According to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), anti-Semitic acts in the United States have skyrocketed, doubling from 2015 to 2018 (1,879 incidents). The high-profile anti-Semitic violence in New York during the summer is an indicator that things may be getting even worse.
To counter this disturbing chain of events, two states, South Carolina and Florida, have recently passed laws that define and accordingly regulate anti-Semitic crime and discrimination in the state’s public education system. These laws are critical in stemming the rising trend of anti-Semitic incidents throughout the United States.
This legislation uses a definition of anti-Semitism similar to that of the U.S. Departments of State and Education and the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. A consistent and comprehensive definition is critical to success in these efforts, encompassing not only the age-old demonization of Jews but also the more contemporary anti-Israel diatribes, including delegitimizing Israel and/or holding Israel to a double standard.
It is crucial to note that the authors do not define criticism of Israel to be anti-Semitic, as long as the criticism is similar to that leveled against other countries.
These state laws use the agreed upon definition of anti-Semitism to target one particular environment where such incidents are most prevalent: public schools and universities.
State laws defining and combating anti-Semitism close an often-exploited loophole whereby anti-Israel expressions are used to convey an anti-Jewish message. The ever-present dilemma faced by university presidents is whether to acknowledge anti-Semitism or downplay it as a matter of protected criticism of Israel.
Too often, the subjective whims and self-interests of university administrations become operative factors. Sadly, the majority of cases are thus swept under the table, with no actions taken to penalize the offenders and stop such events from reoccurring, and eventually leading to an atmosphere of fear, intimidation and harassment for Jewish students.
Pro-Israel groups throughout the country are demanding that universities and state governments adopt better definitional tools for addressing anti-Semitic crime and discrimination.
Florida and South Carolina have decided to take legislative action to define anti-Semitism, thereby protecting students and sending a strong message of public policy and moral clarity.
Of course, anti-Semitism is a nation-wide phenomenon, and such laws are needed as soon as possible in other states as well.
For instance, a complaint was made to the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights against UCLA in California for hosting the Students for Justice in Palestine national conference, in which anti-Semitic statements and activities occurred, creating a hostile atmosphere for Jewish and pro-Israel students. The lack of the state’s preparedness to deal with such an urgent problem highlights the wisdom of Florida and South Carolina’s proactive approach.
K-12 grade schools are by no means immune to the specter of anti-Semitism. There was a recent high-profile case in California where an ethnic-studies K-12 curriculum was submitted with a strong anti-Israel bias. In this case, public uproar caused the curriculum to be rejected. Nonetheless, such instances have occurred in a variety of states’ school districts in the past years, and without strong state laws in place, the ability to defeat such measures is much more difficult than it needs to be.
To make matters even more complicated, pro-Palestinian and certain anti-Semitic groups on campus are suspected of being funded by foreign sources. A court case in Texas is now aimed at determining whether the tens of millions of dollars that Qatar has transferred to Texas A&M are being used to finance anti-Semitic/anti-Israel groups on campus. State anti-Semitism laws would provide additional tools to stop foreign governments from supporting campus activity that threatens student safety and rights.
Anti-Semitism, whether home-grown or imported from abroad, is an age-old scourge. The more tools that states and universities have available to combat it, the more able we will all be to study, work and simply live in environments free of discrimination and intimidation.
Ron Machol is the Chief Operating Officer of Zachor Legal Institute.