A controversial bill mandating the U.S. Department of State definition of anti-Semitism to be considered in possible hate crime cases on South Carolina college campuses will finally reach a state Senate subcommittee Thursday.
Sponsored by Rep. Alan Clemmons (R-Horry), the bill was introduced to the State Assembly in February and passed the House by a wide margin last month. After being referred to the state Senate Committee on Education, the bill will finally be on the agenda when the Higher Education Subcommittee convenes Thursday morning.
The bill has been controversial since its introduction, with opponents arguing that the State Department definition equates any arguments against Israeli government policy with anti-Semitic sentiment and will restrict expression of such ideas. One of the bill’s largest critics has been the USC chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, a student organization which seeks to to promote and educate students on Palestinian culture. The SJP’s national website advertises its work as “centered around freedom, justice, and equality for the Palestinian people, who have been living without basic rights under illegal Israeli military occupation for decades.” USC is the only university in South Carolina with an SJP chapter.
Chapter president Dana al-Hasan, a doctoral epidemiology student, was born and raised in Saudi Arabia by Palestinian parents. She has never been able to visit her parents’ homeland, however, because of Israeli law regarding the right of return for Palestinian refugees.
Al-Hasan’s group takes significant issue with the bill’s defining of anti-Semitism in accordance with the State Department definition, one section of which, according to al-Hasan, “defines anti-Semitism basically as any criticism of Israel.”
The specific section of the State Department document that SJP opposes is referred to as “the three D’s”.
Demonization, for example, is defined as “using the symbols and images associated with classic anti-Semitism to characterize Israel or Israelis,” “drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis,” and “blaming Israel for all inter-religious or political tensions.” The section also gives guidelines for what comprises deligitimization or the casting of double standards against Israel.
Mathematics professor Joshua Cooper is a member of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), an activist organization of Jewish Americans who seek “an end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem," Like members of SJP, Cooper sees the bill as “problematic” and a grievous threat to free speech.
“I am Jewish and have some very serious problems with Israeli policy,” Cooper said. “That whole discussion is really important ... and basically, if somebody complained that they heard me or a student or staff member talking about these very real issues and things that are factual about Israel they might characterize it as demonization.”
Cooper noted that the failures of similar bills at the federal level and in the Virginia General Assembly give “every reason to hope” that the bill could be defeated in South Carolina. Taxpayers in particular, he said, should be concerned if legal battles ensue over the bill’s passage and application.
State archaeologist Jonathan M. Leader of the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology believes the bill will not bring about the changes SJP fears. Noting a lack of penalties associated with expressing anti-Semitism, Leader asserted that the bill has no “teeth.”
“What [Clemmons is] trying to do in a very commendable way,” Leader said, “is bootstrap us up into our current century where we’re dealing with definitions that are already in play.”
Stanley Dubinsky, USC’s director of Jewish studies, concurred with Leader’s statement that the bill does not have “teeth.” The bill, Dubinsky says, seeks only to define anti-Semitic speech rather than to penalize it.
“The people complaining about this have the right to engage in as much anti-Semitic speech as they always do,” Dubinsky said. “But they don’t have the right to pretend that they’re not engaging in anti-Semitic speech.”
But one SJP official is most concerned with the group being able to express speech at all. Grant Seuser, a doctoral chemistry student and outreach coordinator for SJP, believes his group as a whole could be in danger if the bill progresses through the Statehouse before the May 11 end of the legislative session.
“In the short term, the thing we’re most worried about is that it’s going to end up shutting down organizations like [SJP] in South Carolina,” Seuser said. “It’s gonna be one of the only states in the country that’s actually going to violate the First Amendment rights of college students.”
Beyond her organization, al-Hasan also worries what affect the bill could have on the state of South Carolina at large, especially if the law is challenged in court as constitutional.
“It’s just gonna be a waste of our taxpayer money,” al-Hasan said, echoing Cooper’s concerns of potential legal battles over the bill.
Referring to SJP concern of being labelled for “demonization,” Leader mentions that the bill does not prohibit the accused from challenging such a label.
Leader further expressed his concern of the number of hate groups in the United States, specifically white supremacist groups, as justification for the bill. The Southern Poverty Law Center lists 917 hate groups operating in the United States as of 2017, down from 1,018 in 2011 but up from a 10-year plateau of 784 from 2004-14. Of the 12 groups the SPLC lists within South Carolina, four are designated as white nationalist or chapters of the Ku Klux Klan. One, the white nationalist Bob’s Underground Graduate Seminar, operates in Columbia.
“Frankly,” Leader said, “I’m a little bit more concerned about [the groups] than I am about some other individuals who insisted that somehow this bill was aimed at them when there is no proof this bill was ever aimed at them.”
Cheryl Glantz Nail, community relations director for the Columbia Jewish Federation, agrees with Leader that anti-Semitic sentiment should be of concern to state legislators.
“Anti-Semitism is on the rise, [Jewish students] need to be protected, as do other students,” Glantz Nail said. “If this is passed, this could also be the gateway to other laws being put in place for other minority students.”
Of concerns that the bill could restrict free discussion of Israeli policy, Glantz Nail disagrees: “No one is trying to stifle those conversations. What we are trying to do is to protect our students.”
Cooper is more skeptical of the notion that the bill could be the first of many state hate crime laws, deeming the bill’s role as “targeted hate crime legislation” to be “a very ill-advised test.”
“If legislators are concerned about protecting against discrimination and harassment and racism, then some comprehensive hate crime legislation would be a great idea,” Cooper said. South Carolina is one of only five states that does not have any hate crime laws.
The Higher Education Subcommittee of the South Carolina State Senate will meet at 9:30 a.m. Thursday in the L. Marion Gressette State Office Building.