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The House antisemitism bill: What we know

The Antisemitism Awareness Act was passed in response to conflicts on US university campuses over pro-Palestinian activism and antisemitism amid the Gaza war.
Supporters of Palestine gather at Harvard University to show their support for Palestinians in Gaza at a rally in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on Oct. 14, 2023.

The US House of Representatives passed a bill on Wednesday that would broaden federal anti-discrimination law on what constitutes antisemitism, leading to mixed reactions domestically as the unrest at university campuses over the Gaza war rages on.

The Antisemitism Awareness Act of 2023 received 320 yay votes to 91 nays. By party, 187 Republicans voted for the bill, compared with 21 who voted against it, while 133 Democrats voted for it and 70 voted against.

The bill was introduced by New York Republican Mike Lawler back in October in response to rising antisemitism throughout the United States.

The passage of the bill follows significant unrest at university campuses over pro-Palestinian activism amid the Gaza war. On Tuesday evening, police cleared the Gaza Solidarity Encampment at Columbia University, arresting more than 100 people after students occupied a building on campus. The university, along with others, has been dealing with allegations of antisemitism from Jewish students and faculty with regard to the protests, while pro-Palestinian protesters say they are being censored for criticizing Israel.

The bill: The act calls for the US Department of Education to consider the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism when investigating violations of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The 1964 act is a federal anti-discrimination law that prohibits discrimination based on race, color and national origin at federally funded institutions. The IHRA is an intergovernmental organization based in Berlin that works on issues related to the Holocaust. The United States, Israel and 33 mostly European other states are members. Turkey is among eight observer states.

The IHRA definition does not hold that all criticism of Israel is antisemitic, stating that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.” The definition does include some Israel-related examples of antisemitism, though, including the following, per its website:

  • “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.”
  • “Applying double standards by requiring of it (Israel) a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.”
  • “Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.”

According to expert Kenneth Stern, who worked on the IHRA definition when he was the American Jewish Committee’s antisemitism expert, the definition was composed in 2004 and 2005 in response to an uptick in attacks on Jews in Europe that coincided with the second intifada. With regard to criticism of Israel and antisemitism, Stern told Al-Monitor in August that some people “cut and paste” Israel for Jews, but that the definition should not be used to “hunt speech.”

The Antisemitism Awareness Act follows a 2019 executive order in which former President Donald Trump instructed federal law agencies to consider the IHRA definition when enforcing Title VI. The act would codify the order in law, and its text reads that the Department of Education has been using the IHRA definition since 2018 in regard to violations of Title XI.

Reactions: The passage of the bill drew both praise and criticism on Wednesday. The American Jewish Committee said in a post on X that the bill is “helpful in understanding the many faces of antisemitism,” adding that its “application on campuses and in schools could not be more timely.”

The Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) criticized the bill, saying that the IHRA definition is too broad in its assessment of Israel-related antisemitism.

“Those members of Congress who voted against this act understand that the IHRA definition too broadly censures critiques of the Israeli government, its policies, and its genocidal and discriminatory treatment of the Palestinian people,” said CAIR’s government affairs director Robert McCaw in a statement.

The bill has been criticized by some lawmakers in both parties. New York Democrat Rep. Jerry Nadler, the longest serving Jewish lawmaker in the House, said ahead of the vote the law going by the IHRA definition could restrict free speech. "The problem is that these examples may include protected speech in some context, particularly with respect to criticism of the state of Israel," he said.

Texas Republican Rep. Chip Roy expressed similar concerns in a statement, saying, "The definition of 'anti-Semitism' used by this bill was created by an international organization and includes certain examples that pose First Amendment concerns."

Congressmen Nadler and Roy both voted against the bill.

New York Democrat Rep. Ritchie Torres, a proponent of the bill, said adopting the IHRA definition would not result in censoring any criticism of Israel. 

"If you can somehow figure out how to critique Israeli policies and practices without calling for the destruction of Israel itself, then no reasonable person would ever accuse you of antisemitism," he said in a post on X.

What’s next: The bill will next need to pass the Senate, after which it would require a signature from the president to become a law. Congress' website indicated that the bill was received in the Senate on Thursday. Sen. majority leader Chuck Schumer said the same day that the next steps are unclear. 

"There are objections on both sides, so we’re going to look for the best way to move forward," he told reporters.