A recent bill introduced in New Jersey aims to treat criticism of Israel as anti-semtitism in public schools and colleges. The bill would codify a controversial definition of anti-Semitism that includes some criticims of Israel. While preventing discrimiantion, including anti-semetic discrimination, in public schools is an important state purpose, this law would lead to the expression of First Amendment protected speech about Israel to potentially be treated as a civil rights violation.It comes at a time when there has been a national upsurge in anti-BDS bills and bills criminalizing freedom of speech to criticize Israel.
Kenneth Sterns, the original author of the definition of anti-semitism, has opposed attempts to use it in publc schools and colleges, stating to do so threatens free speech. Laws like these are made with the intention of silencing opposition to the Israeli occupation, while making it seem like such criticism is anti-semitism. New Jersey civil rights law already prohibits religious discrimination in public schools and colleges.
Defending Rights & Dissent has opposed similar efforts in Florida, Virginia, and on the federal level. When President Trump nominated Kenneth Marcus for the head of the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Right (OCR) we opposed his nomiation due to his continued attempts to get the the OCR to adopt a definition of anti-semitism that conflates criticism of Israel with anti-semitism.
In response to the bill, over a dozen civil society groups sent a letter expressing concern with the bill and how it’s been used in other parts of the country. We’ve seen proliferation of bills aimed at silencing supporters of Palestinian rights. Twenty-seven states have adopted some form of anti-BDS bill, and 14 more have considered these bills. Considering that these laws pose a threat to the First Amendment right to freedom of speech it’s a worrying trend.