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The First Amendment Shouldn’t Be An Empty Promise To American Jews


The First Amendment’s promise of freedom of religion is an empty one if all Americans, including American Jews, don’t feel safe in their houses of worship or welcome in their communities. With FBI data showing that 58 percent of religiously-motivated hate crimes targeted American Jews in 2017, the Department of Justice (DOJ) has been making an increased effort to support and engage with the Jewish community, including by convening a summit on domestic anti-Semitism this week.

The day-long event included speakers from the Departments of Justice, State, Treasury, and Education, including the secretaries of Treasury and Education. Panels addressed how to combat anti-Semitism while respecting the First Amendment, anti-Semitism on college campuses, the prosecution of hate crimes, and federal efforts to combat anti-Semitism.

In his introductory remarks, Attorney General William Barr compared various forms of anti-Semitism to different forms of cancer, observing that the body politic needs a strong immune system that rejects both anti-Semitism and racial hatred. Speakers throughout the day acknowledged the patient is sick. However, Barr told American Jews that he sees rising anti-Semitism, not only in the widely discussed attacks in Pittsburgh and Poway, but also on the streets of Crown Heights, in desecrated cemeteries, and in zoning decisions intended to exclude growing Jewish communities.

Barr told the audience, those experiences “form the daily background of concerns about safety and security that many Jews feel. I want to assure you that the Department of Justice and [the] whole federal government stands with you and will not tolerate these attacks.”

Much-needed Solidarity

That solidarity is appreciated during a week that’s seen the introduction of Congress’ first-ever resolution in support of boycotting Israel. The boycott movement arose repeatedly as one powerful example of excluding and marginalizing Jews—92 percent of American Jews support Israel—as speakers addressed how contemporary anti-Semitism manifests on college campuses, as well as in our cities and towns.

During a panel about anti-Semitism and free speech, Jason Isaacson, chief policy and political affairs officer for the American Jewish Committee, said that this “discussion shouldn’t be framed as choosing between protecting Jews and the First Amendment. The best antidote to bad speech is good speech.” He also urged Americans to criticize their own political allies and insist that anti-Semitism is unacceptable, calling this “a battle for ideas” and a “fight for the soul of our nation.”

This conversation also considered whether boycotts qualify as free speech. Eugene Kontorovich, a professor at Antonin Scalia Law School commented, “Too often, those who wish to discriminate on the basis of Israeli nationality try to take for themselves the language of human rights and say they’re not discriminating, they’re boycotting.” However, “Germany, Canada, and courts in France and Spain have concluded that treating Israelis as a fixed class and refusing to do business with them is discrimination.”

As for life on campus, the boycott movement has become central. William Jacobson, a professor at Cornell Law School, dated that change to 2012-13.

Jonathan Tobin, editor in chief of the Jewish News Syndicate, observed that “progressive spaces have become ground zero for anti-Semitism. The growing popularity of anti-Zionism has created a hostile atmosphere on campuses, where Jews feel marginalized and threatened.” That marginalization is led by professors, especially those who teach Middle Eastern studies. On campuses today, traditional, negative Jewish stereotypes are being projected onto Israel.

Jacobson described Jewish students’ feeling “ganged up on,” as well as intersectionality’s transformation from a precise word to a broad buzzword “provid[ing] the intellectual framework for people who wouldn’t consider themselves anti-Semitic to isolate Jewish students. It’s a toxic mixture of racial and identity politics where anti-Semitism is the unifying feature for groups with little in common.”

Alyza Lewin, President of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, described “a well funded strategy to deny Zionists a place in society” and asked, “if you isolate and dehumanize Zionists and claim they represent society’s greatest evil, you’re branding Jews with a virtual Jewish star, and then what comes next?

As for what can be done, Lewin wants administrators to condemn anti-Semitic speech and actions just as they would if something racist happens. Lewin also suggests helping administrators to identify what is anti-Semitic. Jacobson recommends equal treatment and enforcement of a campus’ existing rules, rather than having administrators regulate speech. Tobin suggests that adults model speaking up so that Jewish students feel courageous enough to do the same.

Federal Agencies Doing Their Part

While Congress and state legislatures have been taking steps to oppose the boycott movement, federal agencies are clearly also making an effort to push back against various forms of anti-Semitism with the tools at their disposal. Calvin Shivers, deputy assistant director in the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division, described hate crimes as his division’s top priority, based on the impact these crimes have on the community. The Civil Rights Division is aggressively pursuing cases against individuals involved in attacks on houses of worship, as well as attacks that threaten or harm individual Jews. The Department of Justice is also keeping an eye out for discrimination against houses of worship in zoning and landmarking.

Special Envoy for Monitoring and Combating Anti-Semitism Elan Carr described this as “the time to save our future from what’s on the horizon,” noting that one of the great assets in this fight is that every federal player that can apply pressure to this problem is doing so. In fact, there was a White House meeting last week to discuss making this an administration-wide effort and a determination “not to contain this scourge, but to roll it back, to excise it.”

Carr said the administration will apply every legal force it can and will fight this fight because what’s at stake is the future of our country, and our kids deserve a better future. And to that, I say, Amen.