Letter to the Editor: The problem with the U.S. Department of State’s definition of anti-Semitism

Amanda Michalak

At the Kent State Undergraduate Student Government (USG) meeting Feb. 22, a director presented the first reading of a resolution titled “A Resolution Condemning Anti-Semitism at Kent State University.” 

Though the title implies that the resolution’s purpose is to combat acts of antisemitism at Kent State, it is also loaded with politically motivated language and a call for USG to adopt the United States Department of State’s definition of anti-Semitism.

This particular definition not only violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, but it also challenges Kent State’s core values of freedom of expression and free exchange of ideas, including diversity of culture, beliefs, identity and thought.

This problematic definition conflates Judaism as a religion with Israel as a state and Zionism as a political ideology, making it impossible for anyone to criticize the state of Israel without being labelled anti-Semitic.

If USG adopts this definition, it would restrict freedom of speech, academic freedom and student activism on campus. It violates the First Amendment and the Department of Education’s interpretation of Article VI of the Civil Rights Act, which both interpret political viewpoints as protected free speech.

Much of the department definition is inoffensive until the third section, in which examples of anti-Semitism are listed. This section  “What is Anti-Semitism Relative to Israel?” — suggests that anti-Semitism includes demonizing, delegitimizing and applying a double standard to Israel.

The problem with the three D’s, as they are referred to, is that they rely on an individual’s interpretation and can be applied to virtually any criticism of the state of Israel, its policies or its actions.

Furthermore, the State Department definition is not legally binding in the United States because it was designed to collect data for monitoring anti-Semitism abroad. It would be radical and irresponsible to call on USG and the greater student body to adopt a definition that cannot be legally upheld by the federal government because it limits free speech.

The original resolution presented at the Feb. 22 meeting includes language about the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, a Palestinian-led movement for freedom, equality and civil rights. As the original resolution states, BDS upholds the simple principle that Palestinians are entitled to the same rights as the rest of humanity.

The department definition would silence those who support BDS and those interested in any other dialogue concerning Palestinian rights. The draft resolution, as presented, also cites an “example of anti-Semitism,” where a pro-Palestinian student organization interrupted a tabling event with anti-Israel flyers.

By citing this incident as an act of anti-Semitism on campus, it performs the same conflating dynamic of the department’s definition. Established scholars of anti-Semitism, such as Oxford University’s Brian Klug, utterly reject this conflation.

Kent State is not the only university that has been threatened by this definition. The University of California’s system, in addition to several other universities, have been pressured to adopt this definition.

All have ultimately rejected it due to imminent free speech violations and viewpoint discrimination.

Additionally, the author of the department definition himself, Kenneth Stern, has repudiated its use on college campuses in a 2015 article for Jewish Journal: “But to enshrine such a definition on a college campus is an ill-advised idea that will make matters worse, and not only for Jewish students; it would also damage the university as a whole.”

Stern mentions the definition was “never intended to regulate speech on a college campus.”

If the author of the definition condemns its use on college campuses, what business do we have calling on USG to adopt it?

It is inappropriate and irresponsible for any student government to adopt a definition that confuses criticism of the actions of the Israeli state with expressions of bigoted hatred that target individuals or groups that identify as Jewish.

We are a public university with a history of expressing our First Amendment rights. Adopting this definition would be a stain on our history and would likely produce the opposite effect. Instead of chilling debate, it would likely spark more.

Anti-Semitism is real; the United States has seen deeply troubling incidents, ranging from the bomb threats at the Jewish Community Centers around the country and the desecration of Jewish tombs in St. Louis, Philadelphia and Brooklyn. This is a campaign of racist hatred. Like any form of racism, it needs resistance as we extend solidarity to our Jewish brothers and sisters.

Condemning anti-Semitism by using a definition that represents a hatred of Jews is the business of USG.

Using a conflating definition that extends to restricting free speech is not.

Amanda Michalak is a guest columnist and political science major, contact her at [email protected].