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January 11, 2018 6:10 pm

South Carolina Governor Urges Passage of Bill to Counter Campus Antisemitism

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South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster. Photo: Governor’s Office / Zach Pippin.

South Carolina’s governor urged his state’s Senate on Wednesday to pass legislation designed to counter campus antisemitism in time for signing on International Holocaust Remembrance Day later this month.

The bill — H. 3643 — would help “our state and its college campuses provide a welcoming environment for those from all walks of life,” Gov. Henry McMaster said in a statement.

The measure seeks to ensure that South Carolina’s public colleges and universities will take the State Department’s definition of antisemitism into consideration when investigating allegations of discrimination against Jewish students.

The definition encompasses traditional anti-Jewish tropes — such as conspiracies about Jewish control of societal institutions — as well as efforts to “demonize,” “delegitimize,” and apply a “double standard” to Israel. It also acknowledges that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic.”

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The announcement was applauded by some advocates of Jewish students on campus.

Alyza Lewin, director of policy and chief operating officer at the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law (LDB), framed the bill as “a significant step” in deterring antisemitic activity in universities, amid a rise in anti-Jewish hostility “on both far ends of the political spectrum.”

LDB emphasized in a statement that the measure “is careful to protect First Amendment rights of all students on campus, and will not curb or restrict free speech or academic freedom.” The State Department’s definition of antisemitism is “substantially similar” to that used by the 31 member states of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, and the 50 countries included in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, excluding Russia, the legal group noted.

However, the bill has not been without controversy, with critics claiming that it could be used to suppress discussion surrounding Israel.

Shortly before it was unanimously endorsed by the South Carolina Senate’s higher education subcommittee in April, H. 3643 was strongly criticized by Kenneth Stern, who helped draft a working definition of antisemitism for the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC). The State Department’s definition of antisemitism was adapted from EUMC’s.

“It is an unnecessary law which will hurt Jewish students and the academy,” wrote Stern, now the executive director of the Justus & Karin Rosenberg Foundation. He argued that the bill is an effort “to have the state define a line where political speech about Israel is classified as anti-Semitic, and chilled if not suppressed.”

“Indeed, if certain expressions about Israel are officially defined as anti-Semitic,” Stern continued, “pro-Israel Jewish students will be further marginalized, having gained the reputation for suppressing, rather than answering, speech they don’t like.”

Stren’s objections were highlighted days later by the free-speech group PEN American Center, which contended that the bill takes a “flawed approach” to addressing campus antisemitism, and would rather “severely chill speech on campus.”

This was disputed by the pro-Israel organization StandWithUs, which claimed that the measure does not restrict “any form of speech.”

“It merely states that if a person engages in unprotected behavior, such as vandalism, law enforcement may consider anti-Semitic intent,” the group contended.

Cheryl Nail, who works with Jewish students through the Hillel campus group at the University of South Carolina, similarly told The Algemeiner that the bill “in no way prohibits or penalizes speech of any kind, including speech that is anti-Semitic.”

“What this bill does is define anti-Semitism so that anti-Semitic speech and behaviors can be identified concretely and consistently, which is paramount to keeping our Jewish students safe,” she explained.

Nail recounted a recent incident when “one of our Jewish students was on the receiving end of an anti-Semitic message left on the voicemail of a university department.”

“H3643 wouldn’t have prevented the message, nor would it have dictated a penalty for leaving it — the bill doesn’t have that kind of power,” she argued. However, “if H3643 had been in place at the time of this call, it would have been recorded without question as an anti-Semitic incident,” Nail said. “That is the purpose of this bill.”

H. 3643 was overwhelmingly approved by South Carolina’s House of Representatives with a vote of 103-3 in March. If passed by the Senate and signed into law, it would be the first such state legislation adopted in the nation.

Advocates have regularly warned that Jews — the primary target of religiously motivated hate crimes in the United States, according to FBI statistics — face increasing antisemitism at American universities.

According to the Anti-Defamation League, a leading civil rights organization, reports of antisemitic incidents on US college campuses increased by 59 percent in 2017 compared to the previous year.

A 2016 study published by the watchdog group AMCHA Initiative argued “that the rise of anti-Zionism — particularly [boycott, divestment, and sanctions] campaigns and anti-Zionist student groups and faculty — is fueling the rise of anti-Semitism on campus.”

This article has been updated to include comments from Cheryl Nail, a Jewish Religious Worker at the University of South Carolina.

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