This month, a German court held that the fire-bombing of a Jewish synagogue should not be considered anti-Semitic. The court reasoned that the Molotov cocktails were intended merely to “criticize Israel” and “bring attention to the Gaza conflict.” Such rubbish should be widely repudiated, but it isn’t. Similar problems exist throughout the world. Virginia Del. David LaRock, along with Del. Mark L. Cole, has introduced a landmark bill (HB 2261) that would prevent the recurrence of such incidents here.
Sadly, our state, like much of America, has seen a resurgence of anti-Semitism. In November, the College of William and Mary found graffiti targeting Jewish students and staff in a residence hall bathroom. The graffiti contained the words “Go Trump” where the letter “T” was replaced by a swastika. In October, graffiti featuring Holocaust imagery was discovered at the University of Virginia. An orange Star of David with “Juden,” the German word for Jews, underneath it was spray painted on an off-campus student housing building. At Old Dominion University in March, multiple fliers portraying a swastika and Nazi-supporting message were posted on monorail poles between the Engineering Systems and Education buildings. Text on the fliers read “Old Dominion University, You have been visited by The AtomWaffen Division. Join our Local Nazis.”
At the same time, pro-BDS and pro-Palestinian student organizations have held events that promote anti-Semitic sentiments. The George Mason University Students Against Israeli Apartheid organization hosted the National Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) conference in November. When approximately 30 students peacefully assembled to protest the conference, anti-Israel activists reportedly threatened to “(expletive) up a Zionist,” calling Jewish activists “Zionist terrorists” who “are so ugly.”
The propagation of anti-Semitism on Virginia university campuses mirrors a similar surge nationwide. According to the FBI, Jewish hate crime victims outnumber victims of all other religious groups combined. This problem is especially rampant on college campuses across the country. Researchers at Trinity College and Brandeis University found that more than half of Jewish students reported experiencing or witnessing anti-Semitism in 2014 and 2015. Anti-Semitic incidents at universities increased by 45 percent from 2015 to 2016, according to an AMCHA Initiative study.
HB 2261 calls upon the boards of visitors of Virginia public institutions of higher education to enact policies or regulations against discrimination, including anti-Semitism. When investigating the intent of alleged incidents, authorities must consider the U.S. Department of State’s definition of anti-Semitism. Critically, this bill would not restrict any speech. It would merely prevent public universities from making the same outrageous mistake that the German courts are making. That is to say, on those occasions when anti-Jewish activists harm Jewish students, the bill would encourage Virginia universities to evaluate the perpetrators’ intent using a widely established definition. For example, if anti-Israel activists carry out their threats to harm Jewish students, the bill would give universities well-established tools to ascertain the nature of the threat.
Efforts like LaRock’s work in Virginia’s General Assembly to combat anti-Semitism are also being pursued on a national level. A bipartisan group, led by Sens. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and Bob Casey (D-Pa.), introduced and passed the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act in the Senate in December. Every U.S. senator supported the bill, which would assist the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights in determining whether an incident of harassment is motivated by anti-Semitism. It was introduced into the House of Representatives too late in the last congressional term to pass through that chamber last year, but Congress is expected to take action this year.
LaRock deserves credit for introducing a vital and necessary bill. Whether Congress acts on the federal legislation this year or not, it is important for Virginia universities to avail themselves of the best tools to address all forms of hate and bias. Anti-Semitism deserves the same condemnation as other forms of hate. This bill would preserve Virginia’s heritage as the cradle of religious freedom.