A controversial anti-Semitism bill sailing through Congress has a new critic: The expert who wrote the definition on which the bill is based.
Kenneth Stern, formerly the American Jewish Committee’s specialist on anti-Semitism and extremism, says that the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act of 2016, which aims to combat campus anti-Semitism, is “both unconstitutional and unwise.”
Stern was the lead drafter of the definition of anti-Semitism used in the bill. He says he did not intend the definition to be used in the manner in which Congress is proposing to use it.
The bill, which has the support of such mainstream Jewish groups as the Anti-Defamation League, would instruct the DOE to consider a definition of anti-Semitism that includes “demonizing Israel” or “judg[ing] Israel by a double standard” when investigating discrimination claims.
That definition, now in use by the U.S. Department of State, is based on a longer anti-Semitism definition that Stern and others wrote for the European Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia in 2005.
“The definition was never intended to be used to limit speech on a college campus,” Stern wrote. “It was written for European data collectors to have a guideline for what to include and what to exclude in reports.”
Now executive director of the Justus & Karin Rosenberg Foundation, Stern has written a letter to the House Judiciary Committee, calling on the committee to reject the House version of a bill that has already passed the Senate.
He warns that the bill would create a “de facto hate speech code.”
Stern has been a longtime critic of Jewish communal efforts to convince universities and other institutions to officially adopt versions of the EUMC anti-Semitism definition he wrote. In 2011, he broke with his employers at AJC over the usage of the EUMC definition.
In his letter to the House Judiciary Committee, Stern argues that the law already protects Jews from anti-Semitism on college campuses.
“If this bill is passed, its proponents will have the ability to threaten federal funding at colleges and universities where political speech against Israel occurs, and where administrators then don’t try to stop it, or fail to put the university on record calling such speech anti-Semitic,” Stern wrote. “Think of the precedent this would set.”
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.