As an educator and a Jew, I am troubled by the support in our Legislature for H.3643, which purports to protect Jewish students and faculty but in practice would harm free speech at educational institutions, where robust political debate on important international issues should be encouraged.
H.3643 directs public colleges to adopt a widely discredited definition of anti-Semitism, adding no new protections against acts of hate or racism. Instead, it conflates criticism of Israeli government policies with anti-Semitism. Kenneth Stern, lead author of the definition used in H.3643, has disparaged its use at educational institutions, calling it an “ill-advised idea that would make matters worse” and warning that “it would also damage the university as a whole.”
One of many bills recently introduced at federal and state levels, this bill threatens to silence advocates of Palestinian freedom and equality, whose numbers continue to grow in this 50th year of Israel’s military occupation of Palestine. Such measures, including this one, have been criticized by civil rights and constitutional attorneys, student groups, university faculty and innumerable Jewish citizens.
I have witnessed anti-Semitism in South Carolina myself, and it did not involve criticism of the Israeli government, nor would it have been prevented or redressed by this legislation. One spring day in 2007, shortly after joining the USC faculty, my apartment door frame mezuzah was smashed, and “JEW” was scrawled in red next to where it had hung. The police officer scoffed when I called it a hate crime, and no further investigation occurred, even though hallway cameras almost certainly recorded the perpetrators.
The right to dissent and produce scholarship directed at improving the dire situation in Israel-Palestine is protected by the First Amendment. Attempts to curtail the free flow of ideas by tarring political discourse as anti-Semitic are un-American and un-Jewish. If this bill passes, the Legislature will have wasted valuable resources enacting a damaging law. If institutions attempt to enforce it, taxpayers will foot the costs of losing a legal battle to defend unconstitutional assaults against free speech and academic freedom.
Joshua N. Cooper