The New Jersey legislature is considering an education bill that would redefine anti-Semitism so broadly as to infringe on protected speech. Similar bills have been signed in South Carolina and Florida.
While NCAC supports the bill’s intention, to combat a rise in acts of anti-Semitism, we have joined with PEN America to oppose the manner in which this bill limits political speech. The definition of anti-Semitism in S.B. 4001 is so broad that it could apply to constitutionally-protected speech in New Jersey schools and universities that is critical of the Israeli government or supportive of Palestinian rights. If the bill becomes law, it could be used to silence political activists, including Jews.
Kenneth S. Stern, the former director on anti-Semitism for the American Jewish Committee, has been a leading critic of the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act, federal legislation that is similar to S.B. 4001. This is especially significant because he was the lead author of the expanded definition of anti-Semitism adopted in both bills.
In a New York Times op-ed in 2016, Stern explained that the definition was created as a research tool that could be used in evaluating the policies of foreign governments. He is convinced that enshrining it in law and applying it to college campuses would lead to censorship: “Students and faculty members will be scared into silence, and administrators will err on the side of suppressing or censuring speech.”
In his column, Stern also warned that banning anti-Semitic speech would be counterproductive. “When people are seduced by the false notion that a law can stop hateful ideas, they neglect to actually fight bigotry,” he wrote.
Stern believes that education is the best way to fight anti-Semitism on campus. “There should be more courses on anti-Semitism, on the human capacity to hate, on the conflicting narratives of the Israel-Palestine conflict and on how to discuss difficult subjects,” Stern concluded. “Rather than suppressing speech about the conflict, we should be encouraging it. How else will students learn?”
NCAC and PEN America urge New Jersey lawmakers to reject S.B. 4001.
Read the full letter below.