Bill to define anti-Semitism passes state House

Critics, including the ACLU and 54 other groups, argue the bill criminalizes free speech




The Anti-Defamation League reported that there were 1,879 anti-Semitic incidents in the United States in 2018, including the attack by a white supremacist that killed 11 Jewish worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, shown here. (Photo by Stephen Caruso/Pennsylvania Capital-Star)

A bill that would incorporate a definition of anti-Semitism into Arizona law has sparked opposition from critics who say it would criminalize speech protected by the First Amendment. 

House Bill 2683 incorporates the definition of anti-Semitism used by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) to help law enforcement collect information regarding anti-Semitism prejudice. 

The bill passed the House of Representatives and will next go to the Arizona Senate where it is expected to pass. 

A coalition of 55 advocate groups and scholars sent a letter to senators on Wednesday, urging them to oppose the bill, saying its language is so “overbroad and vague” it could be misinterpreted by law enforcement and infringe on people’s First Amendment rights.

The letter’s signers included the ACLU Arizona, Palestinian American Community Center, American Friends Service Committee, Jewish Voices for Peace and the National Lawyers Guild.

“The bill seeks to introduce and codify a broad definition of anti-Semitism that “conflate[s] antisemitism with both criticism of Israel and anti-Zionism; as a result, the implications of this new legislation for free speech are alarming,” the letter in opposition says. 

It “would also allow for the criminalization of protected speech,” the letter continues. “The proposed legislation will make statements that are protected by the First Amendment potentially punishable in criminal court.”

‘Bill is unnecessary’

Darrell Hill, policy director of ACLU Arizona, said the state already has bias crime reporting procedures for hate crimes directed at the Jewish community and that the bill is unnecessary. 

“We thought it was important to bring together a large coalition of all faiths, Jewish, Muslim, Christian and so forth and have them come together and let the legislature know that we do not need this bill to fight anti-Semitism,” Hill said. “We can fight anti-Semitism without jeopardizing people’s right to free speech and free expression.”

IHRA defines anti-Semitism as “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

IHRA’s definition has been adopted by 19 countries, including Canada, France and the United Kingdom, and the U.S Department of State. The definition also includes over 10 examples of what would be identified as anti-Semitic, such as denying the facts of a Holocaust or calling for the harming of Jewish people. 

But it has sparked debate among the Palestinian community and free speech scholars, who believe that some of the examples used by IHRA to identify anti-Semitism include criticism of Israel. 

“We feel this is extremely important because of everything we’re seeing around the country and around the world.”

Rep. Alma Hernandez, D-Tucson

Critics bring up two examples that concern them the most: “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,” and “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”

ACLU Arizona and others are troubled by the examples because of their vagueness. They argue that if someone were to make a criticism of Israel that they would not typically make of another country it would be considered anti-Semitic.

HB2683 would adopt IHRA’s definition and allow Arizona’s law enforcement to use it in determining the number of anti-Semitic cases happening in the state.

Anti-Semitism is on the rise’

The bill’s prime sponsor Rep. Alma Hernandez, D-Tucson, disagreed that the bill limits free speech, and said she sponsored it to fight the anti-Semitism that her community and the nation is facing. 

“We know that  is on the rise — not only in my community, which is a Jewish community. We feel this is extremely important because of everything we’re seeing around the country and around the world,” Hernandez said during a debate on the House floor last month. “This might not be important to other people, but it is definitely important to us.”

The Anti-Defamation League reported that there were 1,879 anti-Semitic incidents in the United States in 2018, including the deadliest attack on Jewish people in the country’s history. In October 2018, 11 Jewish worshippers were killed at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh by a white supremacist.

Advocates for the bill, including the Israeli American Coalition of Action, agreed with Hernandez that the bill doesn’t abridge free speech and is necessary to combat the rise in anti-Semitism. 

Jake Bennett, the director of state legislative affairs for the coalition, said that the bill will help law enforcement better evaluate when someone “ventures into crime and discriminatory conduct.”

“This bill explicitly protects free speech … this definition is being adopted as an evaluation tool for cases of crime and discriminatory conduct which are not protected under the First Amendment,” Bennett said. 

HB2683 passed the House on a 52-8 vote. One of the eight people who voted against the bill is Rep. Athena Salman, D-Tempe, whose father immigrated to the United States from Palestine. 

During an emotional speech on the House floor last month, Salman said she understands how it feels to be religiously discriminated against and recalled the time her family became “enemies overnight” in the aftermath of 9/11. 

“I know we have a problem and I know there are a lot more that the state needs to be doing to fix it. This bill does not fix it. This bill is unconstitutional,” Salman said.