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New Jersey bills applying IHRA antisemitism definition could stifle free speech, activists warn

New Jersey Senate is considering a law that would equate anti-Zionism with antisemitism, stirring warnings from rights groups
People participate in a demonstration and march to demand that Israel end its war in Gaza and agree to a cease-fire, on 2 March 2024 in New York City (Spencer Platt/AFP)

The New Jersey State Senate is considering two laws that equate anti-Zionism with antisemitism, triggering warnings from advocates for Palestinians and activists who say the measure could restrict freedom of speech.

The two bills lean heavily on the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitism and note “useful examples of discriminatory anti-Israel acts that cross the line into anti-semitism”.

The controversial IHRA definition was formulated in 2004 and published in 2005 by antisemitism expert Kenneth Stern in collaboration with other academics from the American Jewish Committee, a pro-Israel Jewish advocacy organisation founded at the beginning of the 20th century and based in New York.

Critics say some of the examples conflate antisemitism with criticism of current and historical policies that led to the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 - known to the Palestinians as the Nakba or "catastrophe", when hundreds of thousands of indigenous Palestinians were expelled from their homes - plus the continuing human rights abuses against Palestinians and the occupation of their lands by Israel.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (Cair) warned that the bills risk suppressing “legitimate advocacy and free speech”, particularly in cases where pro-Palestinian voices want to express their perspectives.

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“The IHRA definition, along with its examples, is driven by political motives, aiming to silence Palestinians and their allies while shielding the Israeli government from accountability for its blatant disregard for human life,” Cair said in a statement reviewed by Middle East Eye.

Stern, one of the original drafters, has in the past criticised what he calls the "weaponisation" of the definition, especially on university campuses.

Sadaf Jaffer, a former New Jersey assemblywoman, wrote on the social media platform X, that New Jersey could turn to other definitions to craft a law on antisemitism.

“While addressing anti-semitism is laudable, the IHRA definition isn’t appropriate because it doesn’t allow for critique of Israeli government policy. If anti-semitism is to be defined, there are better options,” she said.

One definition promoted in response to the IHRA example is the Jerusalem Declaration, which defines antisemitism as “discrimination, prejudice, hostility or violence against Jews as Jews”.

Pro-Palestinian and free speech advocates favour this definition because it says that opposing Zionism, criticising Israel's policies, and boycotting Israeli products are not inherently antisemitic acts.

The bills the New Jersey Senate is considering say that the state ranked third in the US in antisemitic incidents in 2023, and noted “systemic, broad and deep” antisemitism on university campuses.

But the bill comes as pro-Palestinian activists say they are being silenced for criticising Israel’s war on Gaza.

In Florida, the group Students for Justice in Palestine has been banned. Similarly, late last year Columbia University moved to ban the two groups, SJP and Jewish Voice for Peace.

Earlier this year, a Congressional committee called the presidents of the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in for a contentious congressional briefing in December over the large number of pro-Palestine rallies taking place on campus.

The House committee is using the IHRA definition of antisemitism in its probe.

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