Freedom of speech on college campuses is under enough pressure without the federal government adding to the problem by threatening to withdraw funding to punish people for expressing their political opinions. That would be a real possibility if Congress enacted and President Trump signed a bill called the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act of 2018.
The legislation, which has recently been reintroduced in both chambers, purports to target harassment of Jewish students on college campuses, which has occurred in California and elsewhere.
But this proposal would blur the distinction between unacceptable, intimidating expressions of intolerance directed against Jews with criticism of the state of Israel. The latter, even when expressed in intemperate terms, is protected by the 1st Amendment.
Civil rights law already protects Jews, Muslims, Christians and other religious groups at federally funded campuses from discrimination. What would change under this legislation is that, in investigating complaints of anti-Semitism on campus, the Department of Education would have to “take into consideration” a definition published by the State Department in 2010.
But that lengthy document, which was never intended to serve as a speech code for American college campuses, conflates anti-Israel speech with anti-Semitic speech. For example, it offers examples of “ways in which anti-Semitism manifests itself with regard to the state of Israel, taking into account the overall context.” That includes: “Blaming Israel for all inter-religious or political tensions” and “applying double standards by requiring of [Israel] a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.” It also includes “demonizing” Israel.
But is it necessarily anti-Semitic to harshly criticize the Jewish state or to do so without, in the same breath, criticizing Saudi repression? Is it anti-Semitic to argue that Israel should be replaced by something else, such as a secular, binational nation?
Even those who believe such criticisms of Israel are simplistic or unfair should see that they are far removed from the sort of insults or personal attacks that a university or the federal government can police without running afoul of the 1st Amendment. Even strong supporters of the state of Israel should acknowledge that while there are, of course, anti-Semites among Israel's many critics, not all opposition to Israel is inherently anti-Semitic.