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AAUP ID's Legislative Threats to Academic Freedom: Redefinitions of Antisemitism and Racism

Download:  Legislative Threats to Academic Freedom: Redefinitions of Antisemitism and Racism


The past few years have seen an increase in partisan political attempts to restrict the public education curriculum and to portray some forms of public education as a social harm. Two targets are particularly evident: teaching about the history, policies, and actions of the state of Israel and teaching about the history and perpetuation of racism and other accounts of state-enabled violence in the United States. In both cases, conservative politicians have justified restrictive legislation under the guise of protecting students from harm, including discriminatory treatment or exclusion. In the first case, legislation defines antisemitism to include political criticism of the state of Israel. In the second, legislation defines critical analysis of the history of slavery and its legacies in US society as being itself racially discriminatory against whites. In this way, politicians obfuscate or deny the serious challenges their actions pose to free speech and academic freedom. The evident purpose of such legislation is to protect Israel or the United States from critical examination of their history and policies.

There is a clear connection between recent laws on antisemitic speech and those on teaching about racism. New legislation on antisemitic speech amends civil rights laws to address antisemitism as a special form of discrimination. But civil rights laws already include antisemitism among prohibited forms of discrimination. Thus, while the growth of antisemitism is a severe threat, it can and should be addressed under existing civil rights laws as religious or race discrimination. These new laws, however, expand the definition of antisemitism to encompass political speech, with several discriminatory effects. Political critiques of Israeli state actions—including discrimination and violence against Palestinians—become subject to the charge of antisemitism, skewing the social and legal meaning of equality and obscuring other prohibited forms of discrimination. Redefinitions also feed Far Right attempts to depict teaching about systemic racism, including pedagogy employing “critical race theory,” as discriminating against white people. Such legislation reinterprets social understandings of equality and justice by inverting the very meaning of racism, misrepresenting its perpetrators as its victims. Scrubbed of its past, a now innocent nation bears no responsibility for ongoing racial or settler-colonial violence.

The core assertion of the AAUP’s 2021 Statement on Legislation Restricting Teaching about Race applies equally to legislative restrictions on teaching about the history and ongoing actions of Israel: “Since its founding in 1915, the AAUP has steadfastly opposed political interference in the conduct of this country’ institutions of higher education. Today the AAUP condemns in the strongest possible terms the recent actions to ban, limit, or distort the teaching of history and related academic subjects.”

The IHRA Definition of Antisemitism

In 2016, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) offered a “working definition” of antisemitism that has since been widely adopted all over the world. The problem with the definition, as its many critics have pointed out, is that it equates criticism of the policies of the state of Israel with antisemitism. Fifty-six scholars of antisemitism, Jewish history, and the Israel-Palestine conflict have called the IHRA definition “highly problematic and controversial,” noting that it privileges the political interests of the state of Israel and suppresses discussion and activism on behalf of Palestinian rights. It has provided a pretext to bring coercive legal actions against supporters of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement, denying proponents of this peaceful form of economic and cultural protest their freedom of expression. And it has led to cancellation of university courses and conferences on the rights of Palestinians and to targeting faculty members in Middle East studies for dismissal and other severe sanctions. In an effort to remedy the effects of the IHRA definition, a group of scholars in the United States, Israel, Europe, and the United Kingdom drafted the “Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism,” which—with the explicit aim of protecting academic freedom—acknowledges the importance of combating antisemitism while seeking a clearer definition of it, one that does not blur the distinction between antisemitic speech and political critiques of Israel and Zionism.

Kenneth Stern, one of the authors of the IHRA definition, has stated that it “was never intended as a tool to target or chill speech on a college campus.” Stern has objected to what he has called the “weaponizing” of the definition, arguing that its misuse undermines efforts to detect and combat real instances of antisemitism. As a result, Stern has opposed attempts to enact legislation that incorporates the IHRA definition, including the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act, first introduced in Congress in 2018. This controversial bill, which did not pass, would have required the Department of Education, under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, to consider factors and examples similar to those encompassed by the IHRA definition when evaluating complaints of antisemitic discrimination. Although the federal Anti-Semitism Awareness Act failed, efforts continue in the states, where lawmakers have proposed similar bills, framing them, ironically, as tests of commitment to diversity and inclusion.

Read entire article at American Association of University Professors