Our View: Safe Spaces

Our View: Safe Spaces

Anti-Semitism on college campuses is a rising problem, albeit one that remains rare in most of the United States, including Georgia.

In its annual report on anti-Semitism in late June, the Anti-Defamation League reported that the number of anti-Semitic incidents at colleges nearly doubled in 2015 to 90 incidents on 60 college campuses, compared with 47 incidents on 43 campuses in 2014.op-edcartoon-12-9-16

One problem, however, is defining campus anti-Semitism. For example, when pro-Palestinian students disrupted an appearance by young Israel Defense Forces veterans at the University of Georgia last school year, first by interrupting a speaker, then by staging a walkout, it was rude and not conducive to a collegial exchange of ideas. But was it anti-Semitism? Free speech? Both?

Legislation that unanimously passed the U.S. Senate on Thursday, Dec. 1, and that is expected to similarly breeze through the House attempts to provide a guide to answer those questions.

The Anti-Semitism Awareness Act, introduced by Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina and Democrat Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, is true to its title: It would not outlaw anything but would make Department of Education officials aware of the different forms of anti-Semitism when they enforce Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color or national origin.

The legislation calls on the department’s Office of Civil Rights to follow a definition of anti-Semitism that is used by the State Department and the European Union. It includes anti-Israel statements that go far beyond mere criticism to demonize the Jewish state, apply an impossible double standard to Israel or deny Israel’s right to exist.

The bill treads on a slippery free-speech slope, as it acknowledges by specifying that it should not be interpreted to infringe on the First Amendment. But we believe it walks that line successfully.

Anti-Semitism, while repugnant, is not illegal in the United States, nor should it be. The strength of our Constitution is that it removes the government from being the arbiter of what is and is not acceptable speech and thought. Bad actions may be punished, but bad ideas must be challenged and defeated in public discourse.

The value of the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act is not that anyone will be punished for comparing the IDF to Nazi storm troopers, asserting that Israel is an apartheid state, equating Zionism with racism or denying that millions of Jewish civilians were slaughtered in the Holocaust. Nor should the legislation cause anyone to be punished for using older, undeniably anti-Semitic slurs that white supremacists now feel empowered to hurl at Jews, such as calling us Christ-killers or subhuman.

What we hope the legislation does — and why it has earned the support of the ADL, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Jewish Federations of North America, among others — is increase understanding that certain statements are anti-Semitic and that certain actions have anti-Semitic motivations.

College administrations must ensure that their campuses enable the free exchange of ideas. People are free to say stupid and offensive things, as anti-Israel activists often do, but they may not stop others from responding. And they have no right not to be labeled as anti-Semites.

This legislation will not and should not shut them up, but it will help expose who they are.

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