New Anti-BDS Bill in Senate Would Criminalize Criticism of Israel
SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore. Last week, the US Senate unanimously voted for the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act, introduced by Bob Casey, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, and Tim Scott, a Republican from South Carolina. The following day, a House bipartisan team introduced a companion bill to the US House of Representatives, the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act. That sounds good, right? We should all endorse it. Well, let’s find out what is couched in this Act. For that, I’m being joined by Charlotte Silver. She is an independent journalist and Associate Editor for The Electronic Intifada. Charlotte recently wrote an article titled “Senate approves bill seen as a threat to campus criticism of Israel,” published in The Electronic Intifada. Charlotte, so good to have you with us.
CHARLOTTE SILVER: Thanks for having me.
SHARMINI PERIES: Charlotte, first of all, a number of organizations sponsored or supported this bill to get it passed in the Senate, and now in the House. Who were these organizations?
CHARLOTTE SILVER: Well, AIPAC, the Jewish Federation of North America, the Anti-Defamation League, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, have all supported the bill. The ADL has actually stated that they helped craft the language of the bill. And that’s not surprising given the long history of pro-Israel advocacy groups’ work to support what is in the measure of the bill, which is…
SHARMINI PERIES: What is a bill that’s obviously titled Anti-Semitism Awareness Act — what does it enable?
CHARLOTTE SILVER: The bill is presented as a response to an increase in anti-Semitism on college campuses, but the bill itself doesn’t do anything to attack or to counter or address anti-Semitism. What it does is broaden the definition of anti-Semitism to include criticism of Israel. And what it specifically does is it instructs the Department of Education to consider the State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism, which was adopted in 2010, and specifically revolves around criticism of Israel. Its focus is to incorporate criticism of Israel into a definition of anti-Semitism. Your viewers may be familiar with the three Ds: it says, “Demonizing, de-legitimizing or applying a double-standard to Israel can be considered anti-Semitism.”
In the bill, the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act, very specifically says the current guidelines involving discrimination and Department of Education’s guidelines to investigate discrimination into race, religion and national origin do not provide guidelines for contemporary forms of anti-Semitism. This is directly sort of prompting them to integrate the criticism of Israel into their definition.
SHARMINI PERIES: We know for a fact that the State of Israel has been very active in the United States trying to get various states, universities, to adopt legislation or acts of this sort and procedures within their organizations to deal with this issue of the BDS Campaign – Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Campaign — against Israel, which they consider an attack on the State of Israel. Now, does this enable now this Department of Education to take this definition as you have described and try to apply it when it comes to the universities?
CHARLOTTE SILVER: Well, they can try, but they will be challenged in court, and there are a lot of precedents, including our Constitution, that are on the side of students who wish to organize around Palestinian rights. I think it’s very important to know that the attempts to target Palestinian activism on college campuses have been going on for many years, and specifically Zionist and pro-Israel groups have been trying to get the Department of Education to open up a Title VI investigation into these Palestinian rights groups, because they are such a robust movement on college campuses around the country revolving around Palestinian activism, and it’s getting stronger and stronger. But the Department of Education has not once opened an investigation. They’ve, in fact, soundly rejected the idea that criticizing Israel, criticizing Zionism, is tantamount to anti-Semitism. In 2013, the DOE threw out at least four complaints into UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz, Rutgers University and UC Irvine. They concluded that what students were doing was not anti-Semitic.
Since then, Israel advocacy groups have not relented in trying to eliminate the separation between what we consider to be anti-Jewish sentiment, and what we consider to be criticism of a State — Israel. Last year, they attempted to get the UC Regents’ Board to, again, adopt the State Department’s definition. The UC Regents’ Board didn’t do it. They wouldn’t do it. And, as these groups have continued to try, what we’ve actually seen over the years, over the last five, ten years, is that the division between, and our understanding of, criticizing Israel and anti-Semitism has gotten bigger. And that is one of the reasons why they are so threatened.
It’s also the reason why we’re seeing these groups resort to executive powers. They are circumventing due process and democratic processes and trying to impose their agenda from above, and that’s what this bill epitomizes. They introduced the bill two days before a vote. No one knew, no one had time to protest, to raise any kind of media awareness of the bill. They introduced two days before the bill, and it was passed unanimously. This is after the Department of Education had already investigated these complaints and renounced them.
And this isn’t the first time we’ve seen these groups resort to such higher powers to try to impose their agenda. In New York, over the summer, the Governor signed an Executive Decree to ban state agencies from working with companies that supposedly boycott Israel. He did that, even though there was legislation pending to do the same thing. So, we’re seeing that they are trying to circumvent due process and democratic processes to impose this agenda.
SHARMINI PERIES: Charlotte, this very controversial definition that the State Department has for anti-Semitism, where did it come from, and what support is there for that definition?
CHARLOTTE SILVER: Well, it originated in Europe, but the actual author, Kenneth Stern, of the State Department’s definition, has vehemently opposed it becoming law. He wrote a statement opposed to the UC Regents adopting it, to apply at their schools, and he is, again, opposed to the Senate Bill adopting it, as well. What he says is that it’s unconstitutional, and it poses a danger to free speech on campus for Jewish and non-Jewish students, alike. He writes these statements as someone who is opposed to boycott, divestment, sanctions. But he doesn’t believe that censoring discussion on campuses, especially college campuses, is a solution, which I think that the administrators of universities have agreed with, and that’s one of the reasons why these Israel advocacy groups are looking outside universities to try and impose on them this very anti-democratic measure.
SHARMINI PERIES: Charlotte, does this bill go beyond campuses, and does it apply to media outlets? For example, we at The Real News are very critical of some of the things that the State of Israel does.
CHARLOTTE SILVER: It’s focused on the Department of Education which could apply to schools — preschools through college campuses. It’s likely to be focused on college campuses because that’s where students are really organizing themselves.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Charlotte. I thank you so much for joining us today, and I’m sure you’ll be watching the passage and the implementation of this bill, which President Obama is expected to sign. If there are any blips, we’d like to hear back. Thanks for joining us.
CHARLOTTE SILVER: Thanks so much for having me.
SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.