Indiana lawmakers face off on antisemitism bill after changes sought by Israel critics

Disagreements could stop passage of bill aiming to address campus antisemitism for second consecutive year, as divisions deepen surrounding Israel-Hamas war

Jewish students gather at the Helene G. Simon Hillel Center at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, February 13, 2024.  (AP/Michael Conroy)
Jewish students gather at the Helene G. Simon Hillel Center at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, February 13, 2024. (AP/Michael Conroy)

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Disagreements among Indiana lawmakers could stop passage of a bill aiming to address antisemitism on college campuses for the second year in a row, leaving Indiana students and professors uneasy as divisions surrounding the ongoing Israel-Hamas war deepen.

Indiana House Republicans passed House Bill 1002 two months ago as one of their five priorities for the 2024 session. The legislation — largely aimed at higher education — broadly defines antisemitism as religious discrimination and promises to “provide educational opportunities free of religious discrimination.”

The House bill used the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism, and explicitly included “contemporary examples of antisemitism” provided by the alliance, which make references to Israel. These have been adopted by the US Department of State.

State senators debating the bill this week, however, passed an amended version of the bill Tuesday in a 42-6 vote that removed language opposed by critics of Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, triggered by Hamas’s October 7 shock onslaught during which thousands of terrorists ramped across southern Israel, killing 1,200 people and taking 253 hostages.

The amended version of the bill still includes the IHRA’s broad definition of antisemitism but deleted the alliance’s name and examples that include explicit references to Israel.

Opponents argued that using direct references would stifle criticism of Israel in academic settings and advocacy on campuses for Palestinians in a worsening humanitarian crisis.

Hillary Haine, left, sings with Kim Gabriel at the Helene G. Simon Hillel Center at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind., Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2024. (AP/Michael Conroy)

But the bill needs final approval from the House before lawmakers plan to adjourn Friday, and Republicans in the House want the original language restored.

The divide between the chambers is familiar. An identical bill passed unanimously in the state House last year but died after failing to reach a vote in the Senate.

For students on Indiana campuses, the legislation comes during a painful year of heightened anxiety over the conflict. To some, the Senate’s changes are a welcome relief following weeks of protest against the measure. Others see the changes as a betrayal and feel unheard by lawmakers.

Maya Wasserman, a 22-year old Jewish student at Indiana University Bloomington wants to see the examples that reference Israel returned to the bill because they provide guidance on what antisemitism looks like.

“Without the examples and without the reference to the IHRA, it doesn’t have the same effect,” she said.

Mikayla Kaplan, a 19-year-old freshman from Houston who chose to attend Indiana University because of its strong Jewish student community, said while she was suspicious of the changes, she still wants to see the bill advance.

“Jewish students need the protection of the law,” she said.

Maya Wasserman talks about her experiences on campus since the start of the conflict between Israel and Hamas during an interview at the Helene G. Simon Hillel Center at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind., Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2024. (AP/Michael Conroy)

Kaplan said she’s experienced antisemitism since she was in the 7th grade, when someone dropped a drawing of a swastika in front of her. Normally open to sharing Jewish holidays and practices with friends, she has found herself holding back since Oct. 7.

Jewish students have been verbally harassed around campus, she said, some while wearing the star of David or other symbols of Judaism. Kaplan said she only feels comfortable now in her dorm or at the Helene G. Simon Hillel Center, a center for Jewish students at the university.

Yaqoub Saadeh, a 21-year-old senior at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis and president of the Middle Eastern Student Association, said he is all for defining antisemitism, but the original proposal made him fear being able to speak against Israel. The amendment felt like his voice was heard at the statehouse for the first time, he said.

Saadeh, who is Palestinian and grew up in an Indianapolis suburb, often wears a keffiyeh, a checkered scarf that has come to embody Palestinian solidarity. Instances of physical and verbal harassment against Arab and Muslim students have also increased since the war began, he said, adding that he finds himself on guard in public, especially after three Palestinian college students were shot in Vermont in November.

Yaqoub Saadeh speaks about an Indiana bill to address antisemitism on college campuses, Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024, in Indianapolis. (AP/Darron Cummings)

“Is there a car that’s going to hit me?” he wonders when he crosses the street. “Sometimes I’ll wear a pin or something if I feel a little more anxious.”

Daniel Segal, a retired professor of history and anthropology who lives in Bloomington, is on the coordinating committee for the Indiana chapter of the anti-Zionist group Jewish Voice for Peace. He called the IHRA’s examples “fundamentally flawed” for conflating antisemitism with criticism of Israel.

“We think the Senate bill remedies the harmful flaws in the House bill,” he said.

The state House sent the bill to a conference committee, where lawmakers from both chambers will work to resolve differences in only days.

The push to define antisemitism in numerous states predates the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks. But the war gave supporters another motivation. This year, governors in Arkansas and Georgia signed measures and a proposal is still awaiting gubernatorial review in Florida.

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem on Wednesday signed a bill defining antisemitism.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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