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The Antisemitism Awareness Act is a big problem

Good intentions can produce bad legislation

The chamber of the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C. Associated Press/Photo by J Scott Applewhite

The Antisemitism Awareness Act is a big problem

When it comes to legislation, good intentions are not enough. With a huge bipartisan majority, the House of Representatives passed the Antisemitism Awareness Act last week and sent the bill to the Senate. There is no reason to doubt that the bill was passed with good intentions, especially among the conservatives in Congress who have bravely supported Israel and opposed anti-Semitism. The bill was presented as a serious effort to stem the tide of virulent antisemitism that has become all too evident in recent campus protests and public discussion.

Republican support for the bill was overwhelming, with 187 members voting for the bill and only 21 voting against it. On the Democratic side the support was less enthusiastic, with 91 voting yes and 70 voting no. Why the disparity?

Well, the main concern of the Democrats who voted against the bill was likely to stay out of the way of campus protests. The activist vote among the students will make a crucial difference in Democratic prospects in November. Furthermore, the Democrats are scared to death to be seen on the wrong side of the progressivist view of history. They are more afraid of leftist outrage than charges of being soft on anti-Semitism. An even larger number of Democrats may well have been driven by concerns about limitations on free speech. Those concerns are not without justification, even as some cite free speech as a cover for defending anti-Semitic threats.

Almost immediately, however, concerns arose on the conservative side. The bill is intended to oppose anti-Semitism and to threaten academic institutions with possible investigations and sanctions from the Department of Education if speech defined as anti-Semitic is allowed. Clearly, one looming danger is that the left will use the bill to shut down conservative speech and conservative arguments—even some arguments in support of Israel—as the law takes on a life of its own in the hands of the administrative state.

Concerns about hate speech legislation are not based in any support for hateful speech, but in the concern that an aggressive government will use any such law to its own ends. Just imagine what an activist judiciary, fueled by passion for restricting conservative speech, could do with such a law—or how campus authorities might manipulate the language. Anti-Semitism, one of the most odious hatreds known to humanity, must be confronted and fully exposed. But is this legislation the right way to do it?

The next problem is the legislative definition of anti-Semitism. Rather than invent new language, the bill’s authors borrowed the definition offered by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). That definition, introduced as a “non-legally binding working definition of antisemitism,” is this: “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 property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.” Jewish or non-Jewish? May be expressed? A certain perception of Jews? This definition is a total mess, even if the intentions behind it were morally justified. The IHRA went on to offer several “illustrations” intended to make the definition clear. One of the illustrations is this: “Using the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism (e.g., claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis.”

Orthodox Biblical Christianity—even the simple preaching of the gospel—could be directly targeted by this kind of language.

Well, Christians know that some of this language has been used throughout history in an anti-Semitic context. At the same time, orthodox Biblical Christianity—even the simple preaching of the gospel—could be directly targeted by this kind of language. For that matter, by this loose logic the entire New Testament can be targeted as hate speech—just start with the Gospel of John. It’s almost as if this definition had been constructed to serve the ends of liberal theology. It will be even more dangerous in the hands of modern secularists.

Conservative activist Ben Shapiro has come out against the bill, noting massive problems with the definition of anti-Semitism. His concerns are both accurate and honest, and powerful coming from a prominent Jewish voice.

Yoram Hazony, one of the most important Jewish intellectuals of our times, posted on Twitter/X, “Anything that relies on the confused IHRA definition of anti-Semitism is a problem.” I especially appreciate one of his posts from 2022, when he stated: “Orthodox religious traditions—Christian and Jewish—are the only things that will survive the blast furnace of ongoing cultural revolution. Make sure you’re on the right side of this struggle.” He truly understands what is at stake.

Once again, I do not doubt the intentions of the conservative lawmakers who offered and voted for this bill. Their intentions must be our intentions—to confront and expose and oppose all forms of antisemitism and to express our love for the Jewish people and Israel. We rightly express our outrage and call upon university leaders and law enforcement authorities to protect all students and to provide a respectful learning context for all. They must call out anti-Semitism and deal with it, enforcing student rules of conduct. So many academic and political leaders have been spectacular failures in this respect.

But, despite good intentions, the actual language of this legislation is dangerous. It’s borrowed definition of anti-Semitism is deeply flawed. I fear that this bill, put in the hands of liberal academic administrators and progressivist judges, will escape the good intentions of its authors. At that point, those good intentions won’t be enough.

R. Albert Mohler Jr.

Albert Mohler is president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Boyce College and editor of WORLD Opinions. He is also the host of The Briefing and Thinking in Public. He is the author of several books, including The Gathering Storm: Secularism, Culture, and the Church. He is the seminary’s Centennial Professor of Christian Thought and a minister, having served as pastor and staff minister of several Southern Baptist churches.

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