Washington, DC - Touted as a means to stem the resurgence of anti-Semitism on college campuses, the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act (ASAA) would imperil free speech on American college campuses in order to quash constitutionally protected criticism of Israel.
With white supremacists emboldened on campus and off, rising anti-Semitism in the United States is indeed a concern. The chief focus of the ASAA, however, is Israel-related criticism and activism on campuses – including but not limited to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The bill would cynically exploit claims of anti-Semitism to delegitimize and silence such Israel-related free speech.
The ASAA would require the Department of Education to utilize a definition of anti-Semitism employed by the Department of State in assessing whether a school has violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by tolerating anti-Semitic harassment. The author of that definition, Kenneth Stern, has made clear that it was never intended for use on campuses as a means of censoring constitutionally protected free speech. For that reason, he has argued forcefully against the adoption of the ASAA.
Should it pass, the ASAA likely will have a chilling effect on speech related to Israel on college campuses. The Committee on Academic Freedom of the Middle East Studies Association noted that a probable impact of the legislation will be to quash "even criticism of Israel made by Israeli scholars, or by Jewish students this legislation is intended to protect."
Americans for Peace Now's concerns regarding the ASAA are compounded by the fact that the official charged with administering and enforcing Title VI will be the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights in the Department of Education. Kenneth Marcus, who is awaiting Senate confirmation for this position, has in the past boasted of using Title VI complaints to create "a very strong disincentive" to criticize Israel for students who have their future job prospects to consider.
In addition to warning that the ASAA will lead colleges to suppress speech to avoid investigations by the Department of Education, the American Civil Liberties Union also confirms that a new bill to protect students from anti-Semitic harassment is unnecessary, since such activity is already prohibited under Title VI.
Debra DeLee, President and CEO of Americans for Peace Now said, "We urge members of Congress to reject the ASAA. It will chill speech critical of Israel on campuses and have the unintended effect of increasing antipathy toward Israel by students angered over the curbing of their free speech rights. The bill is clearly aimed at suppressing speech critical of Israel rather than anti-Semitic harassment, from which American college students are already protected by law.
"We at APN believe in opening the conversation on Israel and its conflict with its neighbors, both on and off campus, depolarizing it and providing safe space for it. As the sister organization of Israel's largest peace movement, we know that Israel's state institutions and Israeli society are strong enough to withstand criticism, even when it's unfair or unjustified. This bill, if voted into law, will harm both the open discussion in America on Israel, and will cause harm to Israel and its reputation as an open, democratic society.
"We should be encouraging American college students to learn about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, rather than curbing their right to expression."