Congress Defers ‘Anti-Semitism’ Bill to 2017

WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives failed to pass a bill targeting campus anti-Semitism, delaying the legislation until 2017, according to two informed Congressional staff members who spoke with Jewish Insider. On December 1, the Senate unanimously passed the “Anti-Semitism Awareness Act of 2016,” two days after it was introduced. The legislation expands the Department of Education’s definition of anti-Semitism to include criticism that “demonizes” and “delegitimizes” Israel or applies a “double standard” against the Jewish state.

A Congressional staff official, who insisted on anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue, told Jewish Insider that Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), Chairman of the House Committee on the Judiciary, was responsible for deferring the measure.  Since this is the House’s final week in session, Goodlatte opposed  “rushing” the bill through without adequate study, noted the Hill staffer. Goodlatte “thought the wording was a little vague and there were definitely first amendment issues as well,” the Congressional official added.   

The House Committee on the Judiciary did not immediately respond to Jewish Insider’s request for comment.

The bipartisan measure, led by Reps. Ed Royce (R-CA), Ken Buck (R-CO), Ted Deutch (D-FL) and Peter Roskam (R-IL), defined anti-Semitism by a 2010 State Department guideline. “This legislation will help the Department of Education investigate incidents of discrimination motivated by anti-Semitism in our schools,” Senators Tim Scott (R-SC) and Bob Casey (D-Pa.), sponsors of the Senate version, explained.

ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt enthusiastically supported the measure.  “This act addresses a core concern of Jewish and pro-Israel students and parents; When does the expression of anti-Semitism, anti-Israel sentiment, and anti-Zionist beliefs cross the line from First Amendment protected free expression to unlawful, discriminatory conduct,” he said.  

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, Associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, told Jewish Insider that the bill was especially important since he believes that most American universities have “either closed their eyes to the problem (of anti-Semitism) or given a wink and a nod” to the issue. When asked about the charges that the measure would limit free speech, Cooper dismissed these critiques. “When there is a pushback against bullies, very often they (those attacking Israel) will present themselves as victims,” he added.   

Despite the delay, the Congressional official emphasized, “I am quite certain that based on the overwhelming support this bill receives from outside groups and members that there will be an interest and a drive to consider this and review it next year.” A second Hill staffer noted that generally the Senate operates more cautiously when advancing legislation, but in this case, the House was the body that delayed the anti-Semitism bill.

Although most of the established Jewish community backs the measure, some liberal organizations including Americans for Peace Now have publicly opposed the bill for not addressing the rise in anti-Semitism led by the “alt-Right” while also “policing” university debate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. J-Street is undecided about the measure explaining that the bill requires additional Congressional study.

Given that both the House and Senate will need to reintroduce the bill in the next session, Norm Brownstein, a superlobbyist who led the effort in supporting this legislation, quoted his friend the late Senator Edward Kennedy as best describing the current environment and the way forward in 2017. “The work begins anew. The hope rises again. And the dream lives on.”

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