Free-speech advocates and pro-Palestine student groups on Wednesday sharply condemned an S.C. House proposal they say would suppress criticism of Israel on S.C. college campuses.
But the bill’s supporters – including a House panel that unanimously OK’d the proposal over loud objections Wednesday – say that charge is ill-informed. The proposal is meant to curb a rising tide of anti-Semitism across the country, they said at the tense, hour-long hearing.
Jewish community centers across the U.S., including one in Columbia, have been targeted with bomb threats, and the FBI last week arrested a Conway man who planned a Dylann Roof-style attack and had mentioned a synagogue in a Facebook post.
“Unfortunately, anti-Semitism is alive and thriving today,” said state Rep. Alan Clemmons, R-Horry, who authored the bill and got a whopping 86 other House members to cosponsor it.
The bill would require S.C. colleges to use a controversial definition of anti-Semitism when investigating alleged civil rights violations on campus.
Ten opponents of the bill Wednesday said that definition, drafted by the State Department 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 lawmakers had imposed, they said the bill would discourage college discussions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and gag pro-Palestine student groups, they said.
“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 ideal to curtail our freedom of speech.”
The bill’s supporters roundly rejected those concerns. They pointed to a line in the bill that declares no part of the bill should be construed to diminish First Amendment rights and a line in the State Department definition that 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, such as public 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 people’s 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.
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. Virginia and Tennessee are considering similar bills.
Also escalating tensions Wednesday was a disagreement over whether the bill mentions speech about Israel at all.
House members at times said the bill included no reference to the state, while opponents noted the second page of the State Department definition includes examples of “What is Anti-Semitism Relative to Israel?”
Those examples are known as the Three D’s:
▪ Demonizing Israel, such as comparing modern Israeli policy to that of the Nazis or referring to Israelis as being related to the devil or demons
▪ Delegitimizing Israel by denying its right to exist
▪ Double standards – criticizing Israel using standards not demanded of other democratic nations.
That 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 against it. Clemmons has sponsored – and gotten passed – a number of pro-Israel House resolutions in recent years.
But opponents of the anti-Semitism bill say the dozens of House members who signed onto it 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.”
Staff writer Cassie Cope contributed to this story.
State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism
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
However, criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic.
SOURCE: U.S. Department of State