Antisemitism? You know it when you see it

Congress’ Antisemitism Awareness Act attempts to define discrimination against Jews.

3 mins read
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During its March 19, 2024, meeting, the Pasadena City Council heard nearly 200 comments about its proposed Declaration on the Middle East. The declaration included a cease-fire, the release of all hostages, a condemnation of war and an urging of peace. Even though the city has no official impact on US policy, the resolution was passed.

Now as the 118th Congress reverberates with the ongoing student unrest and protests at college campuses across the nation, these “educational” disruptions were enough to pry H.R. 9060 (introduced on October 27, 2023, after the October 7 attack by Hamas on Israel) from the House Committee on the Judiciary establishing a broader definition of antisemitism.

The law, bouncing around Capitol Hill in various forms since 2016, ostensibly is designed to help the Department of Education enforce anti-discrimination laws, creating a pathway to remove federal funding from offenders. But detractors say the bill could also have other far-reaching implications, especially for free speech and academic freedom.

Title VI, 42 U.S.C. § 2000d et seq., was enacted as part of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. It prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin in programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance.

The proposed law would codify the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism in Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a federal anti-discrimination law that bars discrimination based on shared ancestry, ethnic characteristics or national origin.

Currently, the adoption of this definition exists as a Donald Trump-issued executive order, never rescinded, directing the government to use the IHRA definition when enforcing civil rights law on college campuses. Writing the definition into law would cement it.

The IHRA statement (of the non-legally binding definition):

Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

A counter-proposition definition was also developed by the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism (JDA), which calls its definition:

A tool to identify, confront and raise awareness about antisemitism as it manifests in countries around the world today. It includes a preambledefinition, and a set of 15 guidelines that provide detailed guidance for those seeking to recognize antisemitism in order to craft responses.”

The JDA “tool” offers a definition of antisemitism that recognizes the importance of protecting advocates for Palestinian human rights from accusations of antisemitism when criticizing Israel, not a favorite viewpoint for some Jews.

While both the IHRA and JDA definitions are used, they are equally criticized for impairing free speech. Enacting H.R. 9060 means the definition could have constitutional consequences.

“Supporting free speech and the contest of ideas is fundamental to the mission of educational institutions,” says Pasadena City College Trustee Tammy Silver, Area 4.

“Having speakers and even demonstrations and protests on campuses is right and proper on college campuses. However, when it crosses over into menacing fellow students, faculty and staff, the protests have gone too far. We talk about the lived experiences of minoritized communities and that we should listen to their words and respect their perspectives.

“When Jewish students and faculty are telling you that the rhetoric used by the protesters is frightening, when they tell you that they are scared and threatened, why don’t we believe them? We must protect our Jewish students and staff as we would any other group. Not to shut down free speech but to extend equal treatment to this group as we would any other.”

We contacted local psychotherapist Gina Ross, MFCT, an expert on antisemitism and founder and president of the International Trauma Institute. She is the author of seven books on trauma and a frequent contributor to the Jerusalem Post and Jewish News Service.

“This Jewish catastrophe has opened the world’s eyes, forcing it to confront the danger facing it. Jews are the canary in the coal mine, indicating an immediate danger for all. The West is astounded to see the moral damage their universities have unleashed upon their students. They finally recognize that virulent antisemitism makes Jewish students feel physically unsafe. More devastating is the moral turpitude of the country’s elite faculty and students. They find raping women, killing babies, decapitating, and burning people alive is justifiable. Through this law, Congress is trying to address this revulsive lack of moral clarity. It is a complex fight that involves the West, not just the Jews.”

Ross further commented, “Arab countries, too, realize how this massacre and a possible ensuing war threaten their own security if Israel does not destroy Hamas. They need a strong Israel and are discreetly trying to defuse the tension, sending signals for connection with Israel despite fearing the Arab Street.  The massacre has also brought into focus the role of misguided or ideological media promoting misinformation and fueling violence.”   

President Biden expounded in his May 7 speech to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum Annual Days of Remembrance ceremony, “We know hate never goes away. It only hides and, given a little oxygen, comes out from under the rocks. We also know what stops hate. It’s one thing. All of us.”

The bill now goes to an uncertain fate in the Senate.

We can’t help but recall that Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously explained the definition of what is considered “obscene” in 1964. Stewart said that the “average person, applying contemporary community standards” would define it as “I know it when I see it.”

Perhaps codifying a definition of antisemitism may actually be as simple as Justice Stewart’s contemporary community standards test regarding obscenity.

“I know it when I see it.”

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Sheryl Turner

Sheryl is Local News Pasadena's Publisher and Pasadena Media Foundation's Founder. When not saving local news, she devotes her spare time to finding the best meatloaf in town.
Email: [email protected]

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