Congress enters thorny debate on defining antisemitism

Clarence Page, syndicated columnist

Who would oppose legislation to outlaw antisemitism? More people than you might think.

First, there is the thorny question of definitions. Consider: How do you define “antisemitism”? As with some attempts to define racism, you may find yourself settling on a version of the late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous definition of obscenity: “I know it when I see it.” But, as with “racism” and other words that draw legal limits on inhuman acts or beliefs, there is no moral off-ramp called “It depends.”

That’s why I found it ironic that the debate over a bill that passed last week in the Republican-controlled House to curb antisemitism began with heated discussion over definitions.

Eager to do something in response to a nationwide wave of pro-Palestinian protests at colleges, the Republican-controlled House passed a bill aimed at addressing reports of rising antisemitism on campuses. House Speaker Mike Johnson, a Louisiana Republican, blamed “woke” policies by college leaders for failing to confront the spread and backed a bill to push back.

In contrast to the partisan gridlock that has plagued so much other major legislation, this bill easily passed, although not without some important objections. The House passed the Antisemitism Awareness Act in a refreshing display of bipartisanship in these fractious times with a 320-91 vote, with a majority of Democrats — 133 — joining Republicans.

New York Republican Rep. Mike Lawler, who introduced the bill, was predictably delighted to thank the supporters of the bill “from a wide range of Jewish organizations that are standing up, endorsing this legislation, and saying enough is enough.”

But is that enough? The American Civil Liberties Union was not impressed by the bill and opposed the legislation — which still must be approved by the Democratic-controlled Senate and signed by President Joe Biden to become law — as infringing on rights of free speech.

Besides, as the ACLU pointed out in a statement, “Federal law already prohibits antisemitic discrimination and harassment by federally funded entities.”

Instead of protecting against antisemitic discrimination, the ACLU letter said, the proposed law “would likely chill free speech of students on college campuses by incorrectly equating criticism of the Israeli government with antisemitism.”

Thank you, ACLU, for adding to the body of material I call up every time somebody suggests muzzling political speech — even obnoxious and toxic speech — that the First Amendment was written and enacted to protect.

That’s why Rep. Jerry Nadler, top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee and one of the longest-serving Jewish members of the House, opposed the bill as “misguided.” While he agrees with some of its provisions, he said, “its core provision would put a thumb on the scale in favor of one particular definition of antisemitism — to the exclusion of all the others.”

Controversially for many Democrats, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition includes “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor” and “drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.”

That sounds like material for a separate debate, at least.

Can they work it out?

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, in a recent letter to Johnson, wrote that “there is nothing scheduled on the floor this week that would accomplish the concrete, thoughtful strategies outlined by the Biden administration” to accomplish the goal of combatting antisemitism.

But it could lead to a lot more debate.

That, too, is supposed to be what education should be about.


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