Antisemitism Awareness Act of 2023

Floor Speech

Date: May 1, 2024
Location: Washington, DC

Mr. Speaker, I devoted much of my life to combating anti-Semitism, and I am as attuned as anyone to threats and bigotry aimed at Jewish people. I will take lectures from no one about the need for vigorous efforts to fight anti-Semitism on campus or anywhere else.

I am also a deeply committed Zionist who firmly believes in Israel's right to exist as a homeland for the Jewish people. However, as someone who is also a longtime champion of protecting freedom of speech, I must oppose this misguided bill.

While there is much in the bill I agree with, its core provision would put a thumb on the scale in favor of one particular definition of anti-Semitism to the exclusion of all others, to be used when the Department of Education assesses claims of anti-Semitism on campus.

This definition adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, or IHRA, includes ``contemporary examples of anti-Semitism.'' The problem is that these examples may include protected speech in some contexts, particularly with respect to criticism of the State of Israel.

To be clear, I vehemently disagree with the sentiments toward Israel expressed in those examples, and too often criticism of Israel does, in fact, take the form of virulent anti-Semitism.

Many Jewish students no longer feel safe on campus, and some colleges have not done nearly enough to protect them. However, while this definition and its examples may have useful applications in certain contexts, by effectively codifying them into title VI, this bill threatens to chill constitutionally protected speech. Speech that is critical of Israel alone does not constitute unlawful discrimination. By encompassing purely political speech about Israel into title VI's ambit, the bill sweeps too broadly.

As the ACLU notes, if this legislation were to become law, colleges and universities that want to avoid title VI investigations or the potential loss of Federal funding could end up suppressing protected speech that is criticizing Israel or supporting Palestinians.

Moreover, it could result in students and faculty self-censoring their political speech. Even the IHRA definition's lead author, Kenneth Stern, opposes codifying the definition that he wrote, the IHRA definition, for this reason.

Vigorous enforcement of the Federal civil rights law does not depend on defining terms like ``anti-Semitism'' or ``racism.'' In fact, codifying one definition of anti-Semitism to the exclusion of all other possible definitions could actually undermine Federal civil rights law because anti-Semitism, like other forms of bigotry, evolves over time, and future conduct that comes to be widely understood as anti-Semitic may no longer meet the statutory definition.

Mr. Speaker, we cannot ignore the context in which this legislation is being rushed to the floor in a cynical attempt to exploit, for political gain, the deep divisions currently on display at college campuses across the country.

Much of this activity, whether you agree with the sentiments expressed at these protests or not, constitutes legally protected speech and expression. Some participants, shamefully, have exhibited anti-Semitic conduct, and the Department of Education will rightfully investigate them, consulting the IHRA definition and other relevant definitions in the process. They do not need this legislation to help them with their inquiries.

Some students have even crossed the line into vandalism, destruction of private property, and willful disruption of campus life. They too will face legal consequences, and nothing in this bill will affect that. There is no excuse for bigotry, threats, or violence directed at anyone, anywhere, and it is imperative that we confront the scourge of anti-Semitism. Congress can help, but this legislation is not the answer.

Instead of engaging in political theatrics that do not do anything concrete to stop anti-Semitism on campus, we need to put our money where our mouth is. Last year, the Biden administration outlined a comprehensive national strategy to counter anti-Semitism, the cornerstone of which was increasing enforcement actions by the Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Education.

President Biden's budget called for a 27 percent increase in funding for that office. If my Republican colleagues are serious about fighting anti-Semitism, they would have fully funded that request. Instead, they bragged about proposing to slash funding by 25 percent, funding to enforce the laws against anti-Semitism on campus. They bragged about proposing to slash funding by 25 percent and ultimately insisted that funding be kept flat despite the marked increase in anti-Semitism complaints. If my Republican colleagues are serious about anti- Semitism, we would be considering legislation to codify the national strategy today instead of fiddling with definitions.

If my Republican colleagues were serious about anti-Semitism, they would have spoken up after neo-Nazis in Charlottesville chanted: ``Jews will not replace us.''

If my Republican colleagues were serious about anti-Semitism, they would have spoken up when President Trump declared that there were ``very fine people on both sides'' of that rally.

Additionally, just last week, former President Trump downplayed what happened in Charlottesville, calling it a ``peanut'' compared to recent campus protests of the Israel-Gaza war, and we heard crickets from the Republicans.

We hear nothing from our Republican colleagues when some conservatives repeated anti-Semitic tropes about George Soros or others.

I say to my Republican friends: For too long, your selective silence on these matters has been deafening. If you mean what you say here today and if you believe that the threats and vitriol that Jewish students face on college campuses is unjust and that combatting anti- Semitism is more than a convenient talking point in your politically motivated crusade against institutions of higher education, then I beseech you: Please move beyond pointless gestures and posturing and actually help us protect Jewish students. Fully fund the administration's efforts to counter anti-Semitism and other forms of discrimination. Our Nation's students deserve no less.

By contrast, this legislation threatens freedom of speech, one of our most cherished values, while doing nothing to combat anti-Semitism.

Mr. Speaker, the gentleman's remarks are slanderous.

First of all, the bill that I cosponsored 2 years ago was a different bill. It did not exclude--let me read from this bill: ``The use of alternative definitions of anti-Semitism impairs enforcement efforts by adding multiple standards and may fail to identify many of the modern manifestations of anti-Semitism.''

That is nonsense, and it was not in the bill that was, I think, about 7 or 8 years ago. The two bills are different.

Second, I oppose this bill because it infringes on freedom of speech, and there are Jewish groups, such as Reconstructionist Judaism, J Street and T'ruah that oppose this bill for the same reason, and they are not anti-Semitic. There are Jewish groups that support the bill. There are Jewish groups that oppose the bill.

I have been a supporter of Israel and of Zionism, and an opponent of anti-Semitism all my life. I have been active in Zionist organizations ever since I was in high school, and to say that anyone who votes against this bill is supporting anti-Semitism is a disgrace.

There are differences of opinion that occur on this floor from time to time, honest differences. Someone who opposes this bill may think that it infringes on freedom of speech. Someone who opposes this bill may note that the author of the IHRA definition that this would enshrine in law said don't codify it. The author, Kenneth Stern, said this is a good working definition that may indicate anti-Semitism. So are the other two, but it should not be codified into law because that could make, depending on the circumstances, free speech illegal. The author of the IHRA definition said that.

There may be legitimate differences of opinion between those who support this bill and those who oppose this bill, but to say that anyone who opposes this bill supports anti-Semitism is a disgraceful slander.

Mr. Speaker, every bit of conduct that Mr. Molinaro described is loathsome, as he says, but that does not mean that we ought to pass a bill that threatens freedom of speech.

This bill will do nothing to help stamp out anti-Semitism on campuses or anywhere else, but it will threaten free speech for the reasons I stated before.

Again, anti-Semitism is a terrible thing. Hamas is a genocidal organization which wants to kill all Jews, not just the State of Israel. There is no question about that. There is no question we have to fight anti-Semitism. There is no question the Manning bill is a good step in that direction. There is no question we ought to give the Office for Civil Rights the 25 percent increase the President has requested to enforce title VI on college campuses where there has been no question there has been vile anti-Semitism.

That, however, does not mean we should pass this bill. This bill enshrines the IHRA definition, and I would remind you that the IHRA definition's chief author, Kenneth Stern said: Don't codify it in law because if codified into law, it would be destructive of free speech. The author of the IHRA definition said that.

The bill also specifically excludes the Jerusalem and Nexus definitions. There is no good reason for that. All three definitions give examples of things that may be seen as anti-Semitism, that may indicate anti-Semitism. None of them should be codified into law, as this bill would do for one of them.

I don't know why one and not the other two, but this bill would enshrine one of them into law against the will of its own author, who said this is my best definition, but don't enshrine it into law, or, rather, don't codify it into law because if it is made law, it could infringe free expression, and that is why not only the ACLU, but J Street, T'ruah, the Reconstructionist Jewish Movement, and a dozen other Jewish groups oppose this law, not because they support anti- Semitism--they obviously don't--but because they both oppose anti- Semitism and support freedom of speech, and those of us who oppose anti-Semitism and support freedom of speech ought to vote ``no'' on this bill.

Mr. Speaker, I strongly support meaningful action to combat anti- Semitism. Unfortunately, that is not the legislation before us. We risk threatening freedom of speech while providing no new tools that the Department of Education does not already have to investigate claims of anti-Semitism.

The White House has developed a strong blueprint for countering anti- Semitism, and there is already legislation to implement these policies. We should be working together to pass that legislation and to provide our civil rights enforcement agencies with the resources they need to address anti-Semitism wherever it occurs.

This legislation is a distraction from the important work ahead of us to protect our students and all those who face discrimination. Not only is it a distraction, but it also threatens freedom of speech.

Mr. Speaker, I urge Members to oppose it, and I yield back the balance of my time.