The Antisemitism Awareness Act Just Passed by the House Would Actually Increase Anti-Jewish Violence

The AAA could make an outdoor Seder at a University of Vermont pro-Palestine encampment subject to charges of antisemitism. Image: Lexi Krupp/Vermont Public

Should it gain Senate support, the Antisemitism Awareness Act (AAA) just passed by the House will, despite its name, lead to more anti-Jewish violence in the US, not less. Why? Because this bill, which among other things directs the Department of Education to adopt the problematic IHRA definition of antisemitism, fundamentally refuses to recognize the two principles essential to antisemitism awareness (and to more general anti-discrimination policy): 

1) No cultural/religious group has more/less right to exist than any other; and

2) The members of a given cultural/religious group are not all the same; they are never collectively complicit in the actions taken by particular members of that larger, diverse cultural/religious group

These are important principles that I (like many Religious Studies professors) teach as a fundamental part of courses like Introduction to World Religions. They act as critical guideposts when learning about the history of antisemitism (and how to recognize it) as well as the history of Islamophobia and historical discrimination against a range of religious traditions and cultural ways of life.

Under these principles, to protest Israel’s actions outside a random Jewish synagogue would be either anti-Jewish or antisemitic (depending on the rationale of the specific protest), because Jews everywhere are not guilty of the actions of Jews anywhere (much less, guilty of the Israeli state’s actions). That is, unless the specific synagogue’s leadership has, in the name of the congregation, been publicly endorsing the State of Israel’s actions, or hosted events like real estate sales offering land in the occupied West Bank, in which case, protesting there is not intrinsically anti-Jewish or antisemitic because that specific Jewish group has chosen to align itself with the Israeli actions being specifically protested. 

[Note: while definitions like the IHRA included in the AAA regularly fail to distinguish between anti-Jewishness and antisemitism, they are two different things. The difference is historically quite important. Anti-Jewishness existed for centuries before antisemitism as a racialized form of the wider problem. It remains important to distinguish between the two, because the first can be quite as dangerous as the second, even without the racialized component.] 

Similarly, to protest against what the State of Israel is doing in Gaza (or to label it “genocidal,” or to say that it’s an extension of 80-ish years of Palestinian oppression) is not antisemitic (regardless of whether one agrees with the politics of those statements or not). If, however, one claims that the State of Israel has carried out this policy because it’s run by Jews and that’s how Jews act, then it is, at the very least, anti-Jewish; or further, if one claims that Jews act this way because it’s in their nature to do so, then it’s antisemitic.

The principles here aren’t complicated, but their application requires nuanced distinctions which make it difficult to characterize whole groups of people with a broad brush. There have been anti-Israel protests outside random synagogues and assaults on random Jewish people, both of which are categorically anti-Jewish (whether motivated by antisemitic ideology or not) and should be condemned and, in the case of assault or other violence, prosecuted. But pro-Palestinian (or anti-what’s-going-on-in-Gaza) protests on campuses don’t generally fall into that same category. 

Some of the people involved make use of anti-Jewish slogans, but most do not (many are in fact Jewish). And the collective cause and demands of the protestors are generally not anti-Jewish. The same is true for antisemitic slogans and intentions.

Those engaging in anti-Jewish or antisemitic attacks should be punished. But those protesting Israel’s actions without engaging in anti-Jewish or antisemitic actions or speech (which, again, is most protestors, including those protesting along with Jewish activist organizations) should not be lumped into that same category or prosecuted for hate crimes.

When powerful public institutions like Congress take the formal, legal position that Israel (and its policies) equals Jews (everywhere)—such that criticizing one is attacking the other—it actively works against raising public awareness of the very real problems of anti-Jewishness and antisemitism. Rather than teach people the difference (that anti-Israel protests cannot be directed against Jews in general), it tells those engaging in anti-Jewish or antisemitic attacks as part of their opposition to Israel’s actions that they are in fact correct in equating Jews everywhere with Israeli actions—but that it’s criminally wrong to disagree with Israel’s actions. Such a message not only promotes the same categorical mistakes that have been fostering anti-Jewish and antisemitic attacks, but it also legally dictates which political views people are permitted to hold. 

The AAA compounds the very confusion that has fueled an increase in anti-Jewish violence rather than correcting it. Correcting this confusion is exactly what Jewish and Palestinian activists holding teach-ins at protests are actively doing, but doing so requires exactly the kind of nuanced distinctions this law makes illegal. Similarly, when a politician like Netanyahu (or the long-standing political movement he represents) insists to the world that opposition to Israel’s policies equals antisemitism (and is the same as attacking Jews anywhere), he does the same thing the AAA would do. Ultimately, this position makes anti-Jewish and antisemitic attacks around the world worse by insisting to everyone that Jews everywhere and the State of Israel are categorically the same thing. 

Defining antisemitism in this way also categorically classifies the many Jewish protestors in Israel and around the world who reject the Israeli government’s current actions as themselves antisemitic. Not only does it equate Jewishness with a particular political ideology (that of the present State of Israel) but it also tells Jews whose Jewishness drives their opposition that they’re being Jewish so wrongly that they’ve become anti-themselves. It’s worth asking whether any legislative body should have the power to dictate to people of any religious or cultural identity what their own identity does or does not demand. 

The Antisemitism Awareness Act would, if ratified by the Senate, make it illegal for me to teach my students any of these nuanced distinctions. Even making these distinctions could constitute an act of prosecutable antisemitic hate speech. Which means that on campuses all over the nation we would legally no longer have teachers working hard to instill in students the types of nuanced distinctions necessary to help decrease antisemitic and anti-Jewish attacks (and to foster cooperation between Jewish and Palestinian peace activists and those in solidarity with them). 

Instead, we would have teachers required by law to tell students that equating Jews everywhere with Israel’s actions is correct—that to do otherwise would be antisemitic! Which is why the AAA would almost certainly lead to more anti-Jewish violence in the US. This is also why it’s bad policy to give politicians the authority—based on what performative position will best harness the immediate power of shifting public opinion—to dictate what teachers are (or are not) permitted to teach.