Antisemitism bills shouldn’t stifle free speech

The Virginia State Capitol building in downtown Richmond, Virginia.

Antisemitism is a serious and growing problem in the United States. Attacks on American Jews and Jewish communal institutions are at an all-time high, and a new survey finds that “classical fascist” antisemitic views, pernicious conspiracy theories about Jews as a powerful conspiratorial cabal with nefarious intent, are increasingly widespread. In Virginia, we witnessed firsthand how far-right antisemitism led to deadly violence in Charlottesville. Navigating this new normal, my congregation in Richmond has been forced to decide between utilizing our scarce resources to support congregants’ spiritual well-being and ensuring their physical safety, and our commitment to welcoming the stranger and our need for stationing armed guards outside our building.

As a Virginia rabbi, I am grateful for the efforts of our elected officials to combat this rising peril. But some recently introduced bills in the General Assembly seem more about scoring political points than actually combating antisemitism. These bills distract attention from the real threat and, in the process, endanger our shared American value of free speech.

The bills are an outgrowth of Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s Commission to Combat Antisemitism, which he established as one of his first official acts. In principle, studying the problem of antisemitism and proposing solutions is praiseworthy. But in practice, the commission was problematic from the start.

For starters, Youngkin filled the committee with like-minded political allies rather than a more diverse group of experts and Jewish Virginians who would have better represented the breadth of perspective in our community. Additionally, antisemitism today too often emanates from the far-right of our political spectrum. Moreover, mainstream conservative politicians, including Youngkin himself, and media personalities too often echo — or at least refuse to disavow — these views. For this reason, the many Democratic allies of the Jewish community should have a role in any conversation about combating antisemitism. But, prioritizing political advantage over the well-being of Jewish Virginians, Youngkin refused to include progressive voices on the commission.

Despite this flawed process, the commission actually ended up recommending many commonsense solutions, such as amending hate crime statutes to cover Jewish Virginians and better training for law enforcement, that will doubtlessly save Jewish lives. But some of its recommendations — such as codifying the International Holocaust Remembrance Association (IHRA)’s definition of antisemitism and barring the commonwealth from doing business with contractors that support boycotting Israel — are misguided and potentially dangerous.

While it would be impossible for the commonwealth to fully combat antisemitism without providing a legal definition, codifying the IHRA’s definition is problematic. Some of the examples of antisemitism included within the IHRA definition focus on the intersection of antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiment. It is certainly true that rhetoric used by some critics of Israel, such as targeting the wider Jewish community or denying the right of the state of Israel to exist, evokes long-standing stereotypes and antisemitic tropes. But conflating antisemitism with all criticism of Israel endangers legitimate free speech and distracts from the primary antisemitic threat, namely white supremacy. For precisely this reason, the IHRA’s lead drafter, Kenneth Stern, has testified in Congress and elsewhere that this definition was a “working draft” intended for educational purposes, and never meant to be codified into law.

Similarly, legislators have proposed codifying the commission’s recommendation that the commonwealth be prohibited from doing business with contractors that endorse boycotts of Israel. As a supporter of Israel, I vigorously oppose the BDS movement, the international effort to influence Israeli policy by financial means. But as a Jewish American, I am committed to our country’s bedrock principle of free speech, even when I find that speech objectionable.

Our First Amendment freedoms are precisely what has made my people’s experience in America unique to Jewish history, and they provide critical safeguards for all minority groups. We permit them to be eroded at our peril. Already, states have used anti-Israel BDS laws (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) as a blueprint to prohibit states from doing business with companies that touch other hot-button issues. West Virginia, for example, won’t do business with companies working to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. Texas won’t do business with banks that stop investing in guns. Florida has threatened to stop doing business with companies that oppose anti-LGBTQ legislation. Virginia should not go down this slippery slope.

The moment calls for people of conscience across the political spectrum to join together and combat antisemitism and all forms of bigotry. But eroding our constitutional rights while diverting focus from the real threat is not the path forward.

This article was originally published by the Richmond Times-Dispatch:

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