Goodlatte signals skepticism about anti-Semitism bill

WASHINGTON – In a contentious debate on Tuesday before the House Judiciary Committee, Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) appeared to demonstrate concern regarding the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act. In December of 2016, the Senate unanimously passed the bill introduced by Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC). However, the House legislation, sponsored by Representatives Ted Deutch (D-FL) and Peter Roskam (R-IL), has remained stalled in the jurisdiction of the Judiciary Committee, headed by Goodlatte, and never received a vote.

Responding to a claim by the American Jewish Committee (AJC)’s Rabbi Andrew Baker that anti-Semitism appears in both new and traditional forms, Goodlatte noted, “To some, however, the phenomenon that anti-Semitism changes over time and presents itself in different forms over time would counsel against codifying any particular definition of anti-Semitism.”

The Anti-Semitism Awareness Act 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.

As Chairman, Goodlatte wields considerable power over the committee’s business deciding which measures receive a vote, a necessary step before floor-wide consideration. Democrats have voiced frustration that the Virginia lawmaker has blocked inquiries into the firing of former FBI Director James Comey and other Russia-related investigations. Similar to last year, some backers of the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act are concerned that Goodlatte will block another vote of the bill during the current 115th Congress.

During a later question, Goodlatte revealed his possible preference to delay the bill and noted that President Donald Trump nominated Kenneth Marcus, an advocate for the usage of the State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism, to the Department of Justice’s civil rights division. Goodlatte asked that if he is confirmed, “Might it be best to wait and see the results of using such a definition before Congress codifies the statute?” The chairman also condemned anti-Semitism as “abhorrent” while expressing concern about the BDS movement.

“Our request here today is a simple one—please adopt the State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism,” pleaded Rabbi Abraham Cooper, Associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. “It won’t put an end to history’s oldest hate but it will provide campus administrators, Police, the Department of Education and other concerned parties with the basic tools necessary to ensure that Jewish students will be afforded the same rights and protections as everyone else on campus and provide a clear signal to the purveyors of such hate that they will be held accountable.” Christians United for Israel’s (CUFI) Sandra Haguee Parker cited in her testimony the intimidation that Christian supporters of Israel face, in explaining her organization’s reasoning to back the bill.

Invited to testify by Goodlatte, Professor Barry Trachtenberg, Professor of Jewish History at Wake Forest University, strongly opposed the legislation. “It is a factual distortion to characterize campuses in the United States as hotbeds of new anti-Semitism,” Trachtenberg said.

The Director of Wake Forest University’s Jewish Studies program explained, “There is nothing necessarily wrong in comparing the actions of Israel to those of Nazi Germany.”

However, Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) noted that there has been a 59% increase of anti-Semitic acts during the first three quarters of 2017 compared with the previous year. Responding to the testimonies of professors opposing the legislation, Greenblatt asserted that the bill does not harm free speech and emphasized, “As you reflect upon the views of academics who live with the privileged tenure in the ivory tower, listen to those of us who work on main street.”   

The ADL head cited the support from Jewish organizations who back the bill including AIPAC, the American Jewish Committee (AJC), Jewish Federations of North America. However, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) later said, “Not every Jewish group supports this bill. I have a letter here from J Street U opposing it, and there are groups that do not support the bill and there are groups that are (supportive).”

In a striking moment used to illustrate the rising tide of anti-Semitism, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) played a recording on her cell phone from the protests this summer in Charlottesville at the University of Virginia with white supremacists chanting: “Jews will not replace us.”

But, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) placed the blame of anti-Semitism at college campuses on universities themselves. “There are college campuses that are going out of way to try and appear so embracive of Islam that they become anti-Semitic.”

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