Florida Law Threatens Students Activists By Treating Criticism of Israel As Civil Rights Violation

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Last week, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed HB741, a bill intended to codify protections against anti-Semitic discrimination in public schools. However, activists and civil rights groups have warned that the definition used for anti-Semitism conflates criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism.

The bill was signed into law during  a publicity stunt visit to Israel by DeSantis and his cabinet. Amid objection that it wasn’t available to the public, the meeting was live-streamed in a slapdash fashion.

The bill uses a controversial definition of anti-Semitism, which includes provisions labeling criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic. The initial author of the definition, Kenneth S. Stern has opposed adopting in academic settings, saying to do so would violate both academic freedom and the First Amendment.

The bill’s sponsor, Randy Fine (R),  mentioned the rise of the Boycott Divest Sanction (BDS) movement as a reason for passing the bill. In the last 6 months, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) faced backlash for connecting how Israel lobbyist groups continue support for politicians has led to dangerous bills like HB741. This is not the first time Florida has passed a law infringing on people’s rights to support Palestinian human rights. In 2016, Florida passed an anti-BDS law that prohibits public contracts being given to companies that boycott Israel. In 2018 this bill was renewed, with even tighter conditions on not allowing public contracts to be awarded to companies participating in BDS.

The practice of conflating anti-Semitism with criticism of Israel has become a key tool in silencing Palestinian human rights activists. Websites such as Canary Mission, an online blacklisting website aimed at squashing critical voices of Israel, routinely treats support for Palestinian human rights as anti-Semitic. Opponents of Ilhan Omar have quickly used claims of anti-Semitism to launch islamophobic attacks at her, an effort to discredit a critical voice of US imperialism. Legislative attempts to silent supporters of BDS present substantial challenges for Palestinian human rights activists.

Bills attempting to prevent companies and activists from challenging the US’s relationship with Israel have proliferated across  the country in recent years. Palestine Legal has tracked 27 states with some sort of anti-BDS law or executive orders. Another 14 states have either considered or are considering anti-BDS bills.

While the expansion of anti-BDS legislation has created a troubling trend in suppressing the right to boycott, states such as Kansas, Texas and Arizona have seen successful legal challenges.

At the national level, similar bills have been introduced in the last three congressional sessions.  Defending Rights & Dissent has repeatedly opposed bills that adopted a similar definition of anti-Semitism on the basis of it being used to repress campus activists.

In 2017 Palestine Legal, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and Defending Rights and Dissent opposed a bill in the Virginia legislature that adopted a definition similar to the one in Florida. In a joint memo we said that the use definitions of anti-Semitism that include criticism of Israel in civil rights law,

denies the legitimacy of extensive and widely recognized documentation of Israel’s human rights abuses, and claims that criticism of Israel’s policies and practices is in fact motivated by hatred of Jewish people and not a concern for Palestinian rights. Moreover, distorting the real definition of anti-Semitism by incorporating criticism of Israel distracts from and undermines the prevention of and relief from truly discriminatory practices

Amid legitimate concern about rising anti-Semitism, it’s important to strongly oppose bigotry in all its forms. However, conflating criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism will do nothing to actually combat the harmful effects of anti-Semitism and will instead be used to suppress Palestinian human rights advocacy.