Legislation: What We’re Watching This Fall

Photo credit: Bill Hackwell

Photo credit: Bill Hackwell

As Congress and state legislatures return from summer recess, we expect to see action on a number of measures that could have a major impact on advocacy for Palestinian rights.

Redefining antisemitism to silence support for Palestine

Shortly before the August recess, House Republicans introduced the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act of 2019 (ASAA), which would more accurately be called the “Silencing Students Act of 2019.” 

The ASAA would direct the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) to consider a widely criticized and overbroad redefinition of antisemitism that classifies virtually all speech critical of Israel as antisemitic. The bill would not add to the existing legal protections for Jewish students.

If enacted, it would instead be used to justify federal investigations into Palestine activism on campus.

The act would codify a policy that Kenneth Marcus, a pro-Israel attorney who had previously lobbied for the redefinition, unilaterally implemented after Donald Trump appointed him as the DOE’s assistant secretary for civil rights last year. 

Similar bills have been introduced twice—in 2016 and again in 2018—and failed to advance after civil liberties and human rights groups raised concerns that the bills would result in First Amendment violations.

The House bill has been referred to the Judiciary Committee and the Committee on Education and Labor. An identical bill was introduced in the Senate in May.

New Jersey lawmakers introduced a similar redefinition bill targeting the state’s public schools and universities in late June before going on recess. 

The bill came under fire from civil and human rights groups and even the editorial board of the largest newspaper in New Jersey.

Palestine Legal director Dima Khalidi published an op-ed in the same paper, arguing that “application of this redefinition would lead to absurd and unconstitutional viewpoint-based distinctions, in violation of the First Amendment.”

New Jersey’s bill mirrors a similar law signed by Florida governor Ron DeSantis after holding an illegal cabinet meeting in Israel in May.

“Lawmakers must engage in meaningful efforts to combat all forms of bigotry,” said senior staff attorney Meera Shah. “Instead, these laws aim to hijack civil rights mechanisms to silence and punish people speaking out in support of Palestinian rights, while failing to add new protections for vulnerable students.”

Legislative efforts to conflate criticism of Israeli policies with antisemitism are part of a broader pattern of suppression aimed at silencing advocacy for Palestinian rights. These efforts specifically aim to stem advocacy where it has grown most in recent years—among youth and on college campuses. 

Read our backgrounder on these redefinition efforts and righttoboycott.org for more information about legislative attacks.

Affirming the right to boycott

Following Israel’s ban on Representatives Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib last month, boycotts for Palestinian rights gained widespread national attention. 

Israel’s ban on supporters of BDS—the call by Palestinian civil society for the international community to put economic pressure on Israel through boycotts, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) until it complies with international law—has echoes in 27 states that have adopted laws or executive orders that punish those who engage in boycotts for Palestinian rights. Some states, like Wisconsin and most recently Kentucky, have doubled down by adopting anti-boycott laws on top of existing executive orders.

Representatives Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and John Lewis responded to these repressive measures by introducing a resolution in July affirming that “all Americans have the right to participate in boycotts in pursuit of civil and human rights at home and abroad, as protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution.” Boycotts for Palestinian rights fit squarely within this legacy.  

The right to dissent more broadly has been under legislative attack in recent years: 16 states have adopted anti-protest legislation, including harsh criminal penalties for individuals protesting environmental degradation caused by so-called critical infrastructure sites. Campus speech bills are also pending in a number of states; some of these bills would require schools to impose mandatory sanctions for violating the free speech rights of others, including via protest. Along with anti-boycott legislation, these laws undermine our ability to engage in critical movements challenging the status quo and underscore the need to affirm our right to boycott and dissent.

Update: On Tuesday, a broad coalition of advocacy groups working across social justice movements issued a letter calling on members of the House to support the resolution. 

Go to righttoboycott.org for more information on legislation.