Controversial definition of anti-Semitism set for full Senate vote




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 requiring a controversial definition of anti-Semitism when teaching about the Holocaust in Arizona schools passed Tuesday as lawmakers consider a flurry of budget bills. 

A strike-everything amendment turned House Bill 2282 from a small business grant bill into legislation that would define anti-Semitism in Arizona. The new language cleared the Senate Appropriations Committee Tuesday with the support of six Republicans and one Democrat, and is identical to a proposal a GOP senator tried unsuccessfully to tack onto an earlier bill about Holocaust education. 

Currently, the state requires schools to teach about the Holocaust and other genocides at least once in either seventh or eighth grade, and a history course including instruction of the Holocaust and other genocides is required in high school. 

The legislation approved Tuesday requires Holocaust instruction to include teaching about anti-Semitism based on a definition from the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. Critics say the definition say can be applied to “delegitimise the Palestinian cause and silence defenders of Palestinian rights” by painting all non-Zionist visions or perspectives as anti-Semitic.

Ahmed Soussi, an attorney, told the committee during public comment on Tuesday that the definition raises concerns about people’s First Amendment rights to criticize government and academic freedom. He said if a teacher uses an April report from Human Rights Watch that accused Israel of apartheid crimes, that content could be considered anti-Semitic. 

Sen. Paul Boyer, a Glendale Republican who pushed the unsuccessful language earlier this year, assured the committee that criticizing Israel, its settlements in Palestine and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are “fair game” under his proposal, which has a clause that the proposal “does not diminish or infringe upon” the constitutional rights of Arizonans.

Boyer emphasized that several U.S. federal agencies, presidential administrations and many European countries have adopted the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism.

“Anti-Semitism frequently charges Jews with conspiring to harm humanity, and it is often used to blame Jews for ‘why things go wrong,’” the IHRA guidance states.

Boyer said the purpose of adding this definition of anti-Semitism is to address and educate Arizona students about “this ancient hatred of the Jewish people” and call out past and recent instances “when Jews are scapegoated as a collective.”

The measure is opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona and the Secular Coalition of Arizona. 

Jamil Naser, of Arizona Palestine Solidarity Alliance, said he worries the IHRA definition will prevent other groups and organizations from doing “solidarity work with Palestine” because they could be unfairly labeled anti-Semitic.     

“It’s stifling free speech. You are not making a distinction between Judaism and Zionism,” he said. “It’s an un-nuanced viewpoint.”

Jamil Naser
Jamil Naser, of the Arizona Palestine Solidarity Alliance, speaks at a rally at the State Capitol on May 15, 2020. Hundreds of young people and families attended the event moved by the renewed war between Israel and Gaza. It was the largest pro-Palestine gathering Naser had seen in Arizona in 20 years. Photo by Laura Gómez | Arizona Mirror

On May 15, Naser helped organize a rally at the Arizona State Capitol. Hundreds of young people and families attended the gathering to mark the 73rd anniversary of Nakba, which means “catastrophe” and marks the historical events where 750,000 of Palestinians were displaced from their homes before Israeli independence in 1948. 

“It is the largest single event of ethnic Palestinian displacement by Israel, by brute force, by massacring people, by taking over villages, by terrifying women and children,” Naser said. 

The Arizona Palestine Solidarity Alliance refers to Israel as a “capitalist-based, settler colonial state” and draws comparison between militarized operations in the U.S.-Mexico border that impacts Indigenous communities in Arizona to the technologies, policies and practices of “the Israeli occupation of Palestine.” 

Naser said there are two IHRA examples of anti-Semitism 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 anti-Semitic.” The former contradicts what many Palestinians like himself understand to be true, and the latter is too vague, Naser said.

“It’s vague on purpose. The objective is clear: It’s in bad faith, it’s to stifle criticism of Israel,” he said. “It doesn’t matter where you fall on Palestine and Israel. It stampedes on all our First Amendments rights.”

Last year, Rep. Alma Hernandez, D-Tucson, had a hate crime proposal that would have used the IHRA guidance to assist law enforcement collect information regarding anti-Semitism prejudice. A coalition of 55 advocates opposed the measure.

This year, Hernandez has House Bill 2241 to require instruction of the Holocaust and other genocides at least twice between grades 7 and 12. It stalled in the Senate as Boyer tried to gather support for his IHRA antisemitism definition amendment, according to the Jewish News

In 2016, lawmakers passed a measure to prohibit public entities from contracting with companies that engage in boycotts of Israel — a key advocacy point of the “Boycott, Divest and Sanction,” or BDS, movement. In 2018, a federal judge prohibited the state from applying the law following a lawsuit alleging constitutional violations, but lawmakers in 2019 amended it to only apply to companies with at least 10 full-time employees and contracts valued at $100,000 or more. The changes meant the lawsuit challenging the law was dismissed, and the court allowed the law to go into effect. 

HB2282 cleared the Senate Rules Committee, which reviews the constitutionality of bills, on Wednesday and is cleared to be considered by the full Senate. If it passes on a Senate vote, it would return to the House of Representatives for a final vote.