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Why the Antisemitism Awareness Act matters

There is much more work needed to be done to ensure turning it into law and making sure that universities are following it.

College campus. Credit: An Nguyen/Shutterstock.
College campus. Credit: An Nguyen/Shutterstock.
Sarah N. Stern
Sarah N. Stern
Sarah N. Stern is the founder and president of the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET), a think tank that specializes in the Middle East. She is the author of Saudi Arabia and the Global Terrorist Network (2011).  

As we head back into a new school year, we know that our American Jewish students will be on the front lines of the battle against rising antisemitism. Many of our students, whom we have taught to cherish and protect their Jewish identity, their Zionism and their deeply nurtured connections to the state of Israel, may face much hostility from both their anti-Zionist peers as well as from their professors.

As they head back to their campuses, over the course of the year, many will be confronted with chants of “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free.” They may have to endure mock “apartheid walls” or “die-in’s.” Many professors, particularly in Middle East Studies, will libel Israel as “an apartheid state,” “a colonial state” or “a racist state.” Jewish students may see swastikas drawn somewhere on the campus and might have their mezuzahs ripped down from their doorposts. They might well be excluded from certain clubs or extracurricular activities if their peers find out they are Zionists or even Jewish. Their professors might single them out for ridicule if and when they find out that they are Zionists. One recent graduate had told me his professor said: “Had I realized you were a Zionist when grading your paper, I would have given you a lower grade.”

As students head back to Princeton University, they might be taking a humanity course featuring a book by Jasbir Puar, The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability, where she argues that Israel harvests Palestinian organs.

Or they might be unfortunate enough to have her as a professor at Rutger’s University, where she is the director of the women’s and gender studies program.

Or they might be unlucky enough to go to Oberlin College where Islamic Studies Professor Mohammad Jafar Mahalati has argued that the Iranian massacre of more than 5,000 of its citizens is simply “a minor detail.”

Or they might be unfortunate enough to go to Columbia University where Joseph Massad calls Israel “a racist and colonizing state.” Or George Saliba, who once notoriously said to a Zionist student: “You have no voice in this debate. You have green eyes. You’re not a Semite. I have brown eyes. I am a true Semite. You have no claim to the land of Israel.” Or Hamid Dabashi, who recently posted on Facebook: “Every dirty treacherous ugly and pernicious act happening in the world just wait for a few days and the ugly name of ‘Israel’ will pop up as a key actor in the atrocities … .”

Or to the City University of New York, where Marc Lamont Hill, who was fired from CNN because of antisemitism, now holds an endowed chair in urban education. This is the same Marc Lamont Hill who says that “justice requires a free Palestine from the river to the sea.” (Of course, leaving no room for Israel.)

In an era where tolerance and mutual respect should be prevailing values, the unfortunate reality is that antisemitism, like a phoenix rising out of the ashes, continues to raise its monstrous head. This form of discrimination, deeply rooted in historical prejudice, remains a pressing concern that demands our immediate attention and action. Antisemitism has long been the harbinger of a disgusting rot within any society and indicates the displacement of responsibility for the failure of another group to flourish within that society. In its most popular, current form it is directed at the one state of the Jews: Israel.

As Jewish students return to their university campuses, they will be witnessing a horrific misrepresentation of who we are. They will hear many professors label Israel, “an apartheid state”, a “racist state” “a colonial state” and worse. They will be barred from certain clubs simply because they are defenders of Israel or even simply because they are Jewish; and will be told that if they want to join certain clubs they must “check their Judaism at the door.”

As we witness a disturbing surge in antisemitic incidents within the United States, the Antisemitism Awareness Act of 2023, will be introduced later this week by Reps. Mike Lawler (R-N.Y.) and Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.). This bill stands as an essential tool in the fight against this ancient hatred. EMET was the first organization to introduce this legislation to these courageous congressmen. And we, as a people, should remain profoundly and eternally grateful to each of them for undauntingly advocating on behalf of our people.

Recent data paints a sobering picture of the escalating wave of antisemitism. According to the ADL, in the United States in just a single year—2022—there was a 36% increase in antisemitic attacks.

These incidents range from hate speech and vandalism to violent attacks targeting Jewish individuals and institutions. What is perhaps most alarming is the prevalence of anti-Israel sentiment that often morphs into anti-Jewish hatred, particularly in academic settings.

College campuses—touted as spaces of enlightenment and intellectual growth—have sadly become breeding grounds for the propagation of anti-Israel sentiment and antisemitism. Far too often, under the guise of legitimate criticism of Israel, students and faculty members find themselves exposed to harmful rhetoric that perpetuates harmful stereotypes about Jewish people and seeks to exclude them and punish them for their identity. This normalizing of anti-Jewish bias is a dangerous slippery slope that must be addressed urgently.

Many Jewish students have reacted in a combination of fear or shame. Some do not want to stick their necks out for fear that their professors will punish them with a permanent grade on their record that will stand it the way of their ideal admittance to graduate school or long dream of careers. The power situation remains very one-sided for our nation’s vulnerable Jewish students.

Others might find the courage to stand up to this one-sided propaganda under the facade of legitimate scholarship, only to find that they have got to suffer the consequences, not only from professors but from the overt hostility of their peers.

Antisemitism, in the form of attacks on the State of Israel coming out of the mouths of professors at least in our nation’s Middle East Studies Centers, has reached new heights of popularity, with statements made about Jews and the Jewish state that would never be uttered by professors in regard to any other minority group. If so, they would worry about returning to their jobs.

I had naively thought back in 2008, would be eradicated by amendments that the organization I head up, EMET, was able to successfully pass in Congress to Title VI of the Higher Education Act. Title VI of the Higher Education Act requires an application from the universities, (the “grantees”) to the U.S. Department of Education (the DoE), (the grantor”). Our nation’s Regional Studies programs must go through this process to obtain funding. Rather than a “Title.” The universities have taken taxpayers’ largess for these largely antisemitic programs and have taken them as an “Entitlement.” Among other things the 2008 amendments to the federal law called for “a diversity of perspectives and wide range of viewpoints.” Under the previous administration, these federally mandated amendments were employed once by the former administration in a letter by the assistant secretary of civil rights in the U.S. Department of Education, Robert King, as elucidated in the Federal Register regarding a particularly egregious 2019 event in a Middle East Consortium between the University of North Carolina and Duke University when Palestinian rapper and actor Tamar Nafar opened with the words: “Let’s try it together. I need your help I cannot be antisemitic alone.”

However, by in large, that legislation has been all but overlooked and ignored by both the Department of Education and academia; and although an essay is being required by the DOE to the universities to gain an understanding of what they are doing to satisfy the “diverse perspectives” requirement, we have come to learn that the Department of Education doesn’t even bother to score the essay.

It is quite telling that although every regional or area studies center (African, Asian, Latin, post-Soviet, etc.) has to apply to the DOE for the grant, the universities always speak about how they have a “visiting professor from Israel” (usually some left-wing professor from the University of Haifa who chastises Israel publicly in the United States), or they “allow students to travel on their junior year abroad to Israel.”

Foster an environment free from discrimination

That is where the Antisemitism Awareness Act of 2023 comes in. It comes at a pivotal moment, offering a powerful and much-needed response to combat this troubling trend. By recommending only consideration of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism, the act provides a comprehensive framework to identify and address instances of this discrimination accurately.

This is in response to the President’s National Task Force on Antisemitism, which speaks of the IHRA definition but also gives credit to the Nexus definition. The Nexus definition goes so far as to say, “Even contentious, strident, or harsh criticism of Israel for its policies and actions, including those that led to the creation of the state of Israel, is not per se illegitimate or antisemitic.” And “Paying disproportionate attention to Israel and treating Israel differently than other countries is not prima facie proof of antisemitism.”

Only Israel. Not Iran. Not Russia. Not China. Not North Korea.

This legislation recognizes that anti-Israel sentiment crosses the line into antisemitism when it employs double standards, delegitimizes Israel’s right to exist and applies stereotypes rooted in prejudice.

The Antisemitism Awareness Act’s focus on education is particularly vital. College campuses, as centers of learning, have a responsibility to foster an environment free from discrimination. By raising awareness about the nuances of antisemitism and distinguishing it from legitimate criticism, the act equips students, educators and administrators with the knowledge needed to combat hatred effectively. We at EMET have been working very hard for very long on Capitol Hill to find courageous voices that are willing to take this mission on, and EMET is profoundly proud of Lawler and Torres for their initiative and resolve to fight antisemitism.

Some critics have argued that the act infringes upon free speech. However, it is important to emphasize that the act is not intended to stifle legitimate debate or silence differing opinions about any particular policy regarding the State of Israel, just its very creation and existence. Rather, it aims to counteract the spread of hate speech and discrimination, which hinder open and constructive dialogue, and seeks to end the meaningless debate over the very existence and creation of the State of Israel.

Opponents of the act may also claim that it favors a specific political perspective. However, the act is not about advancing any particular viewpoint. It is about safeguarding the rights and well-being of Jewish students who deserve to live without fear of discrimination or harassment. It is about upholding the values of tolerance, respect and equality that our society should hold dear.

The rise of antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiment on college campuses is a deeply troubling trend that we cannot afford to ignore. The act presents a clear and effective path forward, one that empowers us to tackle this issue head-on. By raising awareness, educating communities, and distinguishing between legitimate discourse and hate speech, the act ensures that our campuses remain spaces of enlightenment, devoid of discrimination.

The introduction of the bill is only a first step. There is much more work needed to be done to ensure turning it into law and making sure that universities are following it. As we navigate the complexities of the modern world, let us remember the lessons of history and stand united against hatred. Let us embrace the Antisemitism Awareness Act as a crucial step towards fostering a society where all individuals can thrive, regardless of their ethnic or religious background or beliefs. The fight against antisemitism is a collective responsibility, and it is imperative that we address it with the urgency and commitment it demands—to fight this malignant rot within American society.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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