Arguments Over the Antisemitism Awareness Act, Explained

Wooden plaques with messages and prayers sit on train tracks leading to the former Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi death camp in Poland are pictured on May 6, 2024. (Photo by WOJTEK RADWANSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

Since October 7, 2023, many American campuses have been roiled by demonstrations, threats of violence, and harassment, aimed especially at Jewish students. Incidents of antisemitism in America have risen sharply. In 2023, the Anti-Defamation League noted a 140 percent increase compared to 2022, and the number is poised to go up again in 2024. University presidents have lost their jobs by failing to balance the right to protest with obligations to protect students and maintain a conducive learning environment.

The Antisemitism Awareness Act (AAA), which passed the House in a 320-91 vote on May 1, attempts to confront this worrying trend by empowering the Department of Education to “hold college administrators accountable for refusing to address antisemitism on their campuses,” according to Rep. Michael Lawler, a New York Republican and one of the bill’s co-sponsors. Its fate in the Senate is still uncertain.

What is the Antisemitism Awareness Act?

The AAA builds on Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which “prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin in programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance.” The AAA supposes that antisemitism is directed at the “actual or perceived shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics” of some students, which should bring them under Title VI protection. Title VI does not apply to religious or ethnic categories, and since Jews come from a variety of national origins and racial backgrounds, expanding the parameters is necessary to consider them a protected class.

The bill instructs the Department of Education to pursue “forms of discrimination rooted in antisemitism as vigorously as against all other forms of discrimination prohibited” by Title VI. If the AAA were to become law, universities that failed to protect students against antisemitic discrimination would put their federal funding at risk. This would include direct grants to the institution, as well as indirect funding through student loans.

The AAA’s definition of antisemitism is the most contentious element of the bill. It embraces standards adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) in 2016, which says, “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews.” This expression might be rhetorical or physical, and it is directed toward individuals, property, institutions, or religious facilities. Examples the IHRA cited included denying the fact or scope of the Holocaust, engaging in stereotypes about the power of Jews in the economy or media, challenging the right of self-determination for Jews, or claiming Israel is, by definition, a racist state.

The AAA mimics a 2019 executive order signed by President Donald Trump, which also relied on the IHRA’s understanding of antisemitism. If passed, the AAA would codify these standards in federal law (whereas an executive order can be rescinded by subsequent presidents).

Divisions among Republicans.

Of the 21 Republicans who voted against the AAA, most—including Reps. Chip Roy, Harriet Hageman, Michael Cloud, and Ralph Norman—are members of the hardline House Freedom Caucus.

Republican opponents of the legislation generally argued against it along two fronts. Roy, for example, registered strong “First Amendment concerns” with the bill, as did Hageman and Reps. Andy Biggs and Byron Donalds. The AAA, since it targets hate speech (and more) directed toward Jews, would run into Supreme Court precedents that forbid the government from engaging in viewpoint discrimination to protect minorities. Public institutions in particular must apply any restrictions against free speech–like time, place, and manner regulations–evenly, or regardless of the speaker’s point of view. The Supreme Court has also demanded a clear line between protected speech that is offensive and harassment or imminent lawlessness. Put differently, using the IHRA’s guidelines to recognize antisemitism could be a poor legal framework for such a constitutionally fraught issue. Even Kenneth Stern, an attorney who crafted the IHRA language, has said the definition wasn’t written to guide statutory language.

Other Republicans, including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, said they feared the AAA could be misused to target Christians “for believing the Gospel that says Jesus was handed over to Herod to be crucified by the Jews.” This thinking was refined by R. Albert Mohler—a key voice on the Christian right and the leader of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary—who, despite regarding the intention of protecting Jewish students on campus as noble, worried that “by the bill’s loose logic the entire New Testament can be targeted as hate speech.” This argument has a long tail. The teaching that Jews had “rejected and killed Jesus and therefore were rejected and cursed by God,” caused a great deal of antisemitic persecution at the hands of Christians throughout history, according to the Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion. 

But some Democrats ridiculed Greene—who herself has been accused of antisemitism in the past—and those saying they fear that Christian theology by itself could be the basis for charges of antisemitism. “I don’t think the Jewish community is worried right now what the ‘Jew Laser Lady’ has to say,” Rep. Jared Moskowitz noted, referring to a 2018 Facebook post from Greene. “That’s not who we want on our side.” (Lawler, one of the Republican cosponsors of the bills, said Greene’s claim was “absurd on its face, inflammatory and irrational.”)

Republicans in favor of the AAA also included hardline conservatives like Reps. Debbie Lesko, Scott Perry, Mary Miller, and prominent Freedom Caucus members (Reps. Bob Good and Jim Jordan). Notably, Rep. Elise Stefanik, who, like the Freedom Caucus members is closely aligned with Donald Trump, staunchly supported the AAA. Arguments varied but were animated by a desire to protect Jewish students, even with a flawed instrument. The opportunity to send a strong signal to elite academia was too tempting to ignore. “There are not two legitimate sides to this issue,” GOP Rep. Mark Molinaro said. “The erection of encampments on college campuses isn’t an expression of speech; it is a direct threat to Jewish students.” 

Divisions among Democrats.

Democrats have their own divisions, and the current conflict in Gaza has deepened them. Democratic representatives who collectively have become known as the Squad (Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Pramila Jayapal) were among the 70 Democrats to vote against the AAA. Jayapal echoed some Republicans in saying the bill’s definition of antisemitism was too broad and might endanger protected speech, while also accusing Republicans of attempting to “weaponize antisemitism” as a “political ploy” to divide Democrats. Rep. Jerry Nadler, who describes himself as a “committed Zionist,” also voted against the AAA and argued the bill “threatens to chill constitutionally protected speech” because its language “sweeps too broadly.” 

Some of the 133 Democrats who supported the AAA were unequivocal, while others seemed conflicted. Rep. Josh Gottheimer sponsored the bill, and said,  “This bill protects the First Amendment,” he noted. “It allows criticism of Israel … it doesn’t allow calls for the destruction or elimination of the Jewish state … Even more, it reminds us that our universities have a Title VI obligation to stamp out harassment on the basis of race, color, or national origin.”

Rep. Jamie Raskin, a former constitutional law professor, had mixed views. He was wary of First Amendment problems. He viewed the IHRA’s definition of antisemitism as too vague, and claimed the bill would likely violate due process because “it does not give a reasonable person notice of what the proscribed speech or conduct is even in the most rudimentary sense.” Yet he voted in favor of the bill not because the bill would “help much,” but in the hope it would not “hurt much.” Raskin also thought the AAA could bring “consolation” to some of those despairing in the face of antisemitism.

Will the Senate take it up?

The future of the AAA is uncertain. The Senate may take it up, and the chamber has a stronger history of bipartisanship than the House, though some senators such as Rand Paul and Mike Lee have already expressed reservations. “There are objections on both sides,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said after the bill passed the House.

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