Anti-Semitism on college campuses has caught the attention of national lawmakers.
On Nov. 29, Sens. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and Bob Casey (D-Pa.) introduced the bipartisan Anti-Semitism Awareness Act “in an effort to combat increasing incidents of anti-Semitism on college campuses nationwide.”
The bill aims to codify a clear definition of anti-Semitism as adopted by the State Department’s special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism.
The State Department’s definition states: “Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, towards Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”
Examples, according to the department, include “calling for, aiding, or justifying the killing or harming of Jews; accusing the Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust; demonizing Israel by blaming it for all inter-religious or political tensions; judge Israel by a double standard that one would not apply to any other democratic nation.”
For Casey, the bill’s aim is “to take action to stop discrimination in our schools,” he wrote in an email.
“By defining the term anti-Semitism,” he wrote, “we ensure the Department of Education has the tools it needs to more effectively investigate allegations of discrimination motivated by anti-Semitism under the Civil Rights Act. The Department of Education and Justice already have the underlying authority to investigate from the Civil Rights Act — this clarifies the definition of anti-Semitism.”
However, he noted the bill does not infringe on First Amendment rights to free speech, as many of the bill’s critics claim. An article in Reason magazine argued that “the government doesn’t get to judge the validity of thought, no matter how offensive it is to certain sensibilities.”
“It is intended to help protect students from discrimination on the basis of their faith,” Casey wrote.
Campus anti-Semitic incidents accounted for 10 percent of the total incidents reported in the United States in 2015, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
ADL noted 90 incidents reported on 60 college campuses in 2015, compared to 47 incidents on 43 campuses in 2014.
A July 2016 study by the AMCHA Initiative, a nonpartisan group focused on investigating and combating anti-Semitism on college campuses, “examined anti-Semitic activity from January-June 2016 on more than 100 public and private colleges and universities with the largest Jewish undergraduate populations, found that 287 anti-Semitic incidents occurred at 64 schools during that time period, reflecting a 45 percent increase from the 198 incidents reported in the first six months of 2015.”
Creating the bill, which cleared the Senate on Dec. 2, was a way for Casey and Scott to act before the situation potentially worsens, Casey noted.
“We all agree there is no place for discrimination at educational institutions,” Casey wrote. “With the rise in incidents of religious discrimination and religiously-motivated hate crimes, we felt we had to address this and do something before things continue to escalate. Just condemning it with words or visiting impacted students is not enough, as elected officials we need to work to stop it.”
The bill was supported by ADL, AIPAC, the Jewish Federations of North America and the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
The ADL played a central role in crafting the legislation.
“We welcome Senate passage of this important legislation, which will help the Department of Education and Department of Justice to effectively determine whether an investigation of an incident of anti-Semitism is warranted under federal education anti-discrimination laws,” said Jonathan A. Greenblatt, ADL CEO, in a statement.
“This act addresses a core concern of Jewish and pro-Israel students and parents: When does the expression of anti-Semitism, anti-Israel sentiment and anti-Zionist beliefs cross the line from First Amendment-protected free expression to unlawful, discriminatory conduct.”
Casey is optimistic about the bill passing the House of Representatives and being signed into law.
“The safety and well-being of students is this legislation’s top priority,” Casey wrote. “Our country was founded on religious freedom and respect, and it is our job to ensure that for all students and people in this country.”
Marissa Stern is a staff reporter at the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia.