Nearly 700 Jewish professors call on Biden not to sign controversial antisemitism legislation

A group of nearly 700 Jewish college faculty signed a letter to President Biden on Wednesday encouraging him not to back the controversial Antisemitism Awareness Act.

The academics took issue with the act’s use of the International Holocaust Awareness Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, which has raised concerns that legitimate criticisms of the state of Israel could be seen as antisemitic under the bill.

The bill easily passed the House last week, though 21 Republicans and 70 Democrats voted against it, with many voicing the same concerns as the faculty.

“Criticism of the state of Israel, the Israeli government, policies of the Israeli government, or Zionist ideology is not — in and of itself — antisemitic,” the letter to Biden and Senate leaders reads.

“We accordingly urge our political leaders to reject any effort to codify into federal law a definition of antisemitism that conflates antisemitism with criticism of the state of Israel,” it continues.

By using the IHRA definition in federal law, the letter claims, the bill could “delegitimize and silence Jewish Americans — among others — who advocate for Palestinian human rights or otherwise criticize Israeli policies.”

“By stifling criticism of Israel, the IHRA definition hardens the dangerous notion that Jewish identity is inextricably linked to every decision of Israel’s government,” the letter continues. “Far from combating antisemitism, this dynamic promises to amplify the real threats Jewish Americans already face.”

The IHRA defines antisemitism as “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews” and says “Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

The organization provides a number of examples for what qualifies as antisemitism, including calling for the harming of Jews in the name of a radical ideology or an extremist view of religion, and accusing Jewish individuals as inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust.

The letter urges lawmakers to instead pass the bill using a different definition of antisemitism, “without undermining Jewish safety and civil rights by insulating Israel from legitimate criticism.”

A total of 694 Jewish faculty from colleges and universities all over the country, and some across the world, had signed the document as of Wednesday afternoon.

Pushback against the bill in Congress united the far left and right wings of the House last week, with critics warning that the bill could chill free speech.

“Antisemitism is wrong, but this legislation is written without regard for the Constitution, common sense, or even the common understanding of the meaning of words,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) wrote on the social platform X.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), himself Jewish, said despite having “devoted much of my life to combatting antisemitism,” he was against the “misguided bill” that “threatens to chill constitutionally protected speech.”

The criticism comes as Congress focuses on antisemitism, given a rise in reported hate crimes against Jewish people. College campus protests have also taken the spotlight, as students at hundreds of campuses nationwide have launched pro-Palestine encampments, protesting the Israel-Hamas war and Biden administration policies toward Israel.

Biden has held up his record as tough on antisemitism in recent months. At a speech for Holocaust remembrance on Tuesday, he again denounced hate.

“Antisemitism, antisemitic posters, slogans, calling for the annihilation of Israel, the world’s only Jewish state,” he said in remarks at the Capitol. “Too many people denying, downplaying, rationalizing, ignoring the horrors of the holocaust and Oct. 7, including Hamas’s appalling use of sexual violence to torture and terrorize Jews. It’s absolutely despicable, and it must stop.”

Alongside the speech, the White House announced a handful of new actions Tuesday toward combating antisemitism, including new guidance for the Department of Education.

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