Phony “Antisemitism Awareness Act” Attacks Our Free Speech

Protect Our White House rally, Dec 9, 2016
“No Trump / No KKK / No Facist U.S.A.” “Silence Is Complicity.” “This Is Not Normal.” “Immigrants Welcome / Racists Are Not.” “Stop Hate!” “Alt-Right = Neo-Nazi.” At “Protect Our White House” rally at Massachusetts State House in Boston, Dec. 9, 2016. (Greg Cook photo)

Remarks delivered by Lena Shapiro of Wellesley Jewish Voice for Peace at the Protect Our White House rally on December 9

Hi, I’m Lena and I’m with Wellesley Jewish Voice for Peace. Jewish Voice for Peace is a national organization with chapters on college campuses and in cities across the country. We’re advocating for an end to the Israeli occupation, for Palestinian human rights and self-determination, and for the right of Israelis and Palestinians to live under justice, in peace. We’re working towards an American public and an American foreign policy that recognizes our ideals.

In the battle for Palestinian freedom and dignity, student activism on college campuses in the US has become a particular target. Student activists in Boston and across the country are facing hostile administrations, faculty, and alumni who are trying to stop us from speaking up about this issue, about the conditions of violence and inequality that Palestinians are forced to live under. And these administrations and alumni have a lot of support. Right now, the Antisemitism Awareness Act is being fast-tracked through Congress and will soon end up on President Obama’s desk. Despite its name, this act is not a good thing. It will define criticism of Israel on college campuses as antisemitism– and have the Department of Education investigate it. This bill is an attack on our freedom of speech as students. As a Jewish student, I know that this the response does not protect me- but it stops us from speaking out about political causes we believe in.

Right now, we’re seeing unprecedentedly open antisemitism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia in unprecedentedly high positions of power. We’re seeing it at the highest levels of public office- we’re seeing it in Michael Flynn, Donald Trump’s newly appointed National Security Advisor, who has tweeted antisemitic conspiracy theories and has said that fear of Muslims is rational. We’re seeing it in Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s pick for chief strategist, who runs Breitbart news, an organization that promotes all kinds of hate and is proud of the fact that it gives a platform to white supremacists. And of course, we’re seeing it in the next president Donald Trump, who thinks Muslims don’t belong in this country. Who campaigns on old-school antisemitic tropes of shadowy international bankers but has made it clear he will give a free pass to the state of Israel to continue building illegal settlements on Palestinian land. What we’re seeing is dangerous. It’s a real threat, to us at home, and to so many abroad.

But the official response to this bigotry and this hatred, this open white supremacy and white nationalism, isn’t anything that will keep us safe. Instead we’re getting laws like the Antisemitism Awareness Act, which pits Jewish students against Palestinian students and students of color, and targets our ability to speak out against injustice and collectively advocate for a better world. Instead, we’re getting laws like the anti-Boycott Divestment Sanctions bill which is in the Massachusetts State Legislature right now. Boycott Divestment Sanctions- BDS- is a nonviolent call to action. BDS asks us to harness economic power at the individual, organizational, and state level to pressure Israel into complying with international law. Boycotts- as we saw during the Civil Rights movement, the migrant farmworkers movement, and  in apartheid South Africa, are effective. And they’re constitutionally protected free speech.

The bill is trying to suppress our right to boycott by imposing penalties on organizations that take part in these boycotts. This bill would require Massachusetts to pull its contracts from any organizations that have joined in our boycott. This bill would punish private individuals and companies for their political beliefs. This bill pretends that criticism of a state is the same thing as hatred against a people. This is an issue of justice for Palestine, and an issue of free speech at home.

Too many Jewish institutions have been silent on these issues. They’d rather enable the Trump administration to pass blank checks to the Israeli occupation than speak up about the antisemitism, Islamophobia, and racism we’re facing. And that means we can’t depend on them- it’s up to us to speak out, and to protect ourselves.

So when you have a minute this week- please call your representatives. Call your house members, and ask them to oppose the Antisemitism Awareness Act, because it violates our right to speak and to organize. And because it forces Palestinians to pay the price. Call your state representatives, and tell them you oppose the unconstitutional anti-BDS legislation in Massachusetts. Ask them to join you in that opposition. We’re facing a lot over the next four years- and holding on to our ability to speak, to organize, to take part in movements and to stand alongside each other is what’s going to get us through it. We have a saying in Jewish tradition- it is not your job to finish the work, but neither are you free not to start it. So that’s what we’re doing here, and what we’re going to do.

Thank you.