US antisemitism bill could strangle free speech and activism

Support us and go ad-free

A new bill passing through the US Congress could mean that protests against the Israeli government count as civil rights violations.

This move follows a protest by pro-Palestinian student activists back in 2012, at the University of California, Berkeley. Students set up a mock military checkpoint, intended to simulate conditions of Palestinians in the West Bank.

Jewish organisations claimed that this protest against the Israeli government helped to create a hostile environment for Jewish students. They filed a civil rights complaint with the federal Department of Education (DoE), which subsequently rejected it. The DoE may deal with such complaints very differently in future.

As part of Israel Apartheid Week in 2012, other universities around the world staged similar protests, including the LSE in London.

The rise of antisemitism in the US

A report published by the AMCHA Initiative, an antisemitism watchdog, claimed that too often criticism of Israel crosses into antisemitism. They argue that the civil rights of Jewish students are being violated.

Earlier this year, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) revealed in a report that antisemitic assaults rose last year to 56. They also highlighted that the overall number of hateful incidents targeting Jews increased by 3%.

Aside from assaults, other antisemitic incidents included harassment, threats, and vandalism. The ADL says that campuses account for 10% of such occurrences nationwide.

Read on...

Support us and go ad-free

Donald Trump’s own antisemitic remarks have added to this growing problem. And so has the antisemitism that he’s fuelled. But is this new bill the most effective way to address these virulent attitudes towards Jewish people?

Does the bill go too far?

Critics question whether this bill will solve real antisemitism, as opposed to curtailing legitimate freedom of speech which might include criticism of the Israeli government. Michael Macleod-Ball, chief of staff of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), said that the bill:

opens the door to considering anti-Israel political statements and activities as possible grounds for civil rights investigations…Whether you agree with the BDS movement or not, aligning oneself with it and even participating in the effort should not subject someone to a civil rights investigation.

The bill defines antisemitism as “demonizing Israel”, “judg[ing] Israel by a double standard”, blaming Israel for “all inter-religious or political tension”, or delegitimising Israel. The federal government has not used this definition in domestic civil rights claims. The State Department has previously used it to judge antisemitism overseas.

Liz Jackson, staff attorney at Palestine Legal which advocates for pro-Palestinian activists, warns that the bill could stifle free speech on college campuses. She argues:

Before Congress imposed its discredited redefinition of anti-Semitism on the DOE, civil rights investigators consistently found that actions critical of Israel — like mock military checkpoints, or teach-ins on Gaza — are the kind of free-speech expression to be expected on a college campus and are not anti-Jewish harassment.


Many commentators warn about conflating criticism of Israel with genuine antisemitism. But the issue is complex, nuanced, and sensitive. There may indeed be troubling cases on campus where protests against Israel tread into antisemitic territory. And in the same way, there are many instances when criticism of Islam crosses the line into racism.

But the passing of this bill may not necessarily combat the real issue. Indeed, the threat it poses to the right of protest and free expression could outweigh any arguments in its favour. After all, one of the most effective ways to tackle xenophobic attitudes is to encourage an open and honest discussion of ideas.

Get Involved!

– Support the ACLU and ADL.

– Read more Canary articles about Israel and antisemitism.

– See more international articles at The Canary Global, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Featured image via Wikimedia

Support us and go ad-free

We need your help to keep speaking the truth

Every story that you have come to us with; each injustice you have asked us to investigate; every campaign we have fought; each of your unheard voices we amplified; we do this for you. We are making a difference on your behalf.

Our fight is your fight. You’ve supported our collective struggle every time you gave us a like; and every time you shared our work across social media. Now we need you to support us with a monthly donation.

We have published nearly 2,000 articles and over 50 films in 2021. And we want to do this and more in 2022 but we don’t have enough money to go on at this pace. So, if you value our work and want us to continue then please join us and be part of The Canary family.

In return, you get:

* Advert free reading experience
* Quarterly group video call with the Editor-in-Chief
* Behind the scenes monthly e-newsletter
* 20% discount in our shop

Almost all of our spending goes to the people who make The Canary’s content. So your contribution directly supports our writers and enables us to continue to do what we do: speaking truth, powered by you. We have weathered many attempts to shut us down and silence our vital opposition to an increasingly fascist government and right-wing mainstream media.

With your help we can continue:

* Holding political and state power to account
* Advocating for the people the system marginalises
* Being a media outlet that upholds the highest standards
* Campaigning on the issues others won’t
* Putting your lives central to everything we do

We are a drop of truth in an ocean of deceit. But we can’t do this without your support. So please, can you help us continue the fight?

The Canary Support us

Comments are closed