Civil rights activists are opposing the passage of a bill that equates criticism of Israeli policies with anti-Semitism in the US state of South Carolina.
The new bill would effectively deem any criticism of Israel in publicly funded schools and state colleges as “anti-Semitic”.
Unable to pass it as a standalone law for the past two years over questions about its constitutionality, supporters of the measure used a legislative tactic known as a “rider” to insert it into the state’s 2018-2019 budget. The measure will expire after one year.
Supporters of Israel see the controversial bill as a triumph, arguing that any criticism of Israel is inherently anti-Semitic and should be banned on college campuses.
Opponents argue the bill is politically motivated and has nothing to do with the actual issue of anti-Semitism. They argue the law will instil fear in academic circles and create self-censorship among professors and students who will be reluctant to include Israel in political discussions.
Brad Hutto, a Democratic South Carolina senator, played down the impact of the new law, saying it would not change freedom of speech in South Carolina’s public schools and universities.
Hutto, who voted against the bill, told Al Jazeera “freedom of speech is alive and well in South Carolina”.
Joshua Cooper, a professor of mathematics at the University of South Carolina at Columbia, told Al Jazeera he opposes the law not only because it stifles free speech and academic debate, but also because it violates the values of his Jewish faith.
“The law will chill free speech on campus when a robust debate is desperately needed,” he said.
Barry Trachtenberg, director of the Jewish studies programme at Wake Forest University, who teaches a course on anti-Semitism, said there should be clear distinctions between “actual anti-Semitic hatred” and legitimate criticism of Israel.
Cooper, also a member of the Academic Advisory Council of Jewish Voice for Peace, said that, as a Jewish person, he does not want to be identified with Israel when it commits human rights abuses and continues to occupy Palestinian territories.
“The bill identifies Jews with Israel. As a Jew, I don’t want to be associated with Israel’s human rights abuses,” Cooper said.
The bill’s sponsor, Representative Alan Clemmons, told Reuters news agency that Jews are subject to intense anti-Semitism in the US with “Jews at the point of the hate spear in this country”.
The Anti-Defamation League said in February the number of anti-Semitic incidents in the US jumped by 57 percent last year.
The passage of the law shows South Carolina as “leading the fight against anti-Semitism”, he said.
Trachtenberg argued the legislation would actually reinforce anti-Semitic hatred against Jews, not decrease it.
“It is my sense that such laws are more likely to exacerbate anti-Semitism rather than combat it for they reinforce the notion that Jews are an exceptional people who require laws that pertain only to them,” he said.
“Speech that is racist, ethnically motivated, or discriminatory may be legal in the US, but it must be opposed by all concerned with freedom, equality, and human rights. Speech that questions Israel’s founding principles, policies, and actions is entirely legitimate.”
Dana al-Hasan, a Palestinian graduate student at the University of South Carolina and president of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at the university, told Al Jazeera the new law is no more than a political tool by the Israeli lobby.
She said she often works with Jewish students to raise awareness about hate speech and anti-Semitism.
“Needless to say, we at the SJP denounce and never condone anti-Semitism. Palestinian and Jewish students work hand in hand to fight hatred,” she said.
Arya Novinbakht, a graduate student at the University of South Carolina and a member of the Jewish community in the area, told Al Jazeera “the law would only obstruct our community from discussing the Israeli policies and behaviour in the Middle East, and that’s not healthy or constructive for us”.
Novinbakht also criticised the University of South Carolina for “not doing anything” to combat racism and discrimination against African American students, while actively supporting this “biased” law.
Follow Ali Younes on Twitter: @ali_reports