It’s not often that Georgia must look eastward for a legislative lesson from South Carolina, but the Palmetto State has set an important example for the second time in three years.
South Carolina in June 2015 became the first state with a law countering the anti-Israel boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. Then-Gov. Nikki Haley, who has been a forceful advocate for Israel as U.N. ambassador, signed the law, which simply says government contractors and suppliers must promise not to boycott Israel or any other country with which South Carolina enjoys open trade.
Georgia enacted similar legislation — specifying Israel and excluding local governments — in 2016, and half the states in the nation now have some form of anti-BDS law. While such measures set a potential price for boycotting Israel — forgoing state government contracts — they do not block anyone’s First Amendment rights to express and act on their opinions. That’s why a federal law barring contractors from participating in the Arab boycott of Israel has survived 40 years since President Jimmy Carter signed it.
Now South Carolina has become the first state to define anti-Semitism in law.
A state budget bill that won final passage Thursday, April 12, Yom HaShoah, included the definition of anti-Semitism used by the State Department and most Western nations. Under that standard, anti-Semitism can involve a call for violence against Jews, the advocacy of conspiracy theories surrounding Jews, Holocaust denial or the application of a double standard to Israel — that is, criticizing Israel for behavior that is common for other democratic nations.
That last element is controversial. Israel’s foes charge that they are accused of anti-Semitism whenever they criticize Israel. Most American supporters of Israel, however, are not upset by legitimate criticism of the Jewish state; to the contrary, we all have policies and actions we criticize.
The complaints, meanwhile, most often come from people who reject Israel’s existence and thus Jewish peoplehood.
But defining anti-Semitism does not outlaw it. People who hate Jews or the Jewish homeland are free to say anything they want; South Carolina has not tried to override the First Amendment. Instead, the anti-Semitism definition provides a standard to help judge the motivation for actions that are already barred, such as violent crimes. It also makes a statement that the state government recognizes and opposes the enduring danger of anti-Semitism (at least for 12 months — because the measure was attached to the budget, it expires with the budget after a year).
College campuses are a big concern for organizations that cheered the South Carolina legislation, which Gov. Henry McMaster promised to sign. They include the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law and the Israel Allies Foundation.
“This bill gives South Carolina the tools to protect Jewish students’ and all South Carolina students’ right to a learning environment free of unlawful discrimination,” said the Brandeis Center’s director of legal initiatives, Aviva Vogelstein.
The Conference of Presidents’ leadership called the legislation “historic action in the fight against hatred and bigotry toward Jews at a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise in the U.S. and around the world.”
We urge candidates for the Georgia General Assembly to pledge to support similar legislation next year if they are elected.