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Free speech and the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act

Free speech and the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act
Pro-Palestinian demonstrators march through Sather Gate on the University of California, Berkeley campus in 2002. (Paul Sakuma / AP)

To the editor: The Times is correct when it says in its editorial that the proposed Anti-Semitism Awareness Act of 2018 will stifle 1st Amendment protected speech that is critical of Israeli government policies and is in no way anti-Semitic because it is not an expression of intolerance against Jews.

It hardly need be mentioned that some Israeli policies, like the occupation, should be criticized. Remember, the occupation dispossesses millions of Palestinians of their property and their rights. And the United States’ full-bore support of Israel makes Americans complicit in Israeli policies that are not only objectionable but violate many U.N. Security Council resolutions.

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Jeff Warner, Los Angeles

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To the editor: The editorial ponders, “Is it anti-Semitic to argue that Israel should be replaced by something else, such as a secular, binational nation?” The answer to any Jew is, of course.

Are Muslims willing to give up religious control of the myriad of countries they control? Are Christians? Israel is the only country where Jews can say, “That is my homeland.” The only country where the Star of David is on the flag.

Have you counted the number of flags in Europe with a cross? The number of flags in the Mideast with Muslim equivalents? If you want to end the only Jewish state but allow other religions to have a homeland, symbolically or not, you are acting against one group and not others, and that is “anti” defined.

Bruce N. Miller, Playa del Rey

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To the editor: A development is underway to seriously undermine one of our most cherished freedoms — the right of free speech. Israel and its lobbying arm are attempting to pass legislation that would criminalize anti-Israel statements on college campuses, a place to debate and discuss issues.

Jewish students might be made uncomfortable by a discussion of the Israel-Palestinian issue, but this would not provide a basis for censorship. Israel apparently believes its legitimacy could be compromised by such honest talk about its policies and is seeking to silence its detractors.

Joseph Tillotson, Redondo Beach

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To the editor: While we certainly agree that not all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitism, the legislation is intended to clarify, not blur, lines between political opinions about Israel and anti-Semitism. Most incidents of anti-Semitism on campus are entirely unrelated to anti-Israel activity. But some are. We are concerned about organized anti-Israel activity that crosses the line into anti-Semitism — conduct that can create an atmosphere in which Jewish students feel intimidated and under siege.

The Anti-Semitism Awareness Act [ASAA] uses the State Department-adopted definition of anti-Semitism as a reference point for guidance. The Times is correct that many of the examples in the definition are 1st Amendment-protected speech.

But the plain language of the ASAA simply requires the department to “take into consideration” that definition “as part of the Department’s assessment” of whether an investigation is warranted. It does not codify the definition and it does not use it to trigger an investigation or enforcement action.

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Disagreement with and even harsh criticism of the government of Israel is protected speech. But that’s very different from intentional, targeted conduct that unlawfully threatens, harasses or intimidates particular Jewish students and jeopardizes their equal educational opportunities.

The ASAA will not change any substantive rights, obligations or standards of review under Title VI. But its enactment can help administrators and others responsible for keeping Jewish students safe on campus better understand how anti-Semitism can manifest while at the same time protecting the free speech rights of all students.

Jonathan A. Greenblatt, New York

The writer is the chief executive and national director of the Anti-Defamation League

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