Controversial antisemitism bills are passing, and not only in the US House

RALEIGH, N.C. (RNS) — A group of Jewish, Muslim and Christian activists gathered outside the state’s General Assembly on Wednesday (May 8) to protest a bill that would codify a controversial definition of antisemitism into state law.

The Shalom Act is similar to the Antisemitism Awareness Act that passed the U.S. House of Representatives last week. Critics, including those who demonstrated outside the General Assembly, contend it is intended to silence criticism of Israel and to crack down on the growing number of pro-Palestinian rallies roiling college campuses.

But that gathering of Jews, Muslims and Christians did little or nothing to convince legislators. Only four hours later, the state House, which has a Republican supermajority, passed the bill and sent it on to the state Senate.

Both bills, federal and state, adopt the controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism.

While the IHRA definition itself does not mention Israel, it goes on to offer several examples of antisemitism that do. Manifestations of antisemitism, it states, “might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity” and offers several examples such as: “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.”

“This bill will blur the line between legitimate criticism of the well-documented war crimes and human rights violations committed by the Israeli government, and antisemitism,” declared Lela Ali, co-founder of Muslim Women For, a Durham, North Carolina, activist group that is fighting the state legislation.

Lela Ali, co-founder of Muslim Women For, speaks at a news conference May 8, 2024, outside the North Carolina General Assembly in Raleigh, N.C., against a bill that would codify a controversial antisemitism definition now being considered by legislators. (RNS photo/Yonat Shimron)

Ali was joined in Raleigh by activists from Carolina Jews for Justice, the Unitarian Universalist Justice Ministry and members of the local chapters of Jewish Voice for Peace and the American Civil Liberties Union, among others.

These groups, like their national counterparts, have said the IHRA definition is deeply flawed and if passed by the assembly will not only trample free speech but may be used to quash dissent of Israel.

The resurgence of antisemitism in the U.S. led several states to adopt the definition. Since 2017, 40 states have taken it up, with 14 states passing it into law and 14 more adopting it by proclamation. In nine states it was adopted by resolution and in three states by executive order, according to the Foundation for Middle East Peace.

Major U.S. Jewish organizations support the definition and have championed its passage. In North Carolina, the Jewish Federation of Raleigh-Cary is advocating its passage and its chief executive met with Gov. Roy Cooper on Wednesday to urge him to sign it.

“We really feel like that’s something that we need right now,” said Phil Brodsky, the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Raleigh-Cary. “There’s been just so many incidents in public schools. We’re getting calls from parents, and administrators don’t necessarily know what antisemitism is, so a definition is extremely important.”

Nationally, the Jewish Federations of North America have also championed the U.S. House bill.

Legal experts, academics and liberal politicians have been sharply critical of the IHRA definition.

“Rather than helping us clearly delineate or try to delineate the distinction between legitimate criticism of Israel and antisemitism, I think the examples actually blur that distinction,” said Dov Waxman, professor of Israel studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.

On the left, many Jewish groups believe such bills are being pushed by Republicans to portray Democrats as weak on antisemitism. The massive student protests at campuses across the state have prompted Republicans to hold hearings on antisemitism with college presidents as well as leaders of primary and secondary schools.

“Republicans and the right are very invested in suppressing dissent, suppressing criticism and it’s very convenient for them to use this narrative of fighting antisemitism to crack down on student protests and student demonstrations,” said Sandra Korn, an activist with the Triangle chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace.

The bills have divided Democrats as well.

U.S. Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York, one of the longest-serving Jewish members of the House, led the opposition to the bill there, amid fears it would endanger free speech on campus. Rep. Jamie Raskin, another Jewish House Democrat, voted yes on the bill while outlining his criticism for it in a lengthy statement.

It is not yet clear that it will pass the U.S. Senate. But in North Carolina, its passage in the state Senate is likely.

Waxman said that state-led adoptions of the IHRA definition are now a more proven strategy, but that doesn’t make them effective.

“Rather than helping us build a broad coalition to address to combat rising antisemitism, it just stokes divisions and divisive debates over this definition,” said Waxman. “It makes it harder, therefore, to form the kind of coalitions that are necessary to tackle antisemitism as well as other forms of racism.”

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