New legislation seeks to define anti-Semitism in US education system
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New legislation seeks to define anti-Semitism in US education system

Congress members say bipartisan bill will provide schools with tools to fight expressions of hatred

Eric Cortellessa covers American politics for The Times of Israel.

Members of the National Socialist Movement, one of the largest neo-Nazi groups in the US, hold a swastika burning after a rally on April 21, 2018 in Draketown, Georgia. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP)
Members of the National Socialist Movement, one of the largest neo-Nazi groups in the US, hold a swastika burning after a rally on April 21, 2018 in Draketown, Georgia. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP)

WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of US lawmakers from both houses of Congress introduced legislation on Wednesday to codify a working definition of anti-Semitism into the American education system.

The Anti-Semitism Awareness Act would direct the Department of Education (DOE) to use the definition that was developed by the US State Department’s Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism office in 2010. The office has been vacant since US President Donald Trump took office.

Under the guidance, anti-Semitism is said to include “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews.” Acts of hatred can have both “rhetorical and physical manifestations” that are “directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property,” as well as “Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

It also incorporates manifestations that target Israel, particularly attacks that assail Israeli actions as representative of “Jewish collectivity.”

The legislators said the Department of Education currently lacks a firm direction on how to identify and define anti-Semitism, and that, should the bill be signed into law, it would give the agency the tools to recognize when actions violate US anti-discrimination laws.

Recent reports have shown a sharp rise in anti-Semitic incidents in recent years, including on college campuses. The Anti-Defamation League has found that such incidents doubled in 2017 from 2016.

“I’ve heard far too many stories from Jewish students of the anti-Semitism they face in schools and on college campuses every day,” said Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Florida), who is Jewish.

“Jewish students, like students of any religion, should not live in fear of attacks because of their religion. They shouldn’t have to fear wearing Judaic symbols or expressing their support for Israel. As we work to combat all forms of discrimination and hate, Congress must act to protect Jewish students on campus, and this legislation would help the Education Department stem this troubling trend.”

Other sponsors of the bill include, Rep Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat from New York, Rep. Peter Roskam, a Republican from Illinois, Rep. Doug Collins, a Republican from Georgia, Sen. Tim Scott, a Republican from South Carolina and Sen. Bob Casey, a Democrat from Pennsylvania.

The measure has received pushback from opponents who contend it could violate First Amendment protections for students, who would face possible criminal charges for expressing views critical of Israel.

The ADL argued on Wednesday that the bill would not impinge on students’ right to criticize the Jewish state.

“At a time of rising incidents of anti-Semitism, this legislation addresses a core concern of Jewish and pro-Israel students and parents: When does the expression of anti-Semitism, anti-Israel and anti-Zionist sentiments cross the line from First Amendment-protected free expression to harassing, unlawful, discriminatory conduct?” said Jonathan Greenblatt, the group’s CEO.

“While most incidents of anti-Semitism on campus are unrelated to anti-Israel activity, the Departments of Education and Justice should have the authority to investigate instances in which anti-Israel activity crosses the line to targeted, unlawful, discriminatory intimidation and harassment of Jewish students.”

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