Thursday, July 25, 2024

NC legislature introduces antisemitism bill amid ongoing protests of Israel-Palestine war

Lawmakers introduced a new bill to define antisemitism in state statute last week amid ongoing pro-Palestine protests taking place in North Carolina. But some groups believe it would infringe on first amendment rights and curtail legitimate political speech. (Port City Daily/ Peter Castagno)

NORTH CAROLINA — Lawmakers introduced a new bill to define antisemitism in state statute last week amid ongoing pro-Palestine protests taking place in North Carolina. But some groups believe it would infringe on first amendment rights and curtail legitimate political speech.

READ MORE: Locals push for ceasefire resolution, point to explosives shipped from Wilmington harbor

Last Tuesday, House Speaker Tim Moore introduced H.B. 942, the SHALOM Act, to the General Assembly. The bill would apply the working definition of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance to state statute in order to guide education, recognition, and confrontation of antisemitic hate crimes and discrimination. The definition would be used to track and report antisemitic incidents in North Carolina.

The bill includes a $10,000 appropriation to the Department of Administration to fund the implementation of the act and education about its provisions. 

While the proposal states its provisions must not diminish or infringe on first amendment rights, groups including the North Carolina American Civil Liberties Union and Carolina Jews for Justice warn the breadth of IHRA’s definition would impede constitutionally-protected criticism of Israel.

NC ACLU policy and advocacy director Elizabeth Barber and Carolina Jews for Justice executive director Abby Lublin both noted the person who drafted the IHRA’s definition of antisemitism — law professor Kenneth Stern — never intended it to be used as a hate speech law, and has spoken out against its passage by various governments.

“The speaker’s bill does not include any new protections for Jewish people in North Carolina,” Barber said, noting existing state laws already prohibit hate crimes but contain no stipulation for specific demographics, such as anti-Black racism.

Barber noted the SHALOM Act references the IHRA definition but does not use its actual language in the bill. She said seven out of 11 of IHRA’s examples of antisemitism include the state of Israel, and argued they are excessively ambiguous for broad legal interpretation.

“This bill actually distracts us because it focuses on political speech of Israel, rather than the actual antisemitism that we know threatens us here,” Lublin told PCD.

She cited the Diaspora Alliance, an international organization focused on combating antisemitism, which has documented uses of the IHRA definition to stifle criticisms of Israel.

“We don’t see a decrease of actual antisemitic acts, but we do see an increase of people targeted for their activism criticizing Israel’s policies.”

Lublin empathized with Jewish citizens and students who are discomforted by protests criticizing Israel, but added it is important to distinguish between language that makes an individual upset versus hate speech that could compromise safety. While there are some legitimate instances of bigotry at the demonstrations, Lublin argued, growing antisemitism is most prevalent among far right white nationalists, including among some supporters of Israel. She offered the U.S. National Strategy to Combat Anti Semitism as a superior means of addressing the issue.

Local representatives Ted Davis Jr. and Charles Miller are co-sponsors of the bill; PCD reached out to the officials to ask their views of NC ACLU’s concerns. Davis Jr. noted he is not one of the bill’s primary sponsors, but said it will be scheduled at the House Judiciary 1 committee — of which he is the chair — on Wednesday, where the NC ACLU and other groups will be able to voice their concerns. Miller’s office did not wish to comment.

PCD reached out to the Jewish Confederation of Greater Raleigh, which has been working with state legislators on the bill for months, but did not receive a response by press. The group describes the SHALOM Act as its top legislative priority and argues it would help identify and address antisemitic incidents.

“Manifestations might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity,” the Jewish Confederation noted in a statement. “However, criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”

The bill comes amid national college protests — including UNC Chapel Hill and UNC Charlotte  — with ranging goals, including an end to the ongoing Israel-Palestine war and divestment from economic ties to Israel. Last week, the House passed the Countering Antisemitism Act, which similarly applied the IHRA definition to the federal Civil Rights Act. Rep. Kathy Manning of North Carolina’s sixth district introduced the bill in response to rising antisemitism she believes is demonstrated by the protests.

In Wilmington, local group ILM for Peace in Palestine has been urging the city council to pass a resolution in support of a ceasefire for months. The group cites shipments from Wilmington harbor — which includes Sunny Point and Port of Wilmington — facilitating weapons transfers to Israel as evidence of the issue’s local relevance.

PCD spoke to ILM Peace for Palestine members at their protest of President Biden’s visit to Wilmington at the Convention Center last Thursday. Spokesperson Meg Crenshaw said the has group has three goals: equal rights for Palestinians, allowing humanitarian aid into Gaza, and an immediate end to genocide and collective punishment. 

Tom Carlin, a member of the group, noted the U.S. is deeply involved in the ongoing war. The U.S. provides over $3.3 billion in annual military aid to Israel and has made over 100 weapons transfers to the country since Hamas killed around 1,200 Israelis on Oct. 7.

“We do not want to be complicit,” Carlin said.

He cited over 34,000 Palestinians killed in the past seven months — including more than 14,000 children — and the International Criminal Court’s January ruling of “plausible” genocide in Gaza. 

U.S. military aid policy is supposed to require recipients to abide by international law, although two recent memos show some U.S. officials doubt Israel’s compliance. In a March document, Secretary of State officials cited “unconscionably high levels” of civilian harm,  “unprecedented” killing of humanitarian workers and journalists, and “arbitrary” restrictions of humanitarian aid. In April, USAID officials warned famine in Gaza is “inevitable” but changes could save lives, as they determined Israel had not allowed the unrestricted delivery of U.S. humanitarian aid.

Ceasefire negotiations are ongoing. On Monday, Hamas agreed to a Qatari-Egyptian ceasefire proposal consisting of a gradual cessation of hostilities and captive exchange, followed by reconstruction and an end of the Gazan blockade. Israel and the U.S. are currently reviewing the proposal, according to Haaretz, although Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said he will continue the attack on the southern Gazan city of Rafah regardless of a deal.

Roger Cook is a Jewish member of ILM for Peace in Palestine. He told PCD his heritage — his mother and grandmother narrowly escaped the Holocaust — informs his pro-Palestinian activism: 

“The massive extermination campaigns mounted since October by the Israeli forces killing tens of thousands of completely innocent Palestinian women and children is an ‘identity-based’ persecution. And, of course, Hamas’s horrific attack evidenced this exact same kind of identity-based intent.  No person of moral conscience should support such actions by anyone, and it is incumbent upon us to help however we can to curb such violations of human dignity and fundamental human rights wherever they occur, by whatever perpetrator, and never ever to facilitate such violations.”  

Cook opposes H.B. 942. As a retired attorney, the ILM Palestine member also said the law would function as a “prior restraint” on free speech. He did not believe it would survive most judicial analyses, giving it a mostly symbolic impact.

“Choosing to focus on one type of statement to the exclusion of many, many other objectionable yet legally permissible statements against a variety of other groups or other viewpoints violates, in my view, our shared commitment to a pluralistic democracy and a shared right of free speech here,” he said.

Duke law professor Sarah Ludington — also the director of Duke’s First Amendment Clinic — similarly argued: 

“At best you could see it as a gesture of support to the Jewish community in North Carolina to signal that we will not tolerate antisemitism here. I think a follow up that makes it punitive or requires schools to use it in some way is what makes it dangerous.”

Ludington noted former ACLU president Nadine Strossen’s analysis of hate speech laws, which found IHRA definitions passed in European countries have had the counterproductive effect of increasing antisemitism.  

John Locke Foundation chief executive officer Donald Bryson told PCD he was concerned both by the rise of antisemitism and potential free speech implications of the bill, but didn’t believe it posed a threat to first amendment rights in its current form.

“You can criticize the nation of Israel,” he said. “You can criticize policies and all that is not antisemitic. When you’re attacking Jews for the simple fact that they are Jews, that in fact is antisemitic.”

Alternatively, Barber noted one of IHRA’s examples of antisemitism is describing the state of Israel as a racist endeavor. Prominent human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch define Israel as an apartheid state, which could be defined as antisemitic under the law. Amnesty and HRW are among 104 civil society organizations that signed a letter last year warning the United Nations about the IHRA definition’s ramifications, noting its main original drafter said it had repeatedly been used as a “blunt instrument to label anyone an antisemite.”

August Schaller, a Jewish member of ILM for Peace in Palestine, told PCD he views the bill as a political tactic to discourage legitimate criticisms of Israel.

“I think it’s very telling that many of the people who are pushing for bills on the state and federal level, are very in favor of denouncing antisemitism now because Israel is involved,” Schaller said. “But in 2016, when Charlottesville happened, and you had people marching and literally announcing themselves as Nazis, almost no one was arrested until violence broke out.” 

Cook and Schaller said they had not experienced antisemitism at ILM for Peace in Palestine protests. Both argued the phrase “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” —  which the Anti Defamation League cites as antisemitic language — is not inherently hateful.

“I have not heard the phrase used except perhaps once or twice, and in those cases, it was not, in my view, antisemitic, because it did not call for harm to Israeli citizens or Jewish people such as myself,” Cook said. “What the speakers were calling for in those instances was a political restructuring of the current Israeli state and occupied Palestine into a single state, in which equal rights are guaranteed to all — not an extermination of any kind.”

Tips or comments? Email journalist Peter Castagno at

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