Wednesday, 22 May 2019

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Florida Anti-Semitism bill goes where a law shouldn’t | Editorial - Sun Sentinel

By Editorial Board: Sun Sentinel | Florida, For Sun Sentinel, On 08 May 2019, Read Original
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Although Gov. Ron DeSantis might hesitate to veto any bill that the House and Senate passed unanimously, the 32 Jewish Floridians who asked him to reject anti-Semitism legislation (HB 741) gave him good reasons why he should.

It goes too far. As they pointed out, some of its provisions confuse anti-Semitism with criticism of Israel. That has profound constitutional problems, as the bill is plainly meant to be enforced throughout Florida’s public schools, colleges and universities. The staff report on HB 741 remarked on the constitutional issue, noting that “the United States Supreme Court has emphasized that the First Amendment right to free speech includes a right to make hate speech.”

Much contemporary criticism of Israel indeed is animated by anti-Semitism, from the left as well as the right, and it is reprehensible.

And anti-Semitism, in all its ugly aspects, is on the rise. According to the FBI, hate crimes against Jewish people and institutions increased by 37 percent from 2016 to 2017, followed by lethal mass shootings six months apart at synagogues in Pittsburgh and near San Diego.

In Florida, Jewish centers have had bomb threats and Jewish sites have been vandalized with painted swastikas. Some of the public posts to an online article on the HB 741 controversy were the vilest anti-Semitism imaginable.

But HB 741 is about more than that. It makes the State of Florida a party to an intense debate among American Jews over policies of the Israeli government that, to some, violate ethical principles of their faith and foreclose the possibility of a fair and peaceful permanent resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

 

J-Street, a pro-peace Jewish lobby in the U.S., criticized the bill as seemingly intended to “crack down on campus critics of Israel” rather than the “xenophobic, white nationalist far right.”

“At a time when we should be welcoming and valuing open debate on issues of social concern,” said the Floridians’ letter to DeSantis, “HB 741 is a heavy-handed attempt to silence public criticism of the Israeli government’s human rights violations. Agree or disagree with the critics, the Florida Legislature has no business intruding on those discussions. Additionally, the accusation that such criticism is anti-Semitic does a disservice to the real issues of anti-Semitism that should concern all of us today.”

The letter objected also to citing only anti-Semitism as an example of religious discrimination, and it accused bill sponsor Rep. Randy Fine, R-Brevard, of intending to “punish critics of the Israeli government.” Fine, who has been a firebrand on the issue, validated the critics’ opinion of him in his response to Florida Politics. He dismissed them as 32 Jews out of 700,000 in Florida who “don’t want to ensure their own children and grandchildren be protected in school…”

The 32 signers include two well-known South Florida constitutional lawyers, Alan Levine and Benjamin Waxman, and two rabbis.

The legislation amends Florida’s Educational Equality Act which requires equal access and prevents discrimination against students and employees in Florida’s K-20 public education programs. It adds religion to the existing prohibitions against discrimination on grounds of race, ethnicity, national origin, gender, disability and marital status.

So far, so good. That would protect people of all faiths, including Islam.

But then it deals explicitly and only with defining anti-Semitism. The exclusion of other bigotries, such as anti-Islamic prejudice, occasioned a bitter debate in the House.

The bill requires educational institutions to treat anti-Semitism in “an identical manner to discrimination motivated by race.” A student accused of anti-Semitism could be disciplined or expelled. A teacher or professor could be fired, entirely on the basis of constitutionally dubious language

Among other things, HB 741 cites these supposed examples of anti-Semitism:

“Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interest of their own nations…

.” (D)rawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis…

“Applying a double standard to Israel by requiring behavior of Israel that is not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation, or focusing peace or human rights investigations only on Israel…

“Delegitimizing Israel by denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination and denying Israel the right to exist...”

It attempts to qualify those metrics by saying that criticism of Israel, similar to criticism of other countries, isn’t anti-Semitic, and to say that none of the language “shall be construed to diminish or infringe” upon any First Amendment right.

But that still leaves too much to someone’s judgment. It is not the government’s business to control what people might say about any issue, let alone one so consequential and emotional as the long search for an elusive peace in a land sacred to three religions.

The dubious definitions come largely from a document adopted in 2005 by the European Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia and later by the U.S. Department of State. The lead author was Kenneth S. Stern, former director on anti-Semitism for the American Jewish Committee.

But Stern opposes their use in educational settings because they were meant only as guidelines for research and diplomacy. The staff report made the Legislature aware of that.

In a December 2016 New York Times op-ed, Stern wrote that congressional attempts to write them into U.S. law were aimed directly at the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel, which has traction on many college campuses. At best, he said, “students and faculty members will be scared into silence, and administrators will err on the side of suppressing or censoring speech.”

“Rather than suppressing speech about the conflict,” he concluded, “we should be encouraging it. How else will students learn?”

[*Picture: The Boy Who Cried Wolf (by Latuff) Wikimedia Commons]