Anti-Semitism Awareness Act: Senate Bill Criminalizes Criticism of Israel

I attended the funeral of a man named Ahmed just a few days after I had arrived in Palestine. It took place in the El Ain refugee camp on the outskirts of Nablus. The day before, Ahmed had been praying in the camp mosque, and when he emerged from the mosque, Israeli soldiers shouted at him to stop where he was. But Ahmed, who was mentally handicapped, did not understand, and, becoming confused, he did not comply. The soldiers responded by shooting him four times, once in the chest and three times in the stomach.

Two months later, on one of my last days in Palestine, I watched as an Israeli sniper team commandeered the house of a Palestinian family in Hebron. The soldiers climbed onto the roof of the house, and waited, their trigger fingers itchy, for over an hour, until they found a suitable target. Two Palestinian teens were milling around on the roof of a building about two hundred meters away. The teens were not doing anything of note, but after twenty minutes one of them picked up a stone and languidly threw it off the building.  There were clashes nearby at the time. The team immediately went into action and cut him down, shooting him in the leg. The soldiers celebrated, clapping each other on the shoulder, even mocking their hapless victim.

Both of these incidents constituted heinous crimes, and I felt the world deserved to know about what was occurring in the Occupied Territories. And so I wrote and published articles about these and many other crimes that the Israeli authorities have committed and continue to commit. Do my actions make me an anti-Semite? According to the US State Department definition of anti-Semitism, they do.

Post-Election Incidents in the US

In the United States the number of incidents of harassment and intimidation has spiked sharply in the weeks following the election victory of Donald Trump. Spurred on by the hateful and divisive rhetoric of his campaign, many Americans have been emboldened to act on their racist, misogynistic and xenophobic sentiments. According to data supplied by the Southern Poverty Law Center, 867 such incidents were reported in the ten days following the election.[1]

While the large majority of these incidents were not serious enough to merit criminal investigation, they are nevertheless important to study, as their number is a barometer of the country’s attitudes.

No group seems to be immune to the Trump-fueled venom. While the plurality of the incidents has been directed at immigrants (32%), other groups have not emerged unscathed. Blacks (22%), Jews (12%), members of the LGBTQ community (11%), and Muslims (6%) have also been targeted.

The Anti-Semitism Awareness Act

On Thursday, December 1, the US Senate decided to act­­–but only to protect Jewish targets of hatred–by passing the so-called Anti-Semitism Awareness Act. Proposed by Senators Robert Casey and Tim Scott, both of whom have received substantial funding from pro-Israel lobby groups,[2] the legislation tackles anti-Semitism on university campuses. A statement on Casey’s website reads:

“It is incredibly important that we work together to stamp out anti-Semitism and other forms of religious discrimination across our country.”[3]

The senators claim that the Department of Education has been hampered in its efforts to combat anti-Semitism partly because it is lacking an understanding of what precisely constitutes anti-Semitism. The legislation attempts to rectify this problem by codifying the so-called State Department definition.

The State Department Definition of Anti-Semitism

On its website the State Department states that:

“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.”[4]

This definition is relatively standard and uncontroversial. However, the State Department ventures into dangerous territory by adding several paragraphs dealing with examples of anti-Semitism in relation to the state of Israel. It includes the so-called 3 D’s – demonizing Israel, double standards applied to Israel, and delegitimizing Israel.

The definition is similar to one that was adopted by the European Union Monitoring Centre (EMUC) following intensive Israeli lobbying efforts. It was, however, heavily criticized and subsequently discarded by the EMUC in 2013.

Conflating anti-Semitism with criticism of the State of Israel, is extremely problematic. Many nations, including the United States and Israel, sometimes engage in criminal or immoral behavior and need to be censured for it. The ability to criticize a state’s actions is a crucial and necessary element of any thriving democracy. In this country it is also protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution.

Perhaps realizing the outrageousness of its definition, the State Department includes, seemingly as an after-thought, a short sentence at the very bottom of the page.

“However, criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic.”

These considerations echo the sentiments of New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who wrote in 2002 that “criticizing Israel is not anti-Semitic, and saying so is vile. But singling out Israel for opprobrium and international sanction — out of all proportion to any other party in the Middle East — is anti-Semitic, and not saying so is dishonest.”[5]

Scholar Noam Chomsky disagrees with this assessment. Responding to a question about linking anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, he said that the former “is not a form of anti-Semitism. It’s simply criticism of the criminal actions of a state, period.”[6]

Anti-Semitism is clearly still a major problem in the United States and beyond. One can easily imagine that a true anti-Semite might find criticism of Israel to be a more socially acceptable outlet for his anti-Jewish feelings, but it is an enormous leap in logic to conclude the converse, that a critic of Israel must be an anti-Semite. But that is what the codification of the State Department definition of anti-Semitism does. The legislation seeks to punish those who seek to call Israel to account for its behavior on the assumption that it is a manifestation of anti-Semitism, when that can be far from being the case.

Why Now?

The reasons for the timing of the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act are clear. Opinion polls show that while most Americans still tend to sympathize much more with Israel than they do the Palestinians, the gap has become significantly smaller in recent times, especially after the 2014 Israeli assault on Gaza, in which over 2,000 Palestinians, most of whom were civilians, including women and children, lost their lives.[7]  Together with the recent successes of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement on university campuses and beyond, the trend has pro-Israeli forces extremely worried, especially about the hearts and minds of young Americans, who, according to the polls, exhibit greater pro-Palestinian tendencies. While Israel has taken the battle against BDS to state legislatures, where at least twenty-two states have passed or considered anti-BDS laws,[8] the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act is an offensive specifically aimed at the younger generation.

The Effects of the Bill

The legislation was passed unanimously by the Senate, and it is unclear what will happen if it is approved by the House of Representatives and signed into law by the president.

Palestine Legal, an organization devoted to protecting the rights of those who speak out on Palestinian issues in the US, states that criticism of Israel on campuses is protected under the First Amendment, and that the Department of Education has ruled in at least three separate cases to that effect.[9] But the law is a powerful deterrent, regardless of how effectively it can be used to prosecute offenders. What the lobby wants most is to stifle debate about Israel. The hope is that the fear of legal repercussions will prevent legitimate critics of Israel from raising their voices.

The election of Donald Trump has had many negative consequences for supporters of the Palestinian cause. In Palestine it has raised fears that Israeli authorities will agitate for the annexation of some parts of the West Bank, which would sound the death knell of a Palestinian state.[10] In the US the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) similarly has withdrawn its support for a Palestinian state, dropping language dealing with the two-state solution from its website.[11] Anti-BDS laws are being introduced in state legislatures, and now the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act is threatening to silence all criticism of Israel.

These are dangerous times on many fronts for all those who seek a fair solution for the Palestinians, and it is important that the battle for justice continue to be fought as vigilantly as ever in the face of these obstacles.


[1] https://www.splcenter.org/20161129/ten-days-after-harassment-and-intimidation-aftermath-election

[2] http://maplight.org/us-congress/interest/J5100/view/all

[3] https://www.casey.senate.gov/newsroom/releases/with-attacks-on-the-rise-sens-casey-and-scott-introduce-bipartisan-anti-semitism-awareness-act

[4] http://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/fs/2010/122352.htm

[5] http://www.nytimes.com/2002/10/16/opinion/campus-hypocrisy.html

[6] https://www.democracynow.org/2014/11/27/noam_chomsky_at_united_nations_it

[7] http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/05/23/5-facts-about-how-americans-view-the-israeli-palestinian-conflict/

[8] http://mondoweiss.net/2016/11/bullard-opposed-measure/

[9] https://static1.squarespace.com/static/548748b1e4b083fc03ebf70e/t/56e6ff0cf85082699ae245b1/1457979151629/FAQ+onDefinition+of+Anti-Semitism-3-9-15+newlogo.pdf

[10] http://www.wsj.com/articles/trump-victory-spurs-israeli-talk-of-west-bank-annexation-1481106608

[11] https://electronicintifada.net/blogs/ali-abunimah/will-trump-help-israel-annex-west-bank

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Richard Hardigan is a university professor based in California. He is currently writing a book entitled “The Other Side of the Wall” based on his experience in the Occupied Territories. His website is http://richardhardigan123.wixsite.com/mysite. You can follow him on Twitter at @RichardHardigan.

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