Liberal academics blast bill intended to fight anti-Semitism

A committee of self-described “liberal and progressive” academics penned an op-ed last week warning against a new bill designed to protect Jewish students. 

Introduced by Senator Tim Scott (R-SC), the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act of 2018 aims to create a “definition of anti-Semitism for the enforcement of Federal antidiscrimination laws concerning education programs or activities.” 

[RELATED: Public university bans Jewish group from campus over fliers]

The bill was first introduced by Scott in November 2016, in the wake of concern over religious and racially motivated hate crimes. Since then, it has gained bipartisan support from senators including Bob Casey (D-PA) and Ron Wyden (D-UT). 

”It is incredibly important that we work together to stamp out anti-Semitism,” Sen. Scott said in 2016, referring to a previous version of the bill. “By clarifying exactly what anti-Semitism is, we will leave no question as to what constitutes an anti-Semitic incident.”

With the bill now before U.S Congress, however, the Alliance for Academic Freedom—a membership club of roughly 200 professors—is worried that the initiative will “chill” criticism of Israel. 

“We don’t believe that Congress should be in the business of setting forth official definitions of anti-Semitism,” AAF chair Cary Nelson wrote in an op-ed for Inside Higher Ed last week. 

“Sometimes anti-Zionism constitutes anti-Semitism; sometimes it doesn’t,” he continued. “Regardless, Congress has no business deciding when it does or doesn’t.” 

[RELATED: Here’s why David Horowitz didn’t speak at UC-Berkeley]

Nelson’s main concern with the bill appears to stem from fears that its definition of anti-semitism could discourage political speech. 

Indeed, some definitions proposed by the bill do include political criticism, such as applying “double standards” to Israel that are not expected of other countries, but the bill also includes non-political definitions of anti-Semitism. 

“Calling for, aiding, or justifying the the killing or harming of Jews” as well as “denying Israel the right to exist,” would constitute anti-Semitism under the new bill, which refers to the definition of anti-Semitism adopted by the U.S. State Department in 2010.

Campus Reform asked Nelson if he would be supportive of the bill if the definition of anti-Semitism were narrower, but he demurred. 

“Any Congressionally endorsed definition would create problems,” Nelson asserted. “It isn’t just that the definition is overbroad for campus application. Discrimination and severe harassment are based on evidence, not definitions of speech.”

He also worried that passage of the bill would facilitate intimidation among professors who are critical of Israel, saying it might aid “those who would look over the shoulder of faculty who are teaching in this area.” 

[RELATED: Anti-Semitic flyers attacking ‘Jewish privilege’ appear at UIC]

Though Sen. Scott’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on this criticism, the lawmaker’s press releases addressing the bill suggest that he is primarily concerned with students, not faculty. 

“With recent reports showing a significant increase in anti-Semitism on college campuses across America, it is essential the Department of Education has a clear and concise definition of what constitutes anti-Semitism,” Scott said in a recent press release. 

The FBI reports that more than 50 percent of religion-motivated hate crimes reported in 2016 were spurred by anti-Jewish bias, though only 1.9 percent of Americans are Jewish, according to the Pew Research Center. 

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @Toni_Airaksinen