Co-Sponsor of House Antisemitism Act Rejects Claim Legislation Will ‘Diminish, Infringe’ on First Amendment Rights
A congressional bill advancing the fight against antisemitism on college campuses will not “diminish or infringe on” First Amendment rights, a spokesman for a co-sponsor of the motion recently introduced in the US House of Representatives told The Algemeiner on Wednesday.
Roy Loewenstein, press secretary for Congresswoman Nita Lowey (D-NY), was responding to backlash directed at the bipartisan Antisemitism Awareness Act of 2016, which calls for the Department of Education to take into consideration the definition of antisemitism as set forth by the State Department and its Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism, which has been criticized by anti-Israel activists due to its inclusion of certain forms of anti-Israel activity.
An identical motion, as The Algemeiner reported, was unanimously passed by the Senate last week.
According to the bill:
Awareness of this definition of antisemitism will increase understanding of the parameters of contemporary anti-Jewish conduct and will assist the Department of Education in determining whether an investigation of antisemitism under Title VI [of the Civil Rights Act of 1964] is warranted.
Several anti-Israel and left-wing groups — such as Palestine Legal, Open Hillel and the ACLU — allege that the language of the legislation relating to Israel is vague and would encourage the Department of Education to investigate criticism of Israel as though it constituted antisemitism.
Loewenstein told The Algemeiner that the bill is carefully worded to uphold free-speech rights, with the text spelling out the constitutional protections afforded by the motion.
“The legislation does not impact the thorough process by which the Department of Education decides to investigate a discrimination case,” he said. “If the Department of Education makes a determination to investigate an incident, the legislation instructs it to take into consideration the State Department’s comprehensive definition of antisemitism in order to fully understand the nature of the incident and what motivations were behind it.”
The main goal of the act, Loewenstein told The Algemeiner, is to “provide the Department of Education with additional tools in order to better monitor, track and ultimately combat incidents of antisemitism on campus.”
Meanwhile, Jewish-rights and Israel-advocacy groups praised the Antisemitism Awareness Act as a major step forward in combating increasing Jew-hatred on college campuses, which the bill calls a “persistent, disturbing problem.”
“This legislation is crucial to ensuring that the rights of Jewish students to a safe and welcoming campus environment are fully protected under Title VI,” said officials from the Zionist Organization of America. “With this legislation, the Department of Education will have to take into account all the forms of antisemitism that Jewish students are being subjected to, including the antisemitism that is expressed as anti-Israelism and anti-Zionism.”
Campus watchdog group AMCHA Initiative said the acceptance of the State Department definition is important because it “encapsulates the way antisemitism presents itself on campus today, including those acts that cross the line from criticism of Israel into blatant antisemitism, and having the Department of Education begin using it is long overdue.”
According to B’nai Brith International, the act “comes at a time when antisemitism has been at an all-time high in the US” and will “help education officials better understand what is defined as antisemitic.”
Sarah Stern, founder and president of the think-tank Endowment for Middle East Truth, said, “For far too long, our Jewish students have been bullied, harassed and threatened simply for showing their support for the state of Israel. Finally, there is legislation which calls on the Department of Education to recognize these attacks as antisemitic and act accordingly.”
Experts believe the Antisemitism Awareness Act will likely have major implications for how universities respond to Jew-hatred on their campuses. In a recent interview with The Algemeiner, the head of a Jewish human rights organization said that the bill will have a “ripple effect” on educational institutions, as “the general counsel [at every university] will need to advise the administration on this new federal guidance [and] university policy will need to be revised to reflect it.”
The Antisemitism Awareness Act was introduced to the House on Friday by Reps. Peter Roskam (R-IL) and Ted Deutch (D-FL) and is co-sponsored, along with Lowey, by senior House members Reps. Eliot Engel (D-NY), Steven Israel (D-NY) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL).
— Rachel Frommer contributed to this report.