J Street commends the members of the House Democratic Caucus who today voted against a harmful and irresponsible Republican amendment to the Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act – an amendment designed to pave the way for ill-considered crackdowns on free speech under the guise of combating antisemitism.
At a time when concerns and fears about rising antisemitism are justifiably running high, the amendment introduced by Rep. Lawler is a transparent effort to exploit those concerns. It threatens to pull federal funding to any institution of higher learning that fails to crack down on any alleged antisemitic statement at any event anywhere on their campuses. It could easily become a pretext for McCarthyite crackdowns and censorship – unfairly penalizing and targeting institutions that serve thousands of students.
Threatening our academic institutions – at a moment when what they truly need is support and assistance to deal with complex challenges – is a deeply unhelpful and counter-productive approach. This type of heavy-handed intimidation and threat from Congress is not the right way to help Jewish college students confront and defeat antisemitism on their campuses. To help keep our campuses and our country safe, tolerant and democratic, we need to uphold core freedoms, including freedom of speech, political activism, and academic inquiry.
Alarmingly, the Lawler definition would codify in US law one specific definition of antisemitism – the IHRA definition – despite considerable ongoing concern and controversy about this definition, particularly about how it could be used to unfairly target and silence legitimate debate on Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Earlier this year, when releasing the first-ever official White House strategy to combat antisemitism, the Biden Administration rightly recognized that codifying any one specific, sweeping definition of antisemitism as the sole standard for use in enforcing domestic law and policy could do more harm than good. They met with and listened to a wide range of Jewish communal stakeholders as they formulated this strategy, and put forward over 100 concrete recommendations and policies for combating hatred and keeping our communities safe.
We encourage Congress to promote and support those policies, and to avoid politicized, heavy-handed legislation on an issue that demands responsible and considered action.