The dome of the US Capitol is seen at dusk in Washington on November 13, 2023 ( AFP / Mandel NGAN)

US politicians, influencers misrepresent anti-Semitism bill

  • Published on May 7, 2024 at 21:35
  • Updated on May 17, 2024 at 15:23
  • 5 min read
  • By Daniel FUNKE, AFP USA
Soon after the US House of Representatives passed a bill in May 2024 to codify a definition of anti-Semitism into federal civil rights law, some detractors said it would effectively prohibit Americans from reading or quoting the Christian Bible. This is false; sponsors say the legislation does not target the New Testament, and the claims are based on historical inaccuracies about the origins of Christianity.

"Theyve banned the bible in a 'Christian' nation," says Andrew Tate, a controversial influencer who has previously promoted misinformation, in a May 2, 2024 post on X following the congressional action.

Responding to a post from conservative activist Charlie Kirk asking if the House made "parts of the Bible illegal," former Fox News host Tucker Carlson said: "Yes. The New Testament."

The posts and others like them refer to the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act (archived here), which the House passed May 1 in a bipartisan vote (archived here). The measure, which expands the legal definition of anti-Semitism used to enforce laws against discrimination, was sent to the Senate for consideration. 

Some Republicans in Congress opposed the legislation on the grounds that it could result in the prosecution of Christians.

"Antisemitism is wrong, but I will not be voting for the Antisemitism Awareness Act of 2023 (H.R. 6090) today that could convict Christians of antisemitism for believing the Gospel that says Jesus was handed over to Herod to be crucified by the Jews," says Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene in a May 1 post on X.

Screenshots of posts on X taken May 7, 2024

The narrative comes amid pro-Palestinian protests that have roiled college campuses nationwide. The demonstrations against Israel's bombardment of the Gaza Strip have posed a challenge to university administrators trying to balance free speech rights with complaints that the rallies have veered into anti-Semitism.

The Anti-Semitism Awareness Act requires the Department of Education to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of anti-Semitism when tackling discrimination. That definition cites several examples of potentially hateful speech, such as using "claims of Jews killing Jesus" to "characterize Israel or Israelis" (archived here).

The bill's chief sponsor has pushed back on allegations that it would criminalize the Bible's teachings.

"To somehow use that (definition) to say that this bill now is going to prosecute Christians is absurd on its face -- it's inflammatory and it's irrational," said Republican Congressman Mike Lawler, a practicing Catholic, in a May 1 interview with CNN (archived here).

"What it is saying in using that contemporary example is that these examples may be considered, but that it depends on the context of what is said. If you're calling all Jews Christ-killers, then yes, that is anti-Semitic and everybody understands that. But if you're referring to the Bible in context, then no, nobody is saying that that is anti-Semitic."

Co-sponsor Jared Moskowitz also refuted Greene's claims.

"I want Christians to be able to practice however Christians deem that they need to, and we're not interested in messing with the gospel nor does this language do that," the Democratic congressman told CNN.

AFP contacted Greene, Lawler and Moskowitz's offices for additional comment, but responses were not forthcoming.

Church disavowed myth

The notion that Jews are to blame for the crucifixion of Jesus has a long history.

"For centuries the Church taught that Jews were responsible for Jesus' death, not recognizing, as most historians do today, that Jesus was executed by the Roman government because officials viewed him as a political threat to their rule," the US Holocaust Memorial Museum says on its website (archived here).

The Roman Catholic Church officially disavowed the belief in 1965 (archived here). In a 2011 book (archived here), Pope Benedict XVI again absolved Jews of responsibility for the death of Christ, whose family and disciples were Jewish.

Nevertheless, the anti-Semitic trope has persisted.

"The myth that Jews collectively murdered Jesus, also referred to as 'deicide,' has been used to justify violence against Jews for centuries," the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) says on its website (archived here).

"Historians as well as Christian leaders have agreed that the claim is baseless."

'Not a new policy'

If signed into law, the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act would require the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) to use the IHRA working definition of anti-Semitism when enforcing Title VI of the Civil Rights Act

The 1964 law "prohibits discrimination based on race, color or national origin in programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance," the agency says on its website -- including those at universities (archived here).

Critics of the House bill describe it as government overreach that will chill free speech on college campuses.

"Although this bill does not change the definition of harassment, it does direct the Department of Education to consider protected speech in determining whether any actionable harassment under Title VI, including allegations that the school is responsible for a 'hostile environment,' was motivated by antisemitism," the American Civil Liberties Union said in an April 26, 2024 letter to Congress (archived here).

"A determination of a violation may ultimately lead to cuts to school funding."

But Michael McConnell, director of the Constitutional Law Center at Stanford Law School (archived here), told AFP that the claims circulating online are a "far-fetched prediction" about how the Anti-Semitic Awareness Act would be applied.

"The likelihood of this law being applied to the Bible is close to zero," he said in a May 3 email, noting that the First Amendment to the US Constitution "protects even quite hateful speech."

Dan Granot, ADL's director of government relations, agreed.

"The Anti-Semitism Awareness Act does not ban the Bible and does not criminalize anti-Semitic speech or thought, including the age-old anti-Semitic myth of deicide," he told AFP in a May 6 statement.

Granot added that the bill's citation of IHRA's working definition is "not a new policy." The Department of Education has consulted the same one since 2019, when former president Donald Trump mentioned it in an executive order on combating anti-Semitism (archived here and here).

"This bill ultimately would codify that (order) into law to make sure that the Department of Education is using the IHRA working definition for its discrimination enforcement cases," Congressman Lawler told CNN.

AFP has fact-checked other false and misleading claims about pro-Palestinian campus protests here, here and here.

A link in the fourth paragraph of this article was updated.
May 17, 2024 A link in the fourth paragraph of this article was updated.

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