News

What to Know About US 'Antisemitism Awareness Act'

The bill received support and criticism from both parties as it headed to the U.S. Senate.

Published May 13, 2024

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On May 1, 2024, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 6090, the "Antisemitism Awareness Act of 2023." If passed by the Senate and signed into law by President Joe Biden, it adopts a definition of antisemitism created in 2016 by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance and directs the Department of Education to use that definition when "reviewing or investigating complaints of discrimination based on race, color, or national origin in programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance."

It's essentially the congressional response to pro-Palestinian demonstrations and allegations of antisemitism on college campuses across the U.S. But the bill, which passed the House 320-91, faced criticism from various groups.

Some pro-Palestine social media users claimed that the language in the IHRA definition of antisemitism would ban people comparing Israeli policy and actions to those of Nazi Germany, a comparison sometimes drawn to highlight the Israeli invasion of Gaza in late 2023:

Some Christians claimed the language in the IRHA definition of antisemitism would criminalize the Bible because mentioning the fact that "Jews killed Jesus" would be considered antisemitic.

Some of these claims are true and some are exaggerated. It's especially important to remember that, as of the writing of this article, the Senate had not passed the bill. We will update this story with more information as new events occur. But here's what you need to know about the IRHA definition of antisemitism and H.R. 6090:

The IHRA

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance consists of 35 countries, including the U.S. and Israel. In 2016, its delegates met and created the following definition of antisemitism: "Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities."

But what critics worry about is the list of examples the IHRA provides under its definition:

  1. Calling for, aiding, or justifying the killing or harming of Jews in the name of a radical ideology or an extremist view of religion.
  2. Making mendacious, dehumanizing, demonizing, or stereotypical allegations about Jews as such or the power of Jews as collective — such as, especially but not exclusively, the myth about a world Jewish conspiracy or of Jews controlling the media, economy, government or other societal institutions.
  3. Accusing Jews as a people of being responsible for real or imagined wrongdoing committed by a single Jewish person or group, or even for acts committed by non-Jews.
  4. Denying the fact, scope, mechanisms (e.g. gas chambers) or intentionality of the genocide of the Jewish people at the hands of National Socialist Germany and its supporters and accomplices during World War II (the Holocaust).
  5. Accusing the Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust.
  6. Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.
  7. Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.
  8. Applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.
  9. Using the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism (e.g., claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis.
  10. Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.
  11. Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.

Critics mentioned items 9 and 10 in particular.

Christian critics wished to protect their right to claim that the "Jews killed Jesus," which they say is in the Bible.?The Bible does contain a line or two that blames the death of Jesus on Jewish people. But that line is often used to blame all Jewish people as a group and has been used as justification for antisemitic violence for a long time. The Catholic Church has repeatedly stressed that Jesus Christ's death cannot be attributed to Jewish people as a whole, neither at the time of Jesus's death nor today.

Considering that the item specifically mentions using these ideas to criticize the state of Israel, we conclude that saying "Jews killed Jesus" with no other context would not necessarily be restricted speech under the bill.

Some pro-Palestine advocates have made a comparison between "contemporary Israeli policy" and Nazi Germany, or something close to it, which is the 10th item on the IHRA's list of examples. In their critiques of the bill, those advocates seem to imply that the comparison is not antisemitic and would also restrict freedom of speech under the First Amendment.

H.R. 6090

However, under the text of the bill, neither of these things would be "banned" or "made illegal" in the U.S., as both parties have maintained. As previously mentioned, a complete ban would likely be in violation of the First Amendment, which protects controversial expressions of speech unless it can be proven that there was a direct intent of harm.

Instead, the bill requires only the Department of Education, which is in charge of federal grants for financial aid and funding of schools, to consider the definition of antisemitism when investigating programs that receive federal funding. Essentially, it gives the Education Department the ability to pull funding if it finds discrimination "based on race, color, or national origin," something known as a Title VI investigation.

Here's the relevant text of the bill, along with the roll-call vote by member:

Congress finds the following:

For purposes of this Act, the term "definition of antisemitism"—

In reviewing, investigating, or deciding whether there has been a violation of title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (42 U.S.C. 2000d et seq.) on the basis of race, color, or national origin, based on an individual's actual or perceived shared Jewish ancestry or Jewish ethnic characteristics, the Department of Education shall take into consideration the definition of antisemitism as part of the Department's assessment of whether the practice was motivated by antisemitic intent.

What Problem Is the Bill Attempting to Address?

It is clear that antisemitism in the United States on college campuses is, as the bill puts it, "on the rise." What critics have vigorously debated is whether pro-Palestinian demonstrations on university campuses across the U.S. in spring 2024 fall under that umbrella.

Advocates for the bill called it long overdue. Rep. Mike Lawler, a Republican from New York who co-sponsored the bill, called the demonstrations on college campuses "reprehensible and alarming," and listed examples at Yale, UCLA and The Cooper Union that he said placed Jewish students in danger.

"When people engage in harassment or bullying of Jewish individuals where they justify the killing of Jews or use blood libel or hold Jews collectively responsible for the actions of the Israeli government — that is antisemitic. It's unfortunate that needs to be clarified, but that's why this bill is necessary," he said in a news release.

But Rep. Jerry Nadler, a Jewish Democrat from New York, released a transcript of his speech opposing the bill on the House floor because he felt it was a violation of the First Amendment:

"Speech that is critical of Israel — alone — does not constitute unlawful discrimination. By encompassing purely political speech about Israel into Title VI's ambit, the bill sweeps too broadly.

As the ACLU notes, if this legislation were to become law, colleges and universities that want to avoid Title VI investigations, or the potential loss of federal funding, could end up suppressing protected speech criticizing Israel or supporting Palestinians. Moreover, it could result in students and faculty self-censoring their political speech. Even the IHRA definition's lead author, Kenneth Stern, opposes codifying this definition for this reason.

Vigorous enforcement of federal civil rights law does not depend on defining terms like "antisemitism" or "racism." In fact, codifying one definition of antisemitism, to the exclusion of all other possible definitions, could actually undermine federal civil rights law because antisemitism, like other forms of bigotry, evolves over time, and future conduct that comes to be widely understood as antisemitic may no longer meet the statutory definition."

It's unclear whether the Senate will try to pass the bill. If none of the 100 senators objects (unanimous consent), the bill can be fast-tracked without a roll-call vote. According to reporting from Politico, however, the bill faces likely objections from both sides of the political aisle.

Sources

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Jack Izzo is a Chicago-based journalist and two-time "Jeopardy!" alumnus.