May 20, 2024
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May 20, 2024
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Jewish Federations Unite To Push Passage Of Bills Combating Antisemitism

Jewish federations in New Jersey are banding together to pass two bills now in committee in the state Senate that would lay out a definition of antisemitism, deny state funding to non complying institutions and expand diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) to include antisemitism and Islamophobia.

The campaign to urge Jewish community members to contact their local legislators is being spearheaded by the Jewish Federations of New Jersey.

“First it would define antisemitism and dispel a lot of fiction that’s being spread about what constitutes antisemitism and what doesn’t,” said state federation Executive Director Harris Laufer. “These two bills would negatively impact state-funded institutions that act against the Jewish people as well as our Muslim friends.”

A key component of the two bills is its inclusion of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, which states, “antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews,” and cites several examples, including the “targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity.”

The IHRA definition has been adopted by more than 1,000 entities worldwide, including 34 states and 43 countries, including the United States.

The first bill regarding the IHRA definition, sponsored by senators James Beach (D-Dist. 6) and Robert Singer (R-Dist. 30), was introduced in January and transferred to the State Government, Wagering, Tourism and Historic Preservation Committee on March 4.

The second bill regarding DEI was introduced and referred to the same committee on March 11. It is sponsored by Beach and Gordon Johnson (D-Dist. 37).

A committee hearing on the bills is tentatively scheduled for April 15. Federations are also urging as many supporters as possible to attend the hearing at which federation representatives will testify as well as leaders of Jewish advocacy organizations. A previous hearing, which supporters and opponents attended, was postponed because hearings on other bills ran long. Despite rumors the hearing was called because of opposition, Laufer confirmed it was a time issue and there was no discussion by either side about the bills.

Laufer said he was optimistic the bills will pass by the end of the legislative session, which runs through June 2025.

“The IRHA has been on the table for about 10 years,” said Laufer. “We’re lucky enough to have a united Jewish community and are hoping to bring in allies. We have been reaching out to tons of communities we work with on a daily basis. We’ve had a very long roadway with these bills and we want them done ASAP.”

Among those expected to testify are interfaith partners, the Anti-Defamation League and StandWithUs.

“This bill is generating opposition from an escalated tension since October 7 and I think it’s being unfairly conflated with antisemitism,” Laufer said of the Israel-Hamas war. “The hate crime data against Jews is staggering. We need these bills for our protection.”

Alana Burman, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Committee of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, said she was concerned about the opposition putting out a lot of “blatantly false” information.

“We are trying to reassure our communities and are letting them know they need to express their support because unfortunately a lot of the opposition is coming from outside our communities,” she said. “We are really excited that antisemitism and Islamophobia both would be included in the DEI definition, and opposing them is like cutting off your nose to spite your face.”

However, beyond their practical impact the bills will have a more intangible effect: “They give people hope there will be a better tomorrow,” noted Burman.

Dan Rozett, director of community relations and Israel engagement for the Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey, said those opposed to bills are also mounting a campaign to keep the bills from passing by contacting legislators and speaking at the hearing, couching much of their opposition as a free-speech issue.

His federation, like other federations, has sent out emails with local legislator contact information and a sample letter. “We plan to show up in force,” said Rozett.

Linda Scherzer, director of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest’s Jewish Community Relations Council, said that Federation had already sent out about 30,000 action alerts about the bills to supporters, synagogues and day schools.

The federation is also working on mapping the state to help create a cadre of volunteers from each federation to counter opponents of the bills and answer the question “When does hate speech cross the line?”

“We have haters and people uttering antisemitism at a town council meeting, a board of education meeting,” said Scherzer. “Some are residents, but many come in from other towns. They get their two minutes of time fictionalizing Israeli history and uttering things that are unacceptable.”

But that showcases a more troubling trend, according to Scherzer.

“When can they be shut down?” she asked. “The truth is only when that speech is potentially disruptive or can lead to
violence. The truth is we have to use every tool and legal mechanism, every legal pathway to get this done because, and I don’t think this is an overstatement, our civil society is breaking down. This is an historic and frightening moment in our country and in the history of the Jewish people here in arguably the most privileged nation on the planet. It is very difficult given the protection of the First Amendment to be able to stop this.”

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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