This month, I attended, “Kristallnacht, 79 years Later,” a remembrance, hosted by the Illinois Holocaust Museum. Among the honorees were six elderly Jewish survivors, who witnessed the hate and destruction, during the “Night of Terror” orchestrated by the Germans in 1938. Yet, beyond the violence, what disturbed me at a core, were the individual participant readings relaying specific anti-Jewish legislation that began in 1933 Nazi Germany.
The gradual implementation of these laws served to depersonalize Jews to separate them from their neighbors, deprive them of their freedoms of speech and assembly, and rights to certain occupations, schooling, and, ultimately, access to escape, which sealed their fate.
One speaker alluded to events that led to the Holocaust and what is currently transpiring on many college campuses across the United States: targeting pro-Israel Jewish students for ridicule and harm, simply because of their beliefs. They are made to feel unwelcome and unsafe while in pursuit of their education. It’s inexcusable.
On Dec. 2, 2016, U.S. Reps. Ted Deutch and Peter Roskam co-sponsored the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act — H.R. 6421 — along with other members of the Congressional Bipartisan Task Force for Combating anti-Semitism, including Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida. They were soon joined by other Florida Reps. Carlos Curbelo and Debbie Wasserman Schultz. In essence, this legislative initiative would provide for a defensible definition of anti-Semitism that would let the justice system equitably determine guilt or innocence, in situations of alleged abuse.
Jewish students, their families, and many non-Jews have, for far too long, awaited the means to effectively slow down, if not stop the rising tide of threats, assaults and property damage, geared toward marginalizing and then silencing those who openly advocate Israel’s legitimacy.
H.R. 6421 has been stalled in the House Judiciary Committee for almost one year, even though its companion in the U.S. Senate was unanimously approved in 2016.
Still, there is some positive movement. The University of Wisconsin educational system has approved a precedent setting, statewide policy, that calls for the suspension of any student whose disorderly conduct disrupts another’s freedom of speech, on two separate occasions; and expulsion for a third infraction, or should consequential violence result. This action coincides with a Wisconsin State Assembly initiative, passed in June, but awaiting Senate review. These are good first steps, but not a replacement for H.R. 6421, “The Anti-Semitism Awareness Act of 2016.”
Anti-Semitism is, of course, not an exclusively American issue. It has roots in Europe and other nations, as well. To help stem the tide, in May 2016 at plenary meetings held in Bucharest, Romania, Germany and 30 other nations, adopted a working definition of anti-Semitism, ascribed to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. This will help recognize anti-Semitism and then codify the means to eradicate this evil.
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I have seen during 72 years of life that waiting for the better angels of haters to rise to the top has proven a futile exercise. With so much at stake, none of us has the luxury to ignore bigotry.
We must be on guard for, and readily challenge, prejudice and intolerance, wherever found.
Perhaps, after implementation of H.R. 6421 guidelines, people with strong differing viewpoints may be able to debate the merits of their positions, without resorting to divisive stereotypes and ugly threats.
Bruce Portnoy is the author of “First, the Saturday people, and then the…”