July 22, 2024
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NJ Senate Hears Testimony On Antisemitism Definition

In a five-hour virtual hearing, opponents and supporters of proposed state legislation that would adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, traded virulently opposed interpretations.

Supporters of the bill, which was sponsored by Senators James Beach (D-Dist. 6) and Robert Singer (R-Dist. 30), told the State Government, Wagering, Tourism and Historic Preservation Committee on Monday, June 17 that adoption would provide needed guidelines to law enforcement and academia to define antisemitic hate speech and actions in the face of skyrocketing antisemitism. Opponents claimed it would dampen their First Amendment right to free speech and legitimate criticism of Israel.

A companion bill, sponsored by Beach and Gordon Johnson (D-Dist. 37), requiring that definitions of antisemitism and Islamophobia be included in state’s diversity, equity, inclusion provisions was also on the agenda, but the testimony centered on the IHRA. An in-person hearing scheduled for last month was canceled for “safety concerns.”

The hearing, for which more than 600 registered to testify, was adjourned until June 20 to allow everyone an opportunity to speak, at which time a vote may be taken to move the bill out of committee to the full legislature.

Speakers clashed, often passionately, over the IHRA, which supporters noted has already been adopted by 36 states and dozens of countries. The bill would also provide $100,000 for an educational campaign to fight antisemitism. Among those testifying in support were leaders of Jewish federations, Hillels and municipal leaders as well as local residents who have been victims of antisemitism. Although some did not give their hometowns, many who did identified themselves as Teaneck residents who said they felt unsafe walking the streets, have been spit at and called names.

Aviva Angel said her young daughter was yelled at and called a “Zionist pig” while waiting for the school bus. She said the anti-Zionist graffiti all over town “is making our kids afraid to walk down the street.” They, like much of the Jewish community, understand that when others call them Zionists “it is just another way to express Jew hatred,” said Angel.

Teaneck Councilwoman Hillary Goldberg testified she has been told that “[she does] not really represent Teaneck, but [is] an agent of the Israeli government,” and has received an email calling her a Nazi; she has witnessed protests where Jews were told to “go back to Auschwitz” and heard shouts of “We don’t want no Jews” and “Zionists go home.” She described the community as “terrified.”

“When they say Zionist they mean Jews,” said Goldberg. “’From the River to the Sea’ only has one meaning. It is hate speech.”

Jason Shames, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, said its passage would not stifle or infringe on free speech, noting, “The only people who are opposed to this bill are the ones perpetrating most of the violence and hate speech.”

Assemblywoman Rosy Bagolie (D-Dist.27) said, “When we stand against antisemitism we stand against all forms of hatred,” in urging her colleagues to move the bill so antisemitism could be fought with ”not just words but your deeds.”

Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest CEO Dov Ben-Shimon said the adoption of the IHRA had the backing of the majority of the Jewish community and called the amount of hate and violence being directed at the Jewish community unacceptable.

“There should be consequences in decent, civilized society for such hatred,” he said.

Lisa Harris Glass, CEO of the Rutgers New Brunswick Hillel, said it became apparent within days of the Oct. 7 terrorist attack on Israel that there was no effective mechanism for stopping mounting antisemitism on campus and that “anything could be done in the name of resistance for Palestine.”

She said they asked for help from campus authorities “but received none.

“We realized we were on our own and would receive no help,” as Jewish students were harassed and bullied in cafeterias, dorms and academic buildings, leading to the belief that “there is no justice for Jews on campus.”

Rebekah Adelson, who oversees six campuses as the director of Hillel of Greater MetroWest, said Jewish students since Oct. 7 have been “harassed and terrorized” and “Zionism is being thrown around as a slur.”

Several weeks ago she was followed while walking through the encampment at Rutgers-Newark and heard and saw antisemitic signs and language, including bloody red hands, which symbolize the murder of Jews. She also spoke of other antisemitic incidents at Montclair State University and William Paterson University. Adelson said adopting the IHRA would leave no ambiguity as to what constitutes antisemitism to help counter such threats.

Among those opposing the IHRA was Wassim Kanaan, chairman of American Muslims for Palestine New Jersey, who said it was not being used for its intended purpose in places where it was adopted around the world, but rather to blunt criticism of Israel. He called the IHRA definition “incoherent.”

Bader Risheg said the bill was conflating criticism of Jews with criticism of Israel and added: “I can criticize my own country without consequences but if you criticize Israel there’s consequences.”

Many in the Jewish community said it was the community itself that should decide what constitutes antisemitic hate speech.

Others spoke as well, many of whom identified themselves as supporters of J Street, Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) and IfNotNow—organizations that have issues with Israel and are considered left wing groups. J Street describes itself as “pro-Israel” and “pro-peace,” while IfNotNow describes itself as “a movement of American Jews organizing our community to end U.S. support for Israel’s apartheid system and demand equality, justice and a thriving future for Palestinians and Israelis.”

Stephen Shalom, a retired political science professor from William Paterson University and member of JVP, said while he “condemned antisemitism profoundly” the bill was “flawed” and would increase anti-Jewish hatred.

“New Jersey has never needed to and has never enacted bills to make speech or thought illegal,” said Shalom.

David Letwin, also a member of JVP, said those supporting the bill want to intimidate Jews such as himself because “they cannot defend Israel’s crimes against humanity,” and urged the committee to read a document the group prepared.

The Anti-Defamation League calls JVP “a radical anti-Israel activist group that advocates for a complete economic, cultural and academic boycott of the state of Israel.”


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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