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The Antisemitism Awareness Act bars the teaching of modern Jewish history

The writer Mike Gold, whose “Jews Without Money” was arguably the most influential literary novel by a Jewish American in the mid-20th century, was a committed anti-Zionist.

His funny and often tragic tale of working class Jewish immigrants in New York City is a capacious, Whitmanesque cheer for early 20th century Jewish life, celebrating Jewish gangsters, prostitutes, revolutionaries, peddlers, house painters, doctors, Hasidic rabbis — all but a lone figure: a “Zionist dry goods merchant” who rigs votes, undermines labor unions and engages in racist real-estate deals.

Gold, who was also the editor of the equally influential left-wing arts and culture journal The New Masses, published other Jewish writers in the 1930s who shared his disdain for the Jewish nationalists in Mandatory Palestine, referring to Zionists as “fascists” and to the Revisionist Zionist Vladimir Jabotinsky as a “Jewish Mussolini.”

I mention Gold as his novel and many essays would be all but inadmissible in my classroom and in Jewish Studies classrooms should the “Antisemitism Awareness Act” pass the Senate. This law, requiring the Department of Education to adopt the definition of antisemitism put forth by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, says antisemitism is not only “hatred of Jews” but includes three clauses about criticism of Israel.

Declaring Israel a “racist endeavor,” or “applying double standards” to Israel that one would not apply to “any other democratic nation,” or “drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis” are, according to this act, equivalent to discriminating against or defaming Jewish people.

There is no other definition of bigotry in the world that equates criticism of a state, even harsh and unfair criticism, with discrimination or bigotry against the state’s people. If one claimed that denunciations of the violent foundations of the Russian empire are “anti-Slavic” or “racist against Russians,” we would immediately see through that as just an instrumentalist defense of Russian state interests.

Perhaps the strangest part of the push for the government to adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism as part of federal civil rights law is just how much Jewish history and culture would be banned from university classrooms and student organizations. Hannah Arendt, one of the most important Jewish philosophers of the 20th century and herself a Holocaust refugee, abandoned her youthful Zionism by the mid-1940s to become one of Zionism’s most scathing critics when it became clear that Israel would become not a state for all its people but only for Jews.

Rabbi Elmer Berger, head of Reform Judaism’s American Council for Judaism, went even further in the 1950s to claim that there is nothing in the Jewish tradition suggesting that Jews had a special ethnic right to a nation at all. Sigmund Freud referred to Zionism as “baseless fanaticism”; Albert Einstein referred to the Irgun, the pre-state Zionist paramilitary organization, as “Nazis.”

Tony Kushner, Noam Chomsky, Abbie Hoffman, Lenny Bruce, Philip Roth, Jonathan Glazer, Walter Benjamin, Wallace Shawn, Daniel Boyarin, Shaul Magid, Judith Butler and Ed Asner are among countless other Jews would be now considered “antisemitic” under the new law, despite many being not only key figures in Jewish arts and letters, but leaders in the field of Jewish studies.

The critique of Zionism among American Jews is not the idiosyncratic opinions of isolated Jewish individuals, but rather a strong, living current in American Jewish secular and religious life. It represents long-standing Jewish traditions that criticize militarism, the violence of nation-states and racial exclusion. Many ultra-Orthodox Jews oppose Zionism on religious grounds as usurping what only the messiah can do, return the Jews to Jerusalem.

One-third of American Jews under 40 consider Israel’s assault on Gaza to be a “genocide” and two-fifths of American Jews of the same age range consider Israel to be an “apartheid state.” The new antisemitism law would in effect silence vast swaths of Jews within educational institutions. It would in some ways be the most punitive law against Jews to be enacted in the U.S. since the Immigration Act of 1924.

Of course, there are many Jews who believe that Israel represents them, and is inseparable from their form of Jewish religion or cultural practice. There are also, as I have laid out, many Jews who have, in letters and actions, signaled that Israel does not represent them or their conception of Jewish life and identity.

In short, Congress has no business defining what it means to be Jewish.

Of course, this is not only an intra-Jewish question. Silencing critics of Israel is a violation of free speech and academic freedom, ignores Palestinian narratives and threatens voices calling for a peaceful future for all in the Holy Land. It also needs to be said that the appearance of the U.S. government taking sides in a contentious debate will only inflame those who feel Jews have too much power and are unfairly favored by the last global superpower.

At the risk of being overly subjective, there is something just very un-Jewish about such a law. Jewish custom is one alive with debate, dissonance, disagreement. “Two Jews, three opinions” is a well-known Jewish maxim describing a shared culture of robust, vigorous disagreement.

And debate is more than just a Jewish value; it is an American value. The U.S. is not a country that defines public opinion by banning certain controversial ideas and perspectives. American universities have been the envy of the world for their support of academic freedom and independence from state coercion. These are sacred principles of Jewish life, and American life. I urge senators to vote no on this law.

Benjamin Balthaser is an associate professor of Multi-Ethnic U.S. Literature at Indiana University, South Bend.

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