Fri. Feb 23rd, 2024

    There is a wave of new bills to define anti-Semitism.  In these 3 states they could become law

    Lawmakers in more than half a dozen U.S. states are pushing laws to define anti-Semitism, sparking debates over free speech and bringing complicated global politics to legislatures.

    Supporters say it is increasingly important to add a definition that lays out how to determine whether some criticism of Israel also amounts to hatred of the Jewish people. In doing so, lawmakers cited the Oct. 7 attacks in which Hamas killed about 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and took about 250 hostages to Gaza, sparking a war that has killed more than 26,000 Palestinians.

    “For anyone who didn’t think that anti-Zionism could turn into anti-Semitism, the rest of the world could see that it did,” said Democratic Rep. Esther Panitch, the only Jewish member of the Georgia Legislature and one of the sponsors of a bill law that the state Legislature passed last week. Republican Gov. Brian Kemp is expected to sign.

    Defined in 2016 by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, anti-Semitism is “a certain perception of Jews, which can be expressed as hatred towards Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed at Jewish or non-Jewish persons and/or their property, at institutions of the Jewish community and religious facilities.”

    But Kenneth Stern, the author of the IHRA definition, said using that language in the law is problematic.

    “There are a growing number of young Jews for whom their Judaism leads to an anti-Zionist position,” said Stern, director of the Bard Center for the Study of Hate. “I don’t want the state to decide that issue.”

    Over the past three months, there has been a surge in protests across the country calling for a ceasefire in Gaza and the release of Israeli hostages. A coalition of organizations, including Jewish Voice for Peace and CAIR, issued a joint statement saying the Georgia bill “falsely equates criticism of Israel and Zionism with discrimination against the Jewish people.”

    Measures that use the same definition of anti-Semitism, but in anti-discrimination laws, have advanced in the legislative chambers of Indiana and South Dakota. An Anti-Defamation League report last year found significant increases in anti-Semitic incidents in Georgia and Indiana, but not in Georgia, where fewer than 10 a year have recently been reported.

    Other legislation with the definition is pending in at least five other states this year.

    Supporters of the bill say more than 30 states have adopted the definition in some form over the years. Until now, legal definitions – even in New York, the state with the largest Jewish population – came primarily through resolutions or executive orders rather than forceful laws.

    Elsewhere in the country, Iowa signed the definition into law in 2022 and Virginia followed suit last year, among others.

    Lawmakers say their bills are a response to the Oct. 7 attacks, although before that, the problem of anti-Semitism has been on the rise in the United States and around the world. Since the war broke out between Israel and Hamas, several states have passed resolutions condemning Hamas and expressing support for Israel.

    Thousands of entities around the world, including the US State Department, major companies and universities, have officially recognized the definition, and groups such as the American Jewish Committee support it.

    However, the United States Congress and the American Bar Association have refused to do so. Among those urging lawmakers to vote are not ACLU chapters.

    “There is fundamental harm to the First Amendment when the state attempts to silence pure speech based on its point of view,” said ACLU attorney Brian Hauss.

    Supporters of the laws emphasize that they are not trying to ban speech, but rather to decipher between actions that amount to discrimination or hate crimes, which carry different degrees of seriousness.

    “This bill is entirely about conduct: adverse or disparate treatment that is prohibited in state law,” said South Dakota state Rep. Fred Deutsch, a Republican whose father was a Holocaust survivor. “This bill does not limit the freedom of expression of a person or organization.” This week the chamber approved a measure by 53 votes in favor and 14 against.

    Lara Freidman, president of the Middle East Peace Foundation, said the laws could elevate charges, such as those against a protester for destruction of property, to the level of a hate crime, if the perpetrator is seen carrying a Palestinian flag.

    Georgia state Rep. Ruwa Romman, a Democrat of Palestinian descent, said the definition, when adopted by universities, has stifled students’ right to free speech.

    “When they tried to organize a night of Palestinian poets or Palestinian culture, the administration preemptively canceled the events for fear of being anti-Semitic,” he said.

    Some protesters gathered at the Indiana Capitol this month before the House unanimously introduced a bill incorporating the definition there.

    “I don’t need to feel like, as a student, I’m going to be censored, attacked or harassed,” said Yaqoub Saadeh, president of the Middle Eastern Student Association at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis.

    How universities are acting to prevent or stop anti-Semitism on campus has become a hot topic across the country. Last year, fallout from college presidents’ testimony before Congress led to the resignations of the presidents of Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania.

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