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S.C. anti-Semitism bill isn't needed

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I’ve spent my professional career opposing hatred and anti-Semitism. So why am I against South Carolina adopting a definition of anti-Semitism, based upon one I wrote?

H. 3643, now before the Senate Higher Education subcommittee, sounds reasonable. It says the definition of anti-Semitism should be considered when “reviewing, investigating, or deciding whether there has been a violation of a college or university policy prohibiting discriminatory practices on the basis of religion.”

But it is really an attempt to create a speech code about Israel. It is an unnecessary law which will hurt Jewish students and the academy.

In 2005 I was the director on anti-Semitism for the American Jewish Committee, and the lead author of what is known as the “working definition of anti-Semitism.” It was created because data collectors in Europe, tasked with monitoring anti-Semitism across the continent, had two problems: most countries had no definition of anti-Semitism, and those few that did had different ones. How could data be collected and compared, and trends studied, if no one knew what to document?

The definition therefore included some examples of when anti-Israel expression might be catalogued as anti-Semitic, such as demanding Israel behave in ways not expected of other democratic countries, or denying Jews the right to self-determination, by claiming Israel’s existence is racist. At my suggestion, U.S. State Department officials (under both the Bush and Obama administrations) began using the definition in their bilateral relations. In 2010 the State Department issued a slightly shortened, somewhat broader, version.

It was never intended as a vehicle to monitor or suppress speech on campus. But that’s what some right-wing Jewish groups and individuals behind this legislation seek.

They suggest that the current laws are insufficient to protect Jewish students, just as they allege that Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act cannot protect Jewish students without reference to the Department of State definition. But Jewish students are protected. I initiated a successful case through the Department of Education in 2011, for Jewish high school students in New York state who were victimized by anti-Semitic bullying.

They now want to change state and federal law by mandating reference to the definition, and despite a throw-away line in the legislation saying First Amendment rights are protected, their intent is clear: to have the state define a line where political speech about Israel is classified as anti-Semitic, and chilled if not suppressed.

This is precisely what happened recently in the United Kingdom. A campus event with an anti-Israel speaker was canceled because it contravened the definition.

If the definition becomes law, campus administrators will fear lawsuits when outside groups complain about anti-Israel expression, and the leadership of the university doesn’t punish, stop or denounce it.

South Carolina does not need an official definition of anti-Semitism any more than it needs an official definition of racism, anti-Catholicism, Islamophobia, or any other prejudice to protect students from harassment or intimidation.

Adopting an official anti-Semitism definition will open a Pandora’s box of other groups looking to suppress speech as well. Will a definition of racism include opposition to affirmative action? Tolerance for displaying the Confederate battle flag (on T-shirts or in classroom texts)? If denying Israel’s right to exist is officially defined as anti-Semitism, will South Carolina then define denying the Palestinians’ right to a state as anti-Palestinianism?

Furthermore, expressions of bigotries change over time. Does the legislature want to become wedded in culture wars and fights between and among different communities about what constitutes hateful speech?

I agree with the proponents that on some campuses the debate around the Israel/Palestine conflict has become toxic, and Jewish students who define their identity in part by support for Israel may feel disquieted by what they hear.

Colleges need to do more to reduce that toxicity. They should be offering interdisciplinary classes about anti-Semitism, and how human beings think when their identity is wrapped around an issue of perceived social justice. But if the anti-Semitism definition is enshrined into law, what professor will want to walk into this minefield, fearful that the selection of certain texts or the expression of certain opinions will put his or her university’s funding in jeopardy?

Indeed, if certain expressions about Israel are officially defined as anti-Semitic, pro-Israel Jewish students will be further marginalized, having gained the reputation for suppressing, rather than answering, speech they don’t like.

Kenneth S. Stern is the executive director of the Justus & Karin Rosenberg Foundation, which combats hatred and anti-Semitism and promotes academic freedom.

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