US bill conflates criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, rights advocates say
A US Congress bill proposed on Wednesday conflates criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, free-speech advocates say.
The measure aims to provide the Department of Education with a legal definition of anti-Semitism to handle discrimination claims.
It adopts a 2010 report by a special US State Department envoy to combat anti-Semitism.
The document provides a list of examples where anti-Semitism "manifests itself with regard to the state of Israel". They include applying double-standards for Israel, attempting to delegitimise it and comparing Israeli policies to Nazi Germany.
"It's ridiculous; it's unconstitutional; it's against free speech," Ahmad Abuznaid, director of the National Network of Arab American Communities (NAAC), told Middle East Eye.
The bill, dubbed the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act of 2018, was introduced by lawmakers from both US major parties.
US college campuses, where activists attempt to pass student council resolutions to boycott Israel for its mistreatment of Palestinians, have become a major arena for debate over the conflict.
We worry that the law will lead colleges to suppress speech, especially if the Department of Education launches investigations simply because students have engaged in speech critical of Israel.
-Anthony Romero, ACLU
Activists say the bill would censor the exchange of ideas and censor Israel's critics.
The Arab American Institute, a Washington-based think tank, said the bill focuses on suppressing speech critical of Israel, but it fails to address the real problem of anti-Semitism.
"At a time when hate crimes against targeted and vulnerable communities have increased, including against the American Jewish community, it is imperative that our elected officials do not conflate criticisms of policies and political opposition with instances of hate," the group said in a statement.
Abuznaid compared the bill with measures to outlaw the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, "but this is a more vicious attack on the freedom of speech in the US."
Last year, lawmakers proposed a bill that would legally restrict US citizens and companies from boycotting Israel. The measure failed to progress after an outcry from free speech watchdogs, including the American Civil Liberties Union.
“This bill is unconstitutional because it seeks to impose the government’s political views on Americans who choose to express themselves through boycotts,” Ben Wizner, director of the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, said in a statement in March after the anti-boycott bill was amended.
In January, a federal judge blocked a Kansas law that required state contractors to certify that they do not boycott Israel.
The ACLU also rejected Wednesday's anti-Semitism bill, saying that it "risks chilling the free speech of students on college campuses, and is unnecessary to enforce federal law’s prohibition on harassment in education."
"We worry that the law will lead colleges to suppress speech, especially if the Department of Education launches investigations simply because students have engaged in speech critical of Israel," ACLU executive director Anthony Romero said in a statement.
"College campuses should be havens for free expression, and students must be free to express their opinions and viewpoints, so long as they avoid harassment. We urge Congress to reject this dangerous and unnecessary bill."
Abuznaid said Wednesday's bill targets students who are developing a sense of activism.
He added that the bill would play to the advantage of Kenneth Marcus, President Donald Trump's nominee to head the civil rights office of the Department of Education. Marcus has led civil rights lawsuits against academic institutions that adopted BDS measures.
"It's just another avenue to stifle the debate on Israel and Palestine," Abuznaid said of the bill.
Proponents of the bill say its objective is to protect Jewish students from discrimination.
"Jewish students, like students of any religion, should not live in fear of attacks because of their religion," Congressman Ted Deutch, a Democrat from Florida who co-sponsored the measure, said in a statement.
"They shouldn’t have to fear wearing Judaic symbols or expressing their support for Israel."