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Gov. Holcomb needs to veto Indiana’s flawed antisemitism bill

Antisemites shouldn’t get to define what antisemitism is.

Eric Holcomb is inaugurated to a second term as the 51st governor of Indiana, alongside his wife, Janet Holcomb, on Jan. 11, 2021. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Eric Holcomb is inaugurated to a second term as the 51st governor of Indiana, alongside his wife, Janet Holcomb, on Jan. 11, 2021. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Melissa Langsam Braunstein
Melissa Langsam Braunstein
Melissa Langsam Braunstein is an independent writer in metro Washington, D.C.

Indiana’s legislature finalized a bill last week to address antisemitism in educational settings that now awaits the governor’s signature. The only catch? It’s fatally flawed.

House Bill 1002 builds on legislative work that began during the last legislative session, adding a definition of antisemitism to Indiana’s state code relating to education. That shouldn’t be controversial, but it’s telling that it has been, with critics charging the bill would chill free speech. Mark Goldfeder, director of the National Jewish Advocacy Center, responded, “This is a bill about providing equal opportunities in education. To think this would infringe on speech is just ludicrous.”

To resolve the controversy, legislators modified the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA)’s working definition of antisemitism, jettisoning its 11 examples of antisemitism, which give crucial specificity and clarity to the definition.

The examples were erased because they rankle Israel’s enemies by including examples of anti-Zionist antisemitism, such as “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.” As the explosion of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish incidents at North American colleges after Oct. 7 underscored, such examples are acutely relevant to recognizing campus antisemitism. Jewish students and faculty face discrimination, harassment and even assault justified with the language of anti-Zionist antisemitism. Without a clear definition, campus administrators may misread or dismiss antisemitic incidents as political disputes.

“By removing the examples from the definition, the bill lacks the language necessary to fully understand how antisemitism manifests today, as well as the tools to actively combat hatred and prejudice,” said Sarah van Loon, the American Jewish Committee’s Chicago regional director.

Esther Panitch, the only Jew in Georgia’s General Assembly and one of two state representatives who led the passage of Georgia’s new legislation defining antisemitism, was similarly troubled. “This bill is worse than none at all,” she said.

Panitch also pointed to the involvement of organizations at odds with the Jewish community, saying she has “no idea” why such groups “get a say in how to define antisemitism. Would the KKK be invited to weigh in on civil-rights legislation?”

She continued, “Jews in Indiana who consider themselves Zionists (worldwide around 90%) now need to be concerned that being attacked for supporting Israel will leave them unprotected because the examples were explicitly rejected.”

Goldfeder said “it is great that members of the legislature believe that the examples in the IHRA definition are incorporated by reference, and I agree that they should be, but as you can clearly see already from the statements already being made by opponents of the bill thanking the legislature for removing the examples, there is just too much ambiguity for this bill to be passed into law.”

He added, “The opponents of this bill like it because they believe that it will allow them, with the blessing of the Indiana legislature, to continue targeting Jewish people for a real or perceived connection to the State of Israel and pretending it is not antisemitism, only politics.”

That should certainly set off alarm bells. Van Loon noted that “the fact that groups that call for the elimination of the world’s only Jewish state are praising the removal of the IHRA working definition from this bill is doubly troubling and should be cause for concern.”

Only 13 states have passed bills defining antisemitism to date, meaning many more could still do so. But if Indiana’s bill becomes law, it could set what van Loon calls “a dangerous precedent.” After all, if Indiana state lawmakers can reconfigure the IHRA definition, why wouldn’t legislators elsewhere?

“The first rule in legislating should be ‘do no harm,’ and this bill potentially does great harm to the cause of protecting Jewish people,” said Goldfeder. “The only responsible action at this time would be for the governor to immediately veto this bill and either pass an executive order doing it right, with the IHRA examples explicitly included, or simply wait for the legislature to try again next year without making any compromises.”

He is not alone. Panitch hopes that “the governor vetoes this legislation.”

Kenneth L. Marcus, founder and chairman of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law and former assistant U.S. secretary of education for civil rights, said much the same: “If I were the governor, I would probably veto the bill and send it back to the legislature to get it done right. Alternatively, a strong executive order would be preferable to a weak bill.”

Indiana’s chief law-enforcement officer, Attorney General Todd Rokita, agreed, saying “the governor should veto this compromised bill to show he understands that regular Hoosiers won’t compromise with Jew-hating bigots.”

The legislative process clearly failed to produce the right bill. Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb can still help Jewish Hoosiers, though. Governor, veto this bill. It’s time for a mulligan.

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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