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The Antisemitism Awareness Act is a full frontal assault on free speech

Originally published: Middle East Eye on May 2, 2024 by Omar Suleiman (more by Middle East Eye)  | (Posted May 07, 2024)

First, American politicians sought to equate anti-Zionism with antisemitism. Now, they want to redefine antisemitism itself.

This week, the US House of Representatives voted to approve the Antisemitism Awareness Act, which can be characterised as the Israel lobby’s legislative agenda of codifying the criminalisation of anti-Israel sentiments by redefining antisemitism.

It calls for the “consideration of a definition of antisemitism set forth by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance [IHRA] for the enforcement of Federal antidiscrimination laws concerning education programs or activities”.

But why the IHRA definition, and why now?

With more than 34,500 Palestinians killed during Israel’s war on Gaza, approximately 70 percent of whom are women and children; college campuses across the country erupting with protests; demands from faculty, staff and students to divest from Israeli companies and institutions; and public opinion about the Israeli occupation shifting toward the Palestinians, the Israel lobby has been working in overdrive. Its focus is Washington.

Last November, Representative David Kustoff (a Republican from Tennessee) introduced a resolution that deliberately mischaracterised opposition to settler-colonialism, Israeli human rights abuses, occupation and apartheid as antisemitism. “Anti-Zionism is antisemitism,” it noted.

It passed, despite last-ditch efforts by three Jewish Democrats who urged their colleagues to avoid what they termed an “attempt by Republicans to weaponize Jewish pain and the serious problem of antisemitism to score cheap political points”.

Sinister calculation

With the Antisemitism Awareness Act, the pro-Israel lobby has engineered and delivered another politicised and disingenuous bill to the House floor. Resolution 6090, which is now moving to the Senate, seeks to define antisemitism exclusively by the IHRA’s working definition.

“The term ‘definition of antisemitism’ means the definition of antisemitism adopted [by the IHRA]… and includes the ‘contemporary examples of antisemitism’ identified in the IHRA definition,” it notes.

A quick glance at the aforementioned examples reveals that this redefinition is a sinister calculation. They include actions and language such as “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour”, and “applying double standards by requiring of [Israel] a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation”.

This is political chicanery, proposed as a crackdown on antisemitism. Even more worrisome, it would penalise political speech protected by the First Amendment.

The American Civil Liberties Union confirmed as much in a letter to House members:

Federal law already prohibits antisemitic discrimination and harassment by federally funded entities. H.R. 6090… would likely chill free speech of students on college campuses by incorrectly equating criticism of the Israeli government with antisemitism.

Are millions of Americans antisemitic for simply stating that Israel is a racist ethnostate, all while it maintains a system of apartheid that dominates Palestinians?

Attack on free speech

Nearly six years ago, the Israeli Knesset passed the Jewish nation-state law, codifying that “the right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people”. Are millions of Americans antisemitic for expecting Israel not to commit genocide over the past seven months? Have other democratic states killed more than 34,000 people and caused humanitarian catastrophes in that timeframe?

In the context of the current Gaza protests and encampments on university campuses across the country, this bill should be interpreted as an attack on freedom of speech and a threat to First Amendment rights.

If it becomes law, students, academics and activists will be forced to reform their otherwise innocent language, all due to a politicised piece of legislation. The bill’s language doubles down on its argument that the IHRA definition should be exclusive, stating that “alternative definitions” could impair enforcement efforts “by adding multiple standards and may fail to identify many of the modern manifestations of antisemitism”.

This Orwellian attempt to make the IHRA definition of antisemitism exclusive reeks of foul play. The reference to “modern manifestations” is inorganic, arguing that previous definitions that did not include references to Israel were not encompassing enough.

Many Americans are sick and tired of their country’s complicity in Israeli human rights abuses. While millions struggle to get by at home, Congress continues to send billions of dollars for Israel to continue its genocide, escalate its occupation, accelerate its illegal settlement expansion and maintain its apartheid.

When Americans decide to voice their outrage and their opposition to archaic and inhumane foreign policy decisions vis-a-vis Israel, they are subject to heavy crackdowns. Don’t protest. Don’t boycott. Don’t demand divestment. And all the while, the goalposts continue to shift.

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Imam Dr. Omar Suleiman is a world renowned scholar and theologically driven activist for human rights. He is the Founder and President of the Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research, and an adjunct professor of Islamic Studies in the Graduate Liberal Studies program at Southern Methodist University as well as member of the Ethics Center Advisory Board. He’s also the resident scholar of the Valley Ranch Islamic Center and Co-Chair Emeritus of Faith Forward Dallas at Thanks-Giving Square

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