.

The bill has the backing of senior House members, including Reps. Eliot Engel, D-New York, Nita Lowey, D-New York and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Florida.

The bill expands previous guidelines, which are sent periodically to educational institutions receiving federal funding to define antisemitism according to a definition first published by the State Department in 2010.

That bill adopts the European Parliament Working Group on Antisemitism’s definition: “Antisemitism is 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 and/ or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

Both definitions also outline when criticism of Israel crosses into antisemitism, citing the “three Ds” first advanced by Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky: demonization, double standard and delegitimization.

The Anti-Defamation League, which has led lobbying for the legislation, said the bill, should it become law, “addresses a core concern of Jewish and pro-Israel students and parents: When does the expression of antisemitism, anti-Israel sentiment and anti-Zionist beliefs cross the line from First Amendment protected free expression to unlawful discriminatory conduct?” ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said, “To effectively address reported anti-Jewish incidents that may violate federal education anti-discrimination laws, it is necessary to understand the evolving, current manifestations of antisemitism.

“The State Department definition includes useful illustrative examples and can be an important resource. However, it is also vital to accurately distinguish protected speech – including disagreement and even harsh criticism of the government of Israel – from harassing, intimidating, and discriminatory antisemitism.”

A number of left-wing and pro-Palestinian groups have criticized the legislation, saying the Israel-related language is too vague and would inhibit debate on campus about Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

“It mis-classifies criticism of Israel as antisemitism and aims to ensure that the Department of Education will investigate and suppress criticism of Israel on campus,” said Open Hillel, a loose network of campus groups that reject restrictions on engagement with other students that exist under the aegis of the more established Jewish student umbrella, Hillel.

The pro-BDS organization Jewish Voice for Peace described the bill as “problematic,” accusing it of “taking aim at campus activism for Palestinian rights by codifying criticism of Israel as antisemitic.” The group noted that the bill was fast-tracked through the Senate, despite pressure by its members for an open debate on the matter.

Liberal advocacy group J Street remained undecided about the bill, saying it deserved a hearing and a proper review by Congress.

“We have questions about the legal impact of this bill and deep concerns about its surprising omission of any mention of the horrific surge in right-wing, white supremacist antisemitism now threatening our community,” said Dylan Williams, J Street’s chief lobbyist. “We believe this legislation can be improved and strengthened with proper consideration, which it did not receive in the Senate, where it was passed by motion without any debate or even having been published in the public record... We are urging House members to ensure the relevant committees take a proper look at this bill.”

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