Congress wants to define anti-Semitism for you. Here’s how that can get messy.
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Congress wants to define anti-Semitism for you. Here’s how that can get messy.

Demonstrators protesting against Israel in New York City, June 2016. (Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Republican and Democratic lawmakers are lining up behind a bill that would define anti-Semitism.

The measure introduced Thursday by Reps. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., who is Jewish, and Pete Roskam,  R-Ill., a leader on pro-Israel issues in the U.S. House of Representatives, at first looks like a bipartisan slam dunk. The principal target is harassment of Jewish students on university campuses.

But civil libertarians and some liberals hate the legislation because it includes a controversial definition of some anti-Israel expression as anti-Semitic. And at least one previous attempt to have a government body declare against anti-Semitism on campus was frustrated by conservative worries that it would impinge on Christian expression on campus.

Underscoring both arguments: It’s dangerous when the government attempts to define dangerous thought.

What the legislation says 

In 2010, the assistant attorney general, Tom Perez (now heading the Democratic National Committee), wrote a letter determining that anti-religious bias violates the 1964 Civil Rights Act — specifically its Title VI section. A number of religious minorities — Jews, Muslims and Sikhs among them — had longed for the legal protections afforded to racial minorities.

The current legislation would codify the Perez letter — at least as it relates to anti-Semitism — and a subsequent instruction from the Department of Education to Title VI institutions.

Making the Obama-era action law would protect it from rescission by future presidents.

What are the objections?

The Arab American Institute outlines most of the objections in some detail. The pro-Palestinian community worries that the law relies on a State Department definition of anti-Semitism that includes certain types of anti-Israel expression.

Among these: “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.”

Opponents say the State Department language is too vague.

“The proposed bill risks chilling constitutionally protected speech by incorrectly equating criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism,” the American Civil Liberties Union said in a statement Thursday.

The objectors have a notable ally in one of the co-authors of the State Department language: Kenneth Stern, who now directs the Justus & Karin Rosenberg Foundation, has said the definition was meant to assist diplomats in identifying anti-Semitic trends in their host countries and was not crafted to the more stringent standards that a law should aspire to.

Who are its supporters?

Jewish groups backing the bill include the Anti-Defamation League, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the American Jewish Committee and the Jewish Federations of North America. The groups say that much anti-Jewish hostility on campus currently takes the guise of anti-Israel protests. They say the specifics of the definition precludes singling out students engaging in legitimate criticism of Israel.

Rabbi Andrew Baker, director of international Jewish affairs at the American Jewish Committee, defended the legislation in a JTA op-ed earlier this month. He noted that the proposed bill recommends merely “taking into consideration” the definition of anti-Semitism.

“We cannot let these extreme possibilities serve as reason to reject an important educational tool in these difficult times,” he said, referring to the doomsday scenarios predicted by groups on the left. “Instead they remind us that we must employ it with care and consideration.”

The authors of the bill added a caveat at the end that they say will protect against speech freedom infringements: “Nothing in this Act shall be construed to diminish or infringe upon any right protected under the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.”

Opponents say it is a laughable afterthought.

“This clause addresses no actual concerns, it merely allows the passage of a law with language that will chill conduct, cause individuals to self-censor, and remain enforced by the government for years until legitimate speech is targeted, a suit is brought, and the slow machinery of the judiciary strikes down the legislation,” the Arab American Institute said.

Who else might object?

A previous time something like this came up, in 2005, some conservatives objected that a bill could end up defining some Christian or political expression as anti-Jewish activity.

“I am extremely nervous about administrative oversight on university campuses,” said Abigail Thernstrom, then the vice chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, who has faced heat for for opposing remedies meant to enfranchise black and minority voters. “You do not want administrators walking into classrooms and deciding what a professor is teaching is acceptable or unacceptable.”

Conservatives are not expressing opposition to the current bill.

Others object that the bill singles out bias against Jews while it is ostensibly aimed at protecting all faiths. The bill “does not address the similar rise of anti-Arab, anti-Muslim, or anti-Sikh discrimination that the bill itself notes in the Findings sections,” the Arab American Institute said.

South Carolina will show the way.

Is there room for abuse of a law regulating anti-Semitic speech and actions, or is it a necessary curative? Watch South Carolina. Backers of a similar bill in the state could not pass the legislation separately but wrote its language into a budget bill, which means it’s the law until the next budget is passed in a year.