Pacific Dialogue
The anti-semitism awareness act
By Danny Haiphong  ·  2024-05-17  ·   Source: Web Exclusive


A Palestinian child stands on the rubble after an Israeli airstrike on the Nuseirat refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip, May 19. At least 31 Palestinians were killed in this airstrike while the Israeli army announced the killing of two of its soldiers in battles in the enclave (XINHUA)  

Narrative and spin play an enormous role in U.S. policy, both foreign and domestic. The political class in Washington champions U.S.-style democracy as exceptional to all other forms of governance. U.S.-style democracy is said to offer the broadest protections of free speech, under which individuals need not worry about punishment or reprisal. This is a core tenet of American exceptionalism. The equation is simple: Americans possess free speech while people in other nations, especially those living in nations the U.S. elite views as “adversaries,” do not. 

Few other events have underscored the hypocrisy of U.S. claims to free speech more than the Israeli war on Gaza, labeled by many around the world as a modern-day genocide. A number of college professors including Amin Husain of New York University (NYU) and Danny Shaw of John Jay College, also in New York, have been suspended or fired for their criticisms of Israeli policy. Political pressure to ban TikTok has increased dramatically due to the large number of young social media users who have used the app to express their concerns about U.S. and Israeli policy in Gaza. Student activists have been brutally repressed by the police for forming encampments to demand that U.S. politicians and college administrators play their roles in pressuring a ceasefire in Gaza and an end to U.S. economic investments in Israel. 

Student protest has also inspired draconian legislation designed to limit criticism of Israel. On May 1, the House of Representatives approved the Antisemitism Awareness Act (AAA). On the surface, the bill simply expresses Congress’s opinion on antisemitism. However, it also requires the U.S. Department of Education, which oversees the nation’s universities, to use the definition of antisemitism from the Stockholm, Sweden-based International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) when investigating or assessing discrimination.  The IHRA defines some forms of criticism of Israel as antisemitic, specifically “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor,” “applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation,” and “drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis. 

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a non-profit established in 1920 to promote and protect human rights in the U.S., publicly condemned the Act both before and after it was passed. According to the ACLU, U.S. federal law already prohibits antisemitism by federally funded institutions such as universities and the AAA is therefore unnecessary. “Instead, it would likely chill free speech of students on college campuses by incorrectly equating criticism of the Israeli government with antisemitism,” reads a public statement urging Congress to oppose the law, issued by the ACLU on April 26.   

Cases from other legal systems that have adopted the IHRA definition suggest the consequences of doing so extend far beyond limiting the free speech of students. According to a report released in June, 2023 by the European Legal Support Center, an organization established to provide legal assistance to the Palestine solidarity movement in Europe, the IHRA definition of antisemitism has already been adopted by many states and institutions in Europe and has been employed as a premise for firings, withdrawn job offers, canceled public events, and disciplinary procedures in Germany, Austria, and the U.K. All who have faced accusations of antisemitism under the definition were advocating Palestinian rights. However, when faced with legal challenge, most of the accusations were dismissed as unsubstantiated. By making this definition legally binding, the U.S. is making it easier to accuse those supporting Palestine of criminal behavior.    

Creating a “free speech exception” through the Antisemitism Awareness Act is a prime example of how free speech is put into practice to serve the geopolitical interests of the U.S. and its top ally in the Middle East, Israel.   

The U.S. commitment to Israel can be traced to the deep influence of what's termed the “Israel Lobby,particularly the well-known lobby organization, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). In 2022 alone, AIPAC and affiliated lobby groups spent over $50 million to ensure pro-Israel candidates were elected into U.S. Congress. A report published in January by The Guardian titled Revealed: Congress Backers of Gaza War Received Most From Pro-Israel Donors" found that members of Congress were far more likely to support Israel than those candidates who received little to no funding. Such immense influence has translated directly into policy.   

As the saying goes, money isn't everything. However, when it comes to Israel, effective lobbying from AIPAC and other pro-Israel lobby groups has aligned with U.S. foreign policy interests. While U.S. administrations don't always agree with Israel, the two countries collaborate not only in managing the Palestine question in Israel's favor but also on several other foreign policy ventures. The U.S. and Israel share an aggressive policy toward Syria, Iran, and the Iran-led Axis of Resistance. Israel supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the U.S.-NATO intervention in Libya in 2011. The U.S. views Israel as critical to its dominance in the Middle East, and Israel views the U.S. as critical to its own expansionist ambitions.  

The adoption of the Antisemitism Awareness Act demonstrates that free speech is no match for U.S. hegemonic interest and that U.S. support for Israel's war in Gaza is strong enough to curtail human rights in the United States itself.  

Martin Luther King Jr. said in 1967 that U.S. bombs dropped in Vietnam “explode at home.” The deeper that the United States plunges into international conflict, the more divided and polarized U.S. society itself becomes. By tailoring U.S. domestic policy to foreign policy interests, the will of the majority of Americans has been ignored. Most Americans disapprove of Israel’s actions in Gaza, and key voting blocs such as African Americans have expressed in large majorities that they would like to see the United States call for an immediate and permanent ceasefire. Instead of the United States playing a productive role as mediator in a conflict that has inflamed tensions domestically and globally, Washington’s active participation in the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza is indeed having ramifications at home and will have political implications that extend far beyond the coming election season. 

The author is an independent journalist and researcher in the United States. He is a contributing editor to the Black Agenda Report and founding member of the No Cold War international campaign  

Copyedited by G.P. Wilson 

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