US govt to vote on expanded definition of antisemitism to include 'targeting of the state of Israel'

US govt to vote on expanded definition of antisemitism to include 'targeting of the state of Israel'
The proposed definition faces strong opposition from a number of Democratic lawmakers, Jewish organizations and free speech advocates.
4 min read
The proposed changes to the definition would include criticism of Israel as potentially being classed as antisemitic [GETTY]

The House is voting Wednesday on legislation that would establish a broader definition of antisemitism for the Department of Education to enforce anti-discrimination laws, the latest response from lawmakers to a nationwide student protest movement over the Israel-Hamas war.

The bill — co-sponsored by nearly 50 Republicans and more than a dozen Democrats — would codify the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance's definition of antisemitism in Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a federal anti-discrimination law that bars discrimination based on shared ancestry, ethnic characteristics or national origin.

Action on the bill was just the latest reverberation in Congress from the protest movement that has swept university campuses. Republicans in Congress have denounced the protests and demanded action to stop them, thrusting university officials into the center of the charged political debate over Israel’s conduct of the war in Gaza. More than 33,000 Palestinians have been killed since the war was launched in October, after Hamas staged a deadly terrorist attack against Israeli civilians.

If signed into law, the bill would broaden the legal definition of antisemitism to include the "targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity." Critics say the move would have a chilling effect on free speech throughout college campuses.

“Speech that is critical of Israel alone does not constitute unlawful discrimination,” Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., said during a hearing Tuesday. "By encompassing purely political speech about Israel into Title VI’s ambit, the bill sweeps too broadly."

Advocates of the proposal say it would provide a much-needed, consistent framework for the Department of Education to police and investigate the rising cases of discrimination and harassment targeted toward Jewish students.

"It is long past time that Congress act to protect Jewish Americans from the scourge of antisemitism on campuses around the country," Rep. Russell Fry, R-S.C., said Tuesday.

The expanded definition of antisemitism was first adopted in 2016 by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, an intergovernmental group that includes the United States and European Union states, and has been embraced by the State Department under the past three presidential administrations, including Joe Biden's.

But bipartisan efforts to codify it into law have failed in the past several years. The Oct. 7 terrorist attack by Hamas militants in Israel and the subsequent war in Gaza has reignited efforts to target incidents of antisemitism on college campuses.

Separately, Speaker Mike Johnson announced Tuesday that several House committees will be tasked with a wide probe that ultimately threatens to withhold federal research grants and other government support for universities, placing another pressure point on campus administrators who are struggling to manage pro-Palestinian encampments, allegations of discrimination against Jewish students and questions of how they are integrating free speech and campus safety.

The House investigation follows several high-profile hearings that helped precipitate the resignations of presidents at Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania. And House Republicans promised more scrutiny, saying they were calling on the administrators of Yale, UCLA and the University of Michigan to testify next month.

It all comes at a time when college campuses and the federal government are struggling to define exactly where political speech crosses into antisemitism. Dozens of U.S. universities and schools face civil rights investigations by the Education Department over allegations of antisemitism and Islamophobia.

Among the questions campus leaders have struggled to answer is whether phrases like "from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free" should be considered under the definition of antisemitism.

The proposed definition faces strong opposition from a number of Democratic lawmakers, Jewish organizations and free speech advocates.

In a letter sent to lawmakers Friday, the American Civil Liberties Union urged members to vote against the legislation, saying federal law already prohibits antisemitic discrimination and harassment.

"H.R. 6090 is therefore not needed to protect against antisemitic discrimination; instead, it would likely chill free speech of students on college campuses by incorrectly equating criticism of the Israeli government with antisemitism," the letter stated.

Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of the centrist pro-Israel group J Street, said his organization opposes the bipartisan proposal because he sees it as an "unserious" effort led by Republicans "to continually force votes that divide the Democratic caucus on an issue that shouldn’t be turned into a political football."