The Antisemitism Awareness Act Misses the Mark

Let’s enforce existing laws rather than grandstand for new ones.

National Association of Scholars

On May 1, the Antisemitism Awareness Act (H.R. 6090, NY Rep. Michael Lawler) passed the United States House of Representatives by a vote of 320 to 91. It now heads to the United States Senate.

The bill would require the Education Department to use a definition of anti-Semitism set by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance in its assessment of whether racial or religious discrimination was occurring. The definition also includes the Alliance’s contemporary examples of anti-Semitism, which include criticism of the Israeli government as well as claims regarding the death of Jesus. Also, the definition of anti-Semitism in American law would change if the Alliance chose to change it.

Obviously, this bill has ominous implications for free speech as it treats political criticism—criticism of the Israeli government—as part of what appears to be a new and distinct federal offense, the offense of anti-Semitism. It also offends America’s national sovereignty by farming out a key definition in a proposed law to a non-American, global entity. This takes “undue delegation” to a new level.

But it’s also a wasteful, distracting gesture that does not grasp the root of the problem with today’s campus protests. That problem, of course, is the double standard in the application of our civil rights laws. The complaints of a hostile environment based on race or sex by some groups—women and blacks, for example—receive serious attention and correction while the very same complaints by other groups—say, Jews and Christians—don’t.

When it comes to these protests—at Columbia, Berkely, Harvard, Michigan, Arizona State, and elsewhere—no group has been more outraged and disgusted at the rise of anti-Jewish sentiment than National Association of Scholars (NAS), which has urged legal and school authorities to enforce all laws and policies against racial discrimination, including bans on hostile environments, to protect Jewish students who are threatened.

But we have not called on politicians to pass laws like this one—which are ineffective and threaten other vital rights, such as the right to free speech.

In the months since the unprecedented and heinous October 7 attacks on Israel, pro-Palestinian students have disrupted classes, coursework, and then final exams. Now, they’ll try to overrun graduation ceremonies. School administrators have responded to this mob with deafening silence or mealy-mouthed equivocations about what constitutes lawful, protected speech and what constitutes unlawful disruptions as well as unlawful threats to violent action.

We support—indeed, advocate for—the right of all students to peaceful protest and robust expression on matters of public concern, including the current war in Gaza.

But we oppose violence and threats to commit violence, including threats to target specific peoples for violence or elimination, as in "Death to Israel!" or "Heil Hitler!"

Obviously, these latter statements are no longer political discourse, much less academic debate. They are calls for violent action against a particular ethnic and religious group.

And that is already illegal under both federal civil rights law and state criminal law.

That is why the Antisemitism Awareness Act is not the answer. It is not necessary, but the enforcement of existing law is.

What’s more, in addition to being duplicative, the bill is also counterproductive as it appears to single out the Jewish Community for preferential treatment and status, a favoritism that could easily backfire to fuel more anti-Jewish sentiment, the opposite of its intention.

Those pushing HR 6090 should, instead, follow the lead of the National Task Force on Anti-Semitism which has demanded that the Justice and Education Departments investigate and punish schools for what look like Title VI violations. Title VI is the federal law that bans discrimination based on race and religion, including in federally funded education, and including a hostile environment based on race. They should also demand that local police and legal officials continue to investigate, arrest, and prosecute, to the fullest extent possible, the offenses of trespass, vandalism, and assault where they occur.

Certainly, federal bureaucrats know how to do this as they do it all the time when they investigate “hostile environments” for other so-called “under-represented minorities.” Again, the real issue here is precisely the double standard in applying existing laws, not any shortage of laws. Some groups get protected while others are told to shut up and make peace with the animosity.

These double standards—indeed, all identity politics—must stop.

NAS hopes that Jewish Americans will agree and not pile on to existing problems with this hasty, ill-conceived legislation.

No more political posturing. Enforce existing law. And stop the chaos so those paying to learn at college can do so.

Photo by Mason Goad // Twitter

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