Documents seen by Guardian show fresh attack on university debate under the guise of prohibiting antisemitism
Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu in 2017. First amendment advocates see the potential spread of such laws as a major threat to free speech on campuses. (Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)
Ed Pilkington, The Guardian US, 17 Oct 2019
Rightwing activists are attempting to spread new laws across Republican-controlled states that would ban criticism on public university campuses of Israel and its occupation of Palestinian territory.
Pro-Israel and conservative lobbyists are encouraging state lawmakers to outlaw antisemitism in public education, from kindergarten through to graduate universities. But the proposed definition of antisemitism is so wide that, in addition to standard protections against hate speech towards Jews, it would also prohibit debate about the human rights violations of the Israeli government.
First amendment advocates see the potential spread of such laws as a major threat to free speech on campuses.
Among the activities that would be prohibited by the new laws are human rights investigations focusing specifically on Israel. Also banned would be any speech “demonizing Israel by … blaming Israel for all inter-religious or political tensions” or “delegitimizing Israel by … questioning Israel’s right to exist”.
The push began at a conference in August held by the American Legislative Exchange Council, Alec, a conservative network which has a long history of propagating rightwing policies at state level through model bills. The group, dubbed a “bill mill”, has spearheaded attacks on trade unions, opposition to Obamacare, voter suppression measures and legislation blocking efforts to address the climate crisis.
The meeting at Alec is disclosed in emails obtained under a freedom of information request by David Armiak, research director for the watchdog Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) and shared with the Guardian. They show that several Republican state lawmakers joined pro-Israeli lobbyists in Austin, Texas, to discuss disseminating new restrictions on speech relating to Israel on campuses across the heartlands.
The private meeting was led by Randy Fine, a Republican from Florida who was instrumental in passing in May the first state law outlawing antisemitism in public education. A week later he emailed fellow participants under the subject line: Anti-Semitism Bill Discussed at Alec.
Fine has faced controversy in the past over his aggressive opposition to public debate about Israel. Earlier this year he called a local Jewish constituent a “Judenrat” because the man had attended a forum titled: Palestine/Israel, Opening the Dialogue.
The term “Judenrat” was the name for Nazi-mandated councils in Jewish ghettos during the second world war and has been used to refer to Jews who collaborated with the Nazis.
Also attending the meeting at Alec were lawmakers from South Carolina, North Carolina, Arkansas, Kansas and Oklahoma, as well as representatives of two pro-Israel lobbying groups. “It was great to see you at the Alec conference last week in Austin and to briefly share the work we did in passing HB 741, the strongest antisemitism bill ever passed in the United States,” Fine wrote to them.
The former governor of Florida Jeb Bush speaks at the American Legislative Exchange Council in 2013. (M. Spencer Green/Associated Press)
The Florida Republican encouraged peers in other state assemblies to work with one of the lobbying groups, the Israeli-American Coalition for Action, which he said had been “instrumental in providing outside support as I pushed the bill”. In a separate email to the group, IAC for Action’s Joseph Sabag said that he and his legal team had taken Fine’s Florida bill and “refined it into a model that can be brought elsewhere. I urge you to contact me or Rep Alan Clemmons and take advantage of our policy support if you are considering filing a bill.”
Clemmons is Alec’s national chairman. A Republican representative from South Carolina, he introduced a similar antisemitism definition into a budget bill in his state in 2018.
Sabag told the Guardian that it would be incorrect to suggest that IAC for Action was encouraging state lawmakers to adopt the definition. He said his organization “provides legal analysis and policy resources in response to requests from legislators who wish to draw upon our subject matter expertise. Antisemitism is a hot issue right now, so of course there are many who are naturally interested.”
He also denied that Alec was involved in the legislative push. “No such bills have been presented to them for model consideration, and they’ve held no policy discussions on the matter or taken any position.”
The emails seen by the Guardian, he said, “emerged out of an after-hours private gathering of friends and colleagues, not an Alec function and Alec held no such forum or discussion at its conference”.
The Guardian asked Alec to comment, but received no reply.
The emails give a clear indication of the motive behind the push for antisemitism bills – countering criticism of Israel on campuses.
Fine writes that under the new laws “antisemitism (whether acts by students, administrators or faculty, policies and procedures, club organizations etc) [will] be treated identically as how racism is treated. Students for Justice in Palestine is now treated the same way as the Ku Klux Klan – as they should be.”
Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) is a leading pro-Palestinian student activist group that campaigns in at least 80 campuses for an international boycott of Israel in protest at its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. It has been at the forefront of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement in the US that has already prompted a number of states to pass new laws penalizing such boycotts of Israel to the dismay of free speech advocates.