An anti-Semitism bill roils the right | WORLD
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An anti-Semitism bill roils the right

The delicate balance of rights and responsibilities sparks a big debate

Israel supporters counter-protest outside a makeshift protest camp on the UCLA campus on April 26. Associated Press/Photo by Damian Dovarganes

An anti-Semitism bill roils the right
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The protests and encampments currently roiling America’s college campuses are putting two important questions front-and-center: First, what is the line between legitimate disagreement with the State of Israel’s policies and illegitimate anti-Semitism? Second, what role or responsibility do mainstream institutions have when confronted with anti-Semitic speech, which many would call hate speech?

Those questions were at the center of a debate on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, as Congress considers a bill to define “anti-Semitism” for purposes of Title VI, the federal statute barring taxpayer funding from educational institutions that engage in discrimination, including anti-Semitism.

On the one side, advocates for the bill see it as an important statement in response to the meltdowns on university lawns. “The antisemitic displays we’ve seen across our nation, and especially on college campuses, are absolutely detestable and should be denounced at every turn. Approving this bill is the right response,” said Brent Leatherwood of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. Proponents like Family Research Council’s Travis Weber also argue that the bill is important to provide legal clarity so that Congress rather than judges or unelected bureaucrats are deciding the meaning of statutory terms like “anti-Semitism.” They point out that President Trump promulgated a similar definition for anti-Semitism in his 2019 executive order directing agencies’ interpretation of Title VI.

At the same time, opponents of the bill have raised several weighty objections to the definition of anti-Semitism as it is defined by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. The bill’s language explicitly relies upon this organization’s broad definition of anti-Semitism that could verge into questions of viewpoint restrictions that run afoul of the First Amendment. For example, some argue that the theological view of some Christians regarding Jews’ collective and intergenerational responsibility for Christ’s crucifixion would be defined as anti-Semitism under the bill.

Prominent religious freedom advocates, including frequent World Opinions contributor Kristen Waggoner of the Alliance Defending Freedom, fear that a bill against so-called “hate speech” could lay the groundwork for future legislation on “hate speech” against LGBTQ persons. She writes on X: “We’ve seen the consequences of vague hate speech bills in places like Europe, however, where governments have weaponized legislation to jail individuals for viewpoints they don’t like. Those laws have repeatedly been weaponized against ADF clients around the world.”

The bill says that it shall not be interpreted to infringe on the First Amendment, but that’s a promise that can only be tested in court after someone challenges it.

Professor Robert George of Princeton University echoed this theme in his own X post, writing: “It does not help those of us who are calling out anti-Semitism on campuses and pushing back against this vile form of bigotry more broadly for legislators to enact laws placing viewpoint-based restrictions on speech.” The bill says that it shall not be interpreted to infringe on the First Amendment, but that’s a promise that can only be tested in court after someone challenges it. Putting such lofty aspirations in the text of the bill means nothing until the provisions within the statute are weighed against the First Amendment.

It's important to remember that the bill does not directly regulate or censor speech. It expands upon or clarifies existing rules for what educational institutions qualify for federal funds. No one should go to jail for engaging in anti-Semitic speech. Furthermore, the same concerns that Waggoner and George raise are just as present anyway. One could easily imagine a future Congress saying that no educational institutions that permit “anti-LGBTQ hate speech” can receive federal funds, cutting off all orthodox Christian colleges. But the government has traditionally enjoyed greater flexibility on what it chooses to subsidize than on what it chooses to criminalize.

In all of this, one feels bad for House Speaker Mike Johnson. The man had a brutal month trying to hold together a fractious caucus through the votes on Israel and Ukraine aid. He’s staring down a motion to vacate from two rebels within his conference as he hangs on by a one-vote majority. The campus unrest thus far has been a gift to Republicans. It puts Democrats in a bind as they choose between the hard-left activist wing of their base and their traditional strong support among American Jewry. As one friend joked recently, President Biden supports a two-state solution for the Middle East: Minnesota and Michigan (the two swing states with large Arab-American populations). A vote on the Antisemitism Awareness Act should have been a chance to rally Republicans around a unifying theme and an 80-20 issue. Instead, it has started blowing up in his face and creating division within the conservative movement between those who prioritize free speech and those who prioritize Israel.

For now, the bill heads to the Senate, which could clarify some of these issues through amendments. Though the right may not see the bill exactly the same, our movement stands united against anti-Semitism and for safety and sanity on campus.

Daniel R. Suhr

Daniel R. Suhr is an attorney who fights for freedom in courts across America. He has worked as a senior adviser for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, as a law clerk for Judge Diane Sykes of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, and at the national headquarters of the Federalist Society. He is a member of Christ Church Mequon. He is an Eagle Scout, and he loves spending time with his wife Anna and their two sons, Will and Graham, at their home near Milwaukee.

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