The Senate Must Act to Combat the New Antisemitism – Yes, that includes anti-Zionism

Posted on May 9, 2024 In Op-ed

By Nathan J. Diament
Executive Director for Public Policy, Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America

An antisemitic virus is spreading across college campuses, but you can’t combat antisemitism, if you can’t—or won’t—define it. Modern antisemites hide their hate behind a thinly veiled facade of anti-Zionism. They insist they don’t have a problem with Jews per se—just the only Jewish state in the world.

Their poorly constructed house of lies collapses in the face of calls to “go back to Poland” or reignite the Intifada. These threats can’t be chalked up to policy differences over Israel’s war against Hamas. Anyone attending America’s most prestigious universities must know these hateful slogans reference the extermination of Jews simply because they are Jews.

Similarly, anti-Israel protestors who rail about “human rights” but can’t muster a peep against scores of other human rights tragedies—China, Myanmar, and others—reveal their true motivation. They are not human rights activists. They are antisemites.

In 2016, then-Chief Rabbi of England Jonathan Sacks wrote an essay explaining: “Antisemitism is a virus that survives by mutating. In the Middle Ages, Jews were hated because of their religion. In the 19th and 20th centuries, they were hated because of their race. Today, they are hated because of their nation-state, Israel. Anti-Zionism is the new antisemitism.”

Thankfully, there is a bipartisan effort to combat this new antisemitism masquerading as anti-Zionism. Passed by the House, the Anti Semitism Awareness Act (AAA) requires the U.S. Department of Education to use the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism when enforcing federal anti-discrimination laws.

This definition includes traditional anti-Jewish hatred and Holocaust denial, but also modern antisemitism, which targets the State of Israel based on its Jewish foundations and character. In other words, anti-Zionism is antisemitism as far as the law is concerned.

Now the Senate needs to do its part to send the AAA to President Biden’s desk. There are two obstacles in its path.

The ball is now in Senator Bernie Sanders’s court. As chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP), he can shepherd this bill through his committee, but Sanders is a notorious critic of Israel and has yet to hold a single hearing on campus antisemitism. In contrast, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives has already held four such hearings.

Alternatively, the highest ranking Jew in the U.S. Senate, Chuck Schumer, can bring the bill to the floor for a Senate-wide vote where it has wide bipartisan support (sponsored by Republican Tim Scott and Democrat Bob Casey). But Schumer has been glaringly quiet even as antisemitic protesters camp out in his home state.

Schumer is likely trying to protect his left flank. In the House, 70 Democrats, including Israel haters like Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Jamaal Bowman, voted against the bill under the guise of free speech concerns. They argue the AAA is intended to stifle free speech and all criticism of Israel.

That’s a red herring. Nothing in the AAA prohibits antisemitic speech as distasteful as it is. It does not prevent Congresswoman Ilhan Omar from spouting hateful nonsense about alleged Israeli genocide. It does not prevent college students from protesting Israel’s war with Hamas. If you think that’s what these college protests are about, you haven’t been paying attention.

From Columbia to UCLA, Jewish students are threatened with violence, physically attacked, and barred from entering public spaces. Schools don’t shut down classes because of “peaceful protests.” They shut down because they have allowed Hamas supporters to make campus life unsafe.

So what does the AAA do? It inserts the IHRA definition of antisemitism into Title 6 of the Civil Rights Act. Under Title 6, colleges and universities are legally required to make sure Jewish students are not discriminated against or prevented from participating and enjoying university life.

Holding a sign that says “Kill the Jews” is obviously threatening and intimidating. Protesters found a loophole in signs that say “bring the Intifada to Columbia” or “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” But these slogans are not constitutionally protected criticisms of Israel. They are antisemitic and intended to make Jewish students feel unsafe.

Under the AAA, the Department of Education has a clear legal position to investigate instances in which anti-Israel activity becomes unlawful, discriminatory, and cause for intimidation.

The AAA also sends a clear message to college presidents and administrators who use “free speech” to justify their inaction and cowardice. They have a legal obligation to protect Jewish students. Instead, they are letting the inmates have free reign of the asylum.

The IHRA definition is the most authoritative and recognized definition of antisemitism, adopted by more than 1,200 entities worldwide, including 36 U.S. states, 91 U.S. cities and municipalities, the U.S. Department of State in each of the prior three administrations, and 42 other countries.

Congressional hearings with university presidents and upcoming hearings with public school district superintendents are very important, but they must be translated into legislation with consequences. Those hearings have already laid bare a stunning disregard for the safety of Jewish students on campus and the absurdity of the “we are not antisemitic, we are just anti-Zionist” lie.

When the then-presidents of Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania can’t say whether calls for the genocide of Jews violate the university’s conduct policy, it is clear that we are not talking about policy disagreements about the Israel-Hamas war. When a leader of the Columbia encampment says we should be “grateful that I’m not just going out and murdering Zionists,” we are no longer talking about “peaceful protests.”

The virus spreading across college campuses is dangerous and disgusting—it is also illegal. The House has done its part. Now, the Senate and President Biden must act to give the government the clear and decisive tools to wipe it out.