A report in the Guardian has revealed how "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".
According to the paper, "first amendment advocates see the potential spread of such laws as a major threat to free speech on campuses."
The report is based on access to emails obtained by the Centre for Media and Democracy (CMD), which lay out details of a conference held in August in Austin, Texas, organised 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 Alec-convened gathering saw "several Republican state lawmakers" and "pro-Israeli lobbyists" discuss ways of "disseminating new restrictions on speech relating to Israel on campuses across the heartlands". The meeting was reportedly led by Randy Fine, "a Republican from Florida who was instrumental in passing in May the first state law outlawing antisemitism in public education".
As described by the Guardian, "pro-Israel and conservative lobbyists are encouraging state lawmakers to outlaw antisemitism in public education, from kindergarten through to graduate universities", using a definition of anti-Semitism "so wide" that it would "prohibit debate about the human rights violations of the Israeli government".
The emails obtained by CMD "give a clear indication of the motive behind the push for antisemitism bills – countering criticism of Israel on campuses."
Fine, for example, wrote 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 the leading Palestine solidarity network on US campuses, with chapters at more than 80 universities. It has been at the forefront of promoting the Palestinian-led campaign for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS).
Liz Jackson, a staff attorney with Palestine Legal, told the Guardian: "It's riding off the universally agreed idea that antisemitism is bad and must be stopped at a time of a frightening resurgence in white supremacist violence. It's extremely cynical to masquerade as fighting antisemitism when you are, in fact, shutting down criticism of Israel."
The clauses relating to Israel in the definition of anti-Semitism "now being disseminated to several states emanates from a 2005 text from the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC)", itself a text almost identical to that now used for the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA)'s definition of anti-Semitism.
Ken Stern, director of the Bard Centre for the Study of Hate "who was a lead drafter of the EUMC text, said it was intended to facilitate reporting of antisemitic attacks across Europe.
"It was never intended to suppress discussion of ideas on campuses."