House passes bill that would enshrine contentious and popular antisemitism definition into US law
Chairman Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat, speaks during a House Judiciary Committee mark up hearing in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill, June 02, 2022. Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

By Ron Kampeas
May 1, 2024

WASHINGTON (JTA) — A bill that would enshrine a popular and contentious definition of antisemitism passed the U.S. House of Representatives by a wide margin.

The Antisemitism Awareness Act mandates government civil rights offices to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism, which has been endorsed by hundreds of local governments, corporations and universities.

But the definition has also drawn criticism because most of its examples of antisemitism involve criticism of the state of Israel, including calling it a “racist endeavor.”

The bill is moving forward at a time when criticism of Israel, and when it crosses over into antisemitism, have been in the spotlight. Protesters at the pro-Palestinian encampments on campuses nationwide have harshly criticized Israel, with some using language decried as antisemitic. The bill’s passage would mean the definition would apply when officials adjudicate Title VI complaints alleging campus antisemitism.

Supporters of the bill say it covers the range of ways antisemitism manifests in the present day. The definition’s opponents say it chills legitimate criticism of Israel.

Those critiques did not hinder the bill, which passed Wednesday 320-91. Republicans voted 187-21 for the bill, and Democrats supported it 133-70. Eighteen members did not vote, split evenly between the parties.

An identical version is under consideration in the Senate, and while it is in its early stages, it too is likely to pass.

But opponents of the IHRA definition in Congress included New York Rep. Jerry Nadler, the House’s longest-serving Jewish Democrat.

“Speech that is critical of Israel alone does not constitute unlawful discrimination,” The Associated Press quoted Nadler as saying during a hearing Tuesday. “By encompassing purely political speech about Israel into Title VI’s ambit, the bill sweeps too broadly.”

Kenneth Marcus, the chairman of the Brandeis Center for Human Rights and a Department of Education civil rights official under the Trump administration, said that the bill, should it become law, would be a useful tool on campuses given the recent turmoil.

“From a federal perspective, this legislation won’t change current practice so much as it will reinforce it,” Marcus said in a statement, noting that both the Biden and Trump administrations have worked to combat antisemitism on campuses. “From a university perspective, however, there are few U.S. universities that are consistently applying the IHRA definition in appropriate cases. This legislation should put a stop to that.”

Americans for Peace Now, a dovish pro-Israel group, worried in a statement that the bill, should it become law, would be used “as a cudgel against the millions of Americans, including many Jewish Americans, who object to the Netanyahu government’s decisions and actions,” referring to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s conduct of the war against Hamas.

How each lawmaker voted was not yet available, but a number, including Nadler, had said in advance they would oppose it. Others include Rep. Pramila Jayapal, the Washington Democrat who leads the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

Speaker Mike Johnson, a Louisiana Republican, said passing the legislation was a priority, but the Republican no votes were a sign of how difficult it is for him to control the party’s far right and also of the increasing tendency on the Republican far right to reconsider, if not embrace, long-scorned antisemitic tropes.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Georgia Republican who constantly clashes with me moderate Republicans, said she would vote against because she worried it would criminalize what she said was a Christian belief that the Jews were responsible for killing Jesus, a belief repudiated by many large Christian denominations. Others on the far right voting against included Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, who also recently voted against aid to Israel.

Other bills with bipartisan backing that would combat antisemitism are wending their way through both chambers of Congress, including one that would set up a coordinator to monitor and combat domestic antisemitism, a counterpart to the existing State Department envoy to combat antisemtism overseas, a position currently held by the prominent Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt.

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