Over 60 scholars say bill targeting campus anti-Semitism is ‘dangerous’

Academics sign letter, organized by Jewish Voice for Peace, urging Obama, House to reject legislation that they say ‘mis-classifies criticism of Israel as anti-Semitism’

Anti-Semitic graffiti on a building near the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville. (Courtesy Michaela Brown via JTA)
Anti-Semitic graffiti on a building near the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville. (Courtesy Michaela Brown via JTA)

More than 60 scholars, including a number of Jewish studies specialists, signed a letter urging the US House of Representatives and President Barack Obama to reject a bill that would expand how the Department of Education defines anti-Semitism.

The letter, organized by Jewish Voice for Peace, which supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, calls the measure “misguided and dangerous,” and claims it would stifle dialogue on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“The overly broad language has the potential to define any criticism of Israeli policy as antisemitic,” read the letter, which had 65 signatures as of early Friday afternoon. “This could include frank discussions of the impact of Zionism, campus disagreements about the future of Israel/Palestine, and in fact, much of what falls under Jewish Studies in all facets, including courses.”

In addition, over 300 Jewish student activists signed a separate letter, also organized by Jewish Voice for Peace, opposing the measure.

A bipartisan slate of leading House members introduced the bill this week after it was passed last week by the Senate.

The measure expands previous guidelines sent periodically to educational institutions receiving federal funding to define anti-Semitism according to a definition first published by the State Department in 2010.

It adopts the definition set forth by the European Parliament Working Group on Anti-Semitism: “Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

Both definitions also outline when criticism of Israel crosses into anti-Semitism, citing the “three D’s” first advanced by Natan Sharansky, the Israeli politician and former prisoner of the Soviet gulag: demonization, double standard and delegitimization.

The Anti-Defamation League, which has led lobbying for the legislation, said the bill, should it become law, “addresses a core concern of Jewish and pro-Israel students and parents: When does the expression of anti-Semitism, anti-Israel sentiment and anti-Zionist beliefs cross the line from First Amendment-protected free expression to unlawful discriminatory conduct?”

A number of left-wing and pro-Palestinian groups have criticized the legislation, including Open Hillel, a network whose members reject Hillel International’s guidelines about Israel programming.

“It mis-classifies criticism of Israel as anti-Semitism and aims to ensure that the Department of Education will investigate and suppress criticism of Israel on campus,” a statement by Open Hillel said.

Most Popular
read more: