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Under New Law, Criticism of Israel Could Get College Students In Trouble with Feds

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A bipartisan team of U.S. senators last week introduced legislation designed to identify and investigate anti-Semitic language and incidents on college campuses. Amid little debate, the Senate passed the measure by unanimous consent. If passed into law, the bill may drastically influence how American college campuses treat speech.

Robert Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat, and Tim Scott, a South Carolina Republican, introduced S. 10, the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act. The legislation came out after a November FBI report found a 9% increase of anti-Semitic acts in the U.S. from 2014 to 2015. Altogether the report cited a total of 664 incidents.

Sen. Casey said in a press release:

“This legislation will help the Department of Education investigate incidents of discrimination motivated by anti-Semitism in our schools, which should be safe environments for students from all backgrounds. I’m proud to work with Senator Scott on this bill, which aims to combat anti-Semitism while preserving freedom of speech.”

Sen. Scott cited the self-reported cases of anti-Semitism on campuses in his support for the bill. He said:

“According to the Anti-Defamation League, in 2015 there were 90 anti-Semitic incidents that were reported across 60 college campuses, while in 2014 there were 47 incidents on 43 campuses.

“There is simply no place in our country for this kind of intolerance.”

Section 3 of the resolution states it will use the State Department’s working definition of anti-Semitism in identifying anti-Semitic speech or actions.

The working definition specifies examples of anti-Semitism such as denying the Holocaust and use of images traditionally tied to anti-Semitism. However, the working definition also includes criticism regarding the Israeli state.

Those examples include, “Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interest of their own nations.” Additionally, the State Department identifies as anti-Semitic “multilateral organizations focusing on Israel only for peace or human rights investigations.”

If enacted, the bill could lead to federal investigations of these incidents. Consequently, Section 2 of the legislation provides that:

“Awareness of this definition of anti-Semitism will increase understanding of the parameters of contemporary anti-Jewish conduct and will assist the Department of Education in determining whether an investigation of anti-Semitism under title VI [of the 1964 Civil Rights Act] is warranted.”

Critics of the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act argue that the resolution does not stop discrimination, but polices free speech. Liz Jackson, a civil rights attorney, said at JewishVoiceForPeace.org that the legislation might threaten the First Amendment. Among those imperiled freedoms, she said:

“That includes the right of college students to criticize the U.S. and foreign governments like Israel. . . .  It is plainly unconstitutional for Congress, the Department of Education, a state legislature, or any public school to punish campus speech critical of Israel.”

The Senate passed the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act by unanimous consent on Friday. A corresponding House bill has been referred to the chamber’s Judiciary Committee.

Photo Credit: Ryan Rodrick Beiler / Shutterstock.com

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