July 18, 2024
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July 18, 2024
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Bills Defining Antisemitism Advance Out of Senate Committee

After a total of nine hours of impassioned debate in virtual state senate hearings on two bills, including one that would adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, both were advanced out of committee.

The 4-1 vote by the State Government, Wagering, Tourism and Historic Preservation Committee was the first step before they are considered by the full legislature. Companion bills in the state assembly have yet to be scheduled for a hearing.

The lone dissenting vote came from Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Dist. 15), who cast her ballot after the hearing closed. The Mercer County legislator did not respond to a Jewish Link request for comment about her objection.

The two bills would also provide $100,000 for an educational campaign to fight antisemitism and include the IHRA definition of antisemitism and the United Nations definition of Islamophobia in the state Office of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging provisions.

In voting in favor of the bills, Sen. John McKeon (D-Dist. 27) voiced strong support for the legislation, citing the “intertwined” historical alliance that binds the United States and Israel together as allies in the war against terrorism and friends that share a belief in democracy and cultural ties as well as the need to protect the Jewish community from surging antisemitism. He was troubled by testimony that Zionism is being used as a slur against Jews and rise of antisemitic symbols.

McKeon said he heard two days of “harrowing” tales during which Jewish community leaders, residents and students told of experiences of being harassed, threatened and bullied in their towns, schools and campuses since the Oct. 7 attack on Israel by Hamas.

As the former mayor of West Orange, McKeon said he learned to have empathy for its diverse community, including racism experienced by Blacks and Latinos. “We’ve seen a rise in antisemitism around the state and around the country,” said McKeon, adding that likewise “my heart breaks” for Palestinians who testified they had lost family and friends in Gaza and were devastated by the destruction, adding he would be “equally and with passion” in support of a similar bill that would shield the Muslim community.

He downplayed contentions by many of those opposing the adoption of the IHRA that it would infringe on their First Amendment right to free speech and to criticize Israel, stressing “there has been no such impact” in the 36 states and dozens of countries that have adopted the measure, adding he hoped the governor signs it into law.

Also commenting on the legislation was Sen. Vincent Polistina (R-Dist. 2), who said he understood everyone’s passion, but a priority for the state is to protect Jewish community members “under increased attack and under increased abuse.”

Also casting affirmative votes without comment were Sens. James Beach (D-Dist.6) and Robert Singer (R-Dist. 30), sponsors of the IHRA bill.

Most comments from the Jewish community at the June 20 hearing largely took the same approach as in the first hearing three days earlier. These included supporting the inclusion of the IHRA and its provisions, which include denying Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, holding Jews collectively responsible for the actions of Israel, equating Israel’s actions with Nazism and denying the Holocaust, among other things, as antisemitism. However, there were detractors.

Rabbi Dovid Feldman, of United Against Zionism and Neturei Karta, an extremist haredi sect that advocates for the dismantling of the Zionist state, said, “Zionism is not the same as Judaism,” calling Zionism a “political tool” and insisting that “criticizing the genocide in Gaza is not antisemitism.” Rabbi Yisroel Dovid Weiss, who often shows up as spokesman for Neturei Karta, asked that the state not “use my religion to oppress another people in my name … Israel is not Judaism. It is Zionism.”

However, most of the Jewish community leadership and residents said the adoption would provide needed guidelines to law enforcement and academia to define antisemitic hate speech and actions in the face of skyrocketing antisemitism.

Mark Goldfeder, director of the National Jewish Advocacy Center in Atlanta and an attorney specializing in the First Amendment, testified those in opposition “did not read the bill or they don’t really understand how anti-discrimination bills work.

“You can say whatever you want, however abhorrent, about Jews or the Jewish state,” said Goldfeder, who authored the model on which the New Jersey bill is based. “Discriminatory acts are not speech and they are not protected under the First Amendment.”

As in the first hearing, Jewish community leaders and local community members testified about the shocking and often surprising ways antisemitism is manifesting itself. Although many came from areas with large numbers of easily identifiable observant Jews, others did not.

Rabbi Adena Blum of Cong. Beth Chaim in Princeton Junction said during the most recent annual Chanukah parade in nearby Robbinsville, as soon as menorahs were lit, someone began shouting antisemitic slurs. Students at surrounding public schools have encountered hearing such vile terms as “Heil Hitler” and “kike.”

Also, much like the first hearing, supporters and opponents took widely divergent stances. The executive boards of the Rutgers American Association of University Professors-American Federation of Teachers — which represents faculty — and the adjunct professors union said in a joint statement they “strongly oppose” the bills, writing the bill “falsely conflates criticism of or opposition to Israel and Zionism with anti-Jewish racism.”

The statement continued, “Antisemitism — overwhelmingly driven by white supremacists — is, of course, a legitimate concern, and reports of harassment, intimidation, and similar actions must be strongly addressed. However, by stipulating the IHRA definition as the basis for determining antisemitism, the bills make clear that the priority is silencing Israel’s critics — including Jews — and not protecting the safety of Jewish New Jerseyans.”

Bryan Sacks, president of the adjunct faculty union, testified the bill would disproportionately target people on the left and “target anti-Zionist educators like me.” He criticized testimony delivered by supporters that Zionism is being used as synonymously with Jews as an antisemitic slur, calling that “erroneous” and “grotesque.”

However, David Greenberg, a leader of the Jewish Faculty, Administrators, and Staff at Rutgers, which has sharply condemned the actions of the unions surrounding antisemitism and Israel, criticized the misinformation being spread that the bills would stifle speech.

“They’ve never once been used to punish speech,” he said, adding the IHRA bill would serve to “help us identify antisemitism even when someone was not wearing a swastika armband.”

Debra Rubin has had a long career in journalism writing for secular weekly and daily newspapers and Jewish publications. She most recently served as Middlesex/Monmouth bureau chief for the New Jersey Jewish News. She also worked with the media at several nonprofits, including serving as assistant public relations director of HIAS and assistant director of media relations at Yeshiva University.

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