A bill to create a national coordinator to fight antisemitism is drawing rare bipartisan support in Congress
Kathy Manning defeated four candidates in a Democratic primary for Congress, winning 48% of the vote.
(Photo: Kathy Manning for Congress)

By Ron Kampeas
April 16, 2024

WASHINGTON (JTA) —  Republicans and Democrats in Congress are uniting to pass a bill that would create a national coordinator of the fight against antisemitism — though it faces competition from another Republican-backed bill that seeks to define antisemitism. 

The bipartisan Countering Antisemitism Act, introduced last week, is meant to advance President Joe Biden’s national strategy to fight antisemitism, rolled out nearly a year ago. The plan focused on action across the executive branch, demanding reforms in federal agencies from the Education Department to the Department of Agriculture. 

The national coordinator would help see through those reforms. The coordinator would also receive an annual assessment of violent antisemitism nationwide from law enforcement and intelligence agencies. The position would be a counterpart to the State Department’s antisemitism envoy, who focuses on anti-Jewish bigotry abroad.

Rep. Kathy Manning told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that the bill was in the works before the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war on Oct. 7, but that the ensuing rise in antisemitic incidents and rhetoric made it more urgent.

“We have seen it spread on social media, the protests on college campuses are beyond what anyone expected, “ she said. Manning, a North Carolina Democrat, is one of three lead sponsors of the bill, along with Rep. Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican, Sen. Jacky Rosen, a Nevada Democrat, and Sen. James Lankford, an Oklahoma Republican. Manning and Rosen are Jewish.

But that is not the only legislation seeking to fight antisemitism. One day after the bipartisan bill was introduced, Republican Rep. Anthony D’Esposito of New York introduced legislation on how to define antisemitism. 

That bill wades into a long-running debate over the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism. The IHRA definition has been endorsed by hundreds of countries, local governments, universities and corporations, but has drawn criticism because it includes certain forms of criticism of Israel, such as calling it a “racist endeavor.”

D’Esposito’s bill would codify the IHRA definition across U.S. law, including in jury instructions and applications of civil rights laws. Talking points from D’Esposito’s office, circulated by the National Jewish Advocacy Center, which backs the bill, said it does not target legitimate Israel criticism.

“The definition makes clear that ‘criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic,’ and that none of the examples, even the ones about Israel are automatically antisemitic; just that they ‘could, taking into account the overall context,’ be antisemitic,” the talking points said.

The D’Esposito bill, while endorsed only by Republicans, expands on a separate bipartisan bill that was introduced shortly after Oct. 7 but has yet to be advanced. That bill would codify the IHRA definition when enforcing Title VI of the Civil Rights Act,  which denies federal funding to institutions that discriminate against several protected classes and has emerged as a preferred tool of activists fighting antisemitism and anti-Zionism on college campuses. 

Following Biden’s rollout of the plan to counter antisemitism last May, a number of right-leaning Jewish advocacy groups criticized it for citing both the IHRA definition as well as another one, called the Nexus definition. Nexus places a greater focus on parsing when anti-Israel criticism verges into antisemitism.  

Manning’s bipartisan bill seeks to avoid that debate. A press release from her office included endorsements from an array of organizations that prefer the IHRA definition. But it also has the backing of the group of scholars who wrote the Nexus definition

The American Jewish Committee, which supports the IHRA definition, launched a campaign on Tuesday called Voices Against Antisemitism in which it calls on constituents to ask their representatives to support the bill. The groups endorsing the bill focused on what they said was the importance of creating the coordinator position at a time of rising antisemitism. 

“Given the unprecedented surge of antisemitism in the U.S. following the Oct. 7th terrorist attacks on Israel, this legislation is a significant step in protecting American Jewry and combating the oldest of hatreds,” said William Daroff, the CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

That message was echoed by Jonathan Jacoby, the director of the Nexus Leadership Project. “The disturbing rise in antisemitic incidents nationwide urgently demands the comprehensive, multi-pronged effort laid out in the U.S. National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism,” he said in a statement.

Kevin Rachlin, Nexus’ Washington director, said the need for a domestic antisemitism coordinator made the bill an easy sell for the group. But he noted other positives, including that the bill says that the IHRA definition is non-binding.

Rachlin said the bill also would please liberals because it focuses as much on right-wing antisemitism as it does on the left, at a time when he says many Republicans are ignoring the threat from the right. 

Those “looking for actions to actually counter antisemitism, the tachles of it,” should be satisfied by the bill, Rachlin said, using a Yiddish word roughly meaning “bottom line.” He said the bill is “pushing back on this rising tide from the right and what’s happening on the left as well.”

Manning said she realized early on that she needed language in the bill to address how both Republicans and Democrats see the threat of antisemitism.

“The language we have in the bill was very carefully negotiated,” she said. “The interesting thing about the composition of the Congress right now is if you actually want to get something passed, you have to have something that you can get Republicans in the House willing to lead, and Democrats in the Senate willing to lead. So that calls for a truly bipartisan approach.”

In that vein, D’Esposito’s bill, backed only by Republicans, has no chance on its own of becoming law. But parts of it may be wrapped into Manning’s legislation as an amendment, an occasional outcome when multiple bills address the same topic.

The Manning-Rosen bill may still face controversy: A substantial portion is devoted to combating antisemitism on American campuses, and activists on the left worry that the fight against campus antisemitism is sometimes used as a way to shut down criticism of Israel. 

Lara Friedman, the president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, noted on X, formerly Twitter, that the bill’s section on higher education cites a 2019 executive order on antisemitism by President Donald Trump.

“That EO, as a reminder, centers on enforcing the IHRA definition, including its examples as part of Title VI, as a means of repressing/punishing/chilling criticism and activism targeting Israel and/or Zionism on U.S. campuses,” she said. 

Emma Saltzberg, the U.S. strategic director for the Diaspora Alliance, a progressive Jewish organization that seeks to combat antisemitism and opposes the IHRA definition, said the Manning-Rosen bill is better than D’Esposito’s. But she said her group could not endorse it in part because the coordinator position would not be subject to congressional confirmation.

“This coordinator position, unlike the special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism, would just be a presidential appointment, which means that there are no formal mechanisms for Democratic [Party] input into that decision,” she said. “And we can only imagine what a Trump administration might do with that kind of appointment.”

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