COLUMBIA — A panel of state senators advanced a bill Thursday that would lay out a specific definition for antisemitism on South Carolina college campuses, as opponents argued it could restrict thoughtful critiques of Israeli policy.
Five senators on a higher education subcommittee voted unanimously to pass the legislation on to a full committee but with only a six legislative days left in this year's session, the bill might get hung up until next year.
The bill is sponsored by Rep. Alan Clemmons, R-Myrtle Beach, who has made a name for himself in pro-Israeli circles for drafting and sponsoring legislation that seeks to undermine public campaigns calling for economic boycotts of Israel because of the country's continued expansion of settlements in West Bank.
The proposed definition in the bill is pulled from an example provided on the U.S. Department of State's website that defines anti-antisemitism as justifying the killing or harming of Jews, making dehumanizing allegations about Jews or accusing Jews of being responsible for "real or imagined" wrong-doing committed by Israel.
Barry Abels, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Columbia, and other supporters argued Thursday the bill is needed to clearly define antisemitism at a time when the number of anti-Jewish acts have risen around the country, including the high-profile desecration of graves in St. Louis and Philadelphia.
But college students and professors argued the proposed definition in the bill, which passed the House in March with 103 votes, was overly broad and could limit academic discussion and debate over the continued Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Joshua Cooper, a mathematics professor at the University of South Carolina who is also Jewish, said he was concerned the bill was conflating non-discriminatory criticisms of Israel with antisemitism.
"Thoughtful critiques of Israeli policy," he said, "is not antisemitism."
Jonathan Leader, an archaeology professor at USC and a member of the Jewish faith, said he didn't believe the definition restricted free speech as some opponents have argued.
"Is this a perfect definition? Heck no," Leader said, adding any concerns over the language could be improved in the future.
The bill specifically says it is not meant to "diminish or infringe upon any right protected under the First Amendment."
Members of USC's Students for Justice in Palestine also testified and voiced concern that the definition would stop people from expressing "political differences" over the issue of Israel and Palestine, which has been one of the most vexing international issues of the past century.
To understand the intention of the bill, the students argued, lawmakers have to consider the bill's author: Clemmons, who has also pushed legislation in South Carolina that adamantly stated Israel could not be an occupier in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
With time running out and no other committee scheduled to meet in the next two weeks, Rep. Beth Bernstein, D-Columbia, another sponsor of the bill, said she would push to have the bill go straight to the Senate floor.
The session ends May 11.