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November 28, 2017 12:23 pm

Why a Florida Village Defined Antisemitism

avatar by Aviva Vogelstein


The Village Council of Bal Harbour, Fla., meets on Nov. 21, when the council adopted the State Department’s definition of antisemitism. Photo: Village of Bal Harbour.

Last week, the Bal Harbour Village Council took a tremendous step forward in the fight against antisemitism: under the leadership of Mayor Gabriel Groisman, the Council voted 5-0 in favor of the “Anti-Semitism Definition Act.”

I had the honor of testifying in support of this important ordinance, which seeks to provide Bal Harbour’s law enforcement officials with a uniform definition of antisemitism. Such a definition would help them evaluate possible antisemitic intent behind criminal offenses, ensuring appropriate treatment of such incidents. If the ordinance passes its second reading in December, Bal Harbour will be the first government body in the country to adopt such legislation.

“This fight is important not only for the Jewish community but for the entire American community at large — as hate breeds hate, and we cannot stand still and allow intolerance to threaten our society,” said Mayor Groisman.

Bal Harbour is also a leader in anti-BDS legislation. Nearly two years ago, Bal Harbour became the country’s first municipality to pass an anti-BDS ordinance. At the time, only two states had passed anti-BDS measures. Now, an estimated three dozen cities and 24 states have passed similar bills.

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Antisemitism is unfortunately on the rise. The Anti-Defamation League recorded 1,299 antisemitic incidents in the first three quarters of 2017, a glaring 67% increase from the 779 in the same period last year. In Florida, the ADL recorded 137 antisemitic incidents in 2016, with South Florida — where Bal Harbour is located — having the highest percentage.

In October, a Naples Chabad was burglarized, trashed and defaced with antisemitic graffiti. Reportedly, someone had drawn a swastika and written on a window in red lipstick “! YOU JEWS NEVER! LEARN!! HEIL HITLER!” In January, “BDS” was spray-painted in front of Jewish-owned businesses in Miami.

Including the US State Department’s definition in Bal Harbour’s Code would be an important tool for law enforcement. Law enforcement concerns were crucial to developing the European Union Monitoring Committee’s International Working Definition of Anti-Semitism, upon which the State Department and International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definitions are based.

The UK College of Policing adopted the definition in its “Hate Crime Operational Guidance.” A 2017 European Parliament Resolution called for adopting the definition in supporting law enforcement efforts to identify and prosecute antisemitic attacks more efficiently and effectively. The Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights included the full IHRA definition in its 2017 guide, “Understanding Anti-Semitic Hate Crimes and Addressing the Security Needs of Jewish Communities.”

Valid monitoring, informed analysis and effective policymaking start with uniform definitions. Uniform definitions are especially important for antisemitism, because much confusion clouds the line between antisemitism and legitimate criticism of Israel. Bal Harbour’s initiative — and other similar federal and state bills that have been introduced — seek to apply the State Department’s widely-established definition of antisemitism domestically. Under the State Department definition, anti-Zionism crosses the line into antisemitism if one seeks to demonize Israel, delegitimize Israel’s right to exist, or hold Israel to a double-standard by demanding behavior not expected of any other democratic nation.

The definition importantly notes, “Criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic.” Former State Department Special Envoy to Monitor & Combat Anti-Semitism, Ira Forman, explained, “It is especially important to define anti-Semitism clearly to more effectively combat it.”

Federal bipartisan legislation incorporating the State Department’s definition of antisemitism unanimously passed the Senate in December 2016. Although the House did not have time to vote before the winter recess, the House Judiciary Committee recently held a hearing on the bill, and it is expected to be re-introduced. In the states, South Carolina is expected to be the first state to pass similar legislation soon. The Louis D. Brandeis Center has been working to educate lawmakers about the importance of defining antisemitism and has testified in support of several state bills.

None of these bills burden free speech. Rather, they provide a uniform tool for ascertaining intent, similar to the use of confessions in criminal proceedings. The point is not to penalize or restrict antisemitic speech, which is typically protected by the First Amendment and should not be curbed. However, antisemitic activities may violate the law, such as when they involve vandalism or physical assault. This conduct should be addressed in a manner consistent with law enforcement policies.

Mayor Groisman and the Bal Harbour Village Council deserve tremendous praise for their support of this vital ordinance.

Aviva Vogelstein is the Director of Legal Initiatives at the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law.

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