Free-speech advocates and pro-Palestinian student groups Wednesday sharply condemned an S.C. House proposal they say would suppress criticism of Israel on S.C. college campuses.
The bill’s supporters – including a House panel that unanimously OK’d the proposal over loud objections – told a tense, hour-long hearing the proposal is meant to curb a rising tide of anti-Semitism across the country.
Jewish community centers across the United States, including one in Columbia, have been targeted with bomb threats. Also, last week, the FBI arrested a Conway man, who had mentioned a synagogue in a Facebook post, and charged him with planning a Dylann Roof-style attack.
“Unfortunately, anti-Semitism is alive and thriving,” said state Rep. Alan Clemmons, R-Horry, who authored the bill, which has a whopping 86 of 124 House members cosponsoring it.
Never miss a local story.
The bill would require S.C. colleges to use a U.S. State Department definition of anti-Semitism when investigating alleged civil rights violations on campus.
Ten opponents of the bill said that definition, drafted in 2010, is vague and could be used to label Israel’s political critics as anti-Semites. Speaking hurriedly — to meet a two-minute time limit that lawmakers had imposed — opponents said the bill would discourage college discussions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and gag pro-Palestinian student groups.
“This bill, I fear, will silence professors and student groups who are trying to explain and to give voice to a diversity of opinions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” said Caroline Nagel, an associate professor of geography at the University of South Carolina. “I am frankly baffled as to why any legislator would consider an idea to curtail our freedom of speech.”
The bill’s supporters rejected those concerns.
They pointed to a line in the proposal that says no part of the bill should be construed to diminish 1st Amendment rights. A line in the State Department definition of anti-Semitism also explains “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic.”
The bill is meant to help colleges decide whether illegal activity or violations of school policy are anti-Semitic, supporters said. They contend it would not curtail already protected free speech, including demonstrations.
“This will help universities to determine whether something is ordinary vandalism or whether it’s intended to spread hate,” said Kenneth Marcus, president of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, which advocates for Jewish rights. “Similarly, there may be a difference between throwing a punch at somebody in a brawl versus going after minorities and physically attacking them. It can help administrators draw the distinction.”
South Carolina, which does not have a hate crime law, would become the first state in the country to adopt the State Department definition for its colleges to use. However, Virginia and Tennessee also are considering similar bills.
The proposal is modeled after legislation that U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-North Charleston, sponsored last December for the federal Department of Education. That bill passed the Senate but died in the House.
The University of South Carolina is aware of no anti-Semitic behavior or events on its campus, a spokesman said Wednesday in a statement.
Discrimination and bigotry have no place at USC, spokesman Wes Hickman said, adding the school also takes 1st Amendment rights seriously.
Escalating tensions Wednesday was a disagreement over whether the bill mentions speech about Israel at all.
At times, House members said the bill included no reference to Israel. Opponents noted the second page of the State Department definition includes examples of “What is Anti-Semitism Relative to Israel?”
Those examples include:
▪ Delegitimizing Israel by denying its right to exist
▪ Double standards – criticizing Israel using standards not demanded of other democratic nations.
Speech alone would not constitute a civil rights violation under the proposal, Marcus said.
However, he said, “If someone is engaged in that kind of rhetoric and then punches a Jewish student in the face, this may be evidence that they were selecting the Jewish student based on anti-Semitism.”
Supporters of the bill, including Clemmons, said they were surprised at the opposition to it. Clemmons has sponsored a number of pro-Israel House resolutions in recent years that passed.
Opponents say the dozens of House members who signed onto the bill were hoodwinked.
“They just think it’s something that’s nice for Israel,” said David Matos, president of Carolina Peace Resource Center. “They don’t realize it’s a pretty nasty attempt to suppress free speech on college campuses, and a legitimate attempt to suppress debate on college campuses on Israel and Palestine.”
Here is the U.S. State Department’s definition: “Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”
Modern examples of anti-Semitism
▪ Calling for, aiding or justifying the killing or harming of Jews
▪ Making dehumanizing or demonizing allegations about Jews or the power or Jews as a collective, including the myth of Jews controlling the media, economy, government or other societal institutions
▪ Accusing Jews as a people of being responsible for wrongdoing committed by a single Jewish person or group, the state of Israel or acts committed by non-Jews
▪ Accusing Jews as a people, or Israel, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust
▪ Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel than their own nations
Examples of anti-Semitism relative to Israel
▪ Demonizing Israel, such as using symbols and images associated with classic anti-Semitism to characterize Israel or by comparing modern Israeli policy to that of the Nazis
▪ Delegitimizing Israel by denying Jewish people their right to self-determination, and denying Israel the right to exist
▪ Applying double standards for Israel by requiring of it behavior not expected of any other democratic nation
Criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic, the State Department says.
SOURCE: U.S. Department of State