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Indiana House advances bill defining antisemitism as discrimination in schools

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A bill which seeks to define and ban antisemitism in public educational institutions unanimously advanced through the Indiana House last week. 

House lawmakers passed House Bill 1002 Jan. 18, sending it to the Senate for additional hearings. The bill, authored by Rep. Chris Jeter, R-Fishers, is a priority measure for House Republicans this legislative session. An identical bill successfully passed through the House in 2023 but did not receive a Senate reading. Supporters of the bill say it would help identify and properly handle antisemitism, but critics believe it could threaten free speech and equate criticism of Israel with antisemitism. 

While Indiana law already bans discrimination on the basis of race and religion, the new legislation aims to specify that antisemitism is religious discrimination and prohibited in public schools. House Bill 1002 uses a working definition of antisemitism created by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, an intergovernmental organization that works to educate society about the Holocaust, according to the IHRA website. The definition has been adopted by 43 countries, including the U.S., and 30 U.S. states. IU Student Government and IU as a whole have also recognized it as an official definition of antisemitism, according to the American Jewish Committee. 

“You can’t prohibit something if you don’t define it, and while no definition is perfect, the definition in this bill, authored by the IHRA, is as universal as definitions get,” Jeter said during the House session Jan. 18.  

House Bill 1002 also specifies antisemitism “does not include criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country.” During discussion of the bill, Jeter referred to the events of Oct. 7, when the militant group Hamas attacked Israel, killing around 1,200 people. Israel responded with an assault on Hamas and a ground invasion in Gaza that has killed more than 25,000 Palestinians, according to the Associated Press. Jeter encouraged the body to express support for Jewish students, in light of rising antisemitism.  

 During discussion, Jeter mentioned rising antisemitism across the country. A report from the Anti-Defamation League released Jan. 10 documented a rise in antisemitism across the country in the months following the Oct. 7 attack, with 361% more antisemitic incidents occurring than in the same timeframe between 2022-23. The report includes incidents of “antisemitic rhetoric, expressions of support for terrorism against the state of Israel and/or anti-Zionism.” 

“I’m asking you to lock arms with me again and send a message to all of our students, all of our Jewish Hoosiers, that we stand with them, we hear them, we love them, they are safe here, and Indiana will continue its long history of unity and solidarity with our Jewish citizens,” Jeter said. 

Identifying antisemitism in schools  

IU senior Maya Wasserman, who testified in support of the bill at the statehouse Jan. 10, said the IHRA definition of antisemitism is important because it is the first widely-adopted, official definition made by Jewish people and offers examples of how antisemitism can present itself. 

“When thinking about an issue, any issue, we defer to the people who the issue affects to understand how it’s affecting them,” Wasserman said.  

She said several high school students spoke about how they’ve faced antisemitism in schools, but teachers couldn’t take action against it because there was no official way to define antisemitism. At IU, Wasserman said, she’s seen similar instances be properly handled using the IHRA definition. 

But individual campuses adopting the definition isn’t enough, she said — it needs to be adopted by the state to ensure its availability on every campus. 

“Especially with what’s going on right now in the world, there is a lot of antisemitism being put online.” Wasserman said. “There’s a lot of antisemitism on campus. Being able to define these actions of antisemitism without breaching free speech is something that’s really important.”  

Rabbi Sue Laikin Silberberg, executive director of IU Hillel, said people often do or say antisemitic things without admitting their antisemitism or even realizing it.  

“They’re like, ‘Well, I didn’t mean anything by it,’ or all the millions of other reasons that people give when they do things or say things that hurt a member of any minority group,” Silberberg said. “So if there is a definition, people will know what is defined as antisemitism.”  

Silberberg, who also testified at the statehouse, said Jewish students often miss classes for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. IU policy states students and instructors should discuss accommodations for religious observances, and students must be given the opportunity to do make-up work that is no more difficult than the original exam or assignment. However, not every professor follows these guidelines, she said.  

Silberberg said she thinks the bill does not inhibit free speech.  

“I could sit here and say to you ‘I criticize this about the American government’ or ‘I criticize this about the country of America,’" Silberberg said. “That’s completely legitimate. But to say we want the genocide of the Israelis is antisemitic. [The IHRA] definition actually makes that disctinction as well.”  

Concerns about free speech, Islamophobia  

The bill states that criticism of Israel similar to that of another country is not inherently antisemitic, allowing people to critique Israel’s actions as a state without repercussion.  

Alvin Rosenfeld, director of the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism at IU, said while criticism of Israel is OK, there are some accusations and opinions about Israel that go beyond acceptable criticism. 

“Normative criticism of Israel, and of America and any other country is certainly fine,” Rosenfeld said. “Calling Israel, however, a ‘Nazi state’ is another matter, or an ‘apartheid state’ is another matter. There are a lot of people saying Israel should never have been founded in 1948, and that it should go out of business. At that point, we’re not talking about criticism – we're talking about annihilation.”  

But critics of the bill have pushed back, fearing any criticism of Israel could get lumped in with antisemitism under what they believe is vague language within the bill.  

“The question of whether or not it’s similar to other countries is ambiguous enough that it’s open to interpretation,” Bryce Greene, graduate advisor for the IU Palestine Solidarity Committee, said. “The people doing the interpreting both determine who is and is not an anti-Semite, and that is determined by the balance of power at any given institution.”  

He said some who testified about antisemitism at the statehouse cited calling for a ceasefire as examples of antisemitic statements.  

“I think the fact that they’re not doing a bill on Islamophobia shows that this bill actually has nothing to do with antisemitism and more to do with criticism of Israel,” Greene said. “If this was actually an interest of anti-bigotry and equality and equity, they would have a definition of antisemitism and Islamophobia and all these other forms of hate.”  

Daniel Segal, a representative of Jewish Voice for Peace – Indiana, said the bill undermines the actual antisemitism Jewish students do face by drawing negative attention to legitimate criticisms of Israel. 

“If a Palestinian says ‘I criticize the Israeli state for not giving me full equality under the law,’ if you had an argument against that, you wouldn’t talk back and accuse the person of antisemitism,” Segal said. “People resort to dishonest name-calling because they don’t have any reasonable arguments.”  

Yaqoub Saadeh, president of the Middle Eastern Student Association at IUPUI, said he has experienced harassment and bullying as a Palestinian student advocating for his community.  Outisde of Indiana, he pointed to Vermont, where three Palestinian-American students were shot  Nov. 25, 2023, while speaking Arabic and wearing keffiyehs, which are traditional headdresses to the Middle East. 

Islamophobia has also risen in the wake of the war. Between Oct. 7 and Nov. 4, the Council on American-Islamic Relations received 1,238 reports of bias and requests for help. In 2022, the average 29-day period saw only around 400 complaints. 

“If you want to address one side of it, it’s going to cost certain communities a lot more than just their freedom of speech, a lot more than just their academic freedom,” Saadeh said. “It’s going to cost them their lives.”  

While Democrats have filed an amendment adding Islamophobia to the bill, it was not heard at the statehouse last week. Saadeh said adding a clause to the current bill or creating a similar bill dealing with anti-Palestinian rhetoric would be a better way to collectively fight against negativity both communities are facing.  

“It was a slap in the face to see us sit at the hearing for about four to five hours and testify and then, within minutes, they all unanimously voted and completely disregarded any of what we had to say,” Saadeh said.  

Saadeh said he thinks a separate bill should be introduced defining and combatting Islamophobia rather than one in conjunction with House Bill 1002 as proposed by House Democrats.  

“It would be harmful to introduce Islamophobia to House Bill 1002 specifically because this implies that the larger issue at hand is a religious one between Muslims and Jews,” Saadeh said. “That is not the case.”  

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