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BOR antisemitism policy proposal is misguided

04 Jun 2024 5:31 PM | State Board (Administrator)

UPDATE, June 12, 2024: On June 7, 2024, the Nevada Board of Regents, by a vote of 7 to 6, amended the Board of Regents Handbook's anti-discrimination policy to include language specifically identifying antisemitism based on the IHRA working definition and examples. The NFA State Board rejects and abhors antisemitism and continues to support statements from the ACLU and AAUP that oppose adoption of the IHRA definition. Our position echoes that of AAUP in their letter to the US Department of Education.  In the event that this new policy is not applied as its many supporters have testified, the NFA is prepared to defend any faculty member who is unreasonably accused  of discrimination based on the IHRA definition or examples of antisemitism. We look forward to working amicably with all students and faculty at our NSHE institutions to foster an environment that encourages free speech and avoids any discrimination based on religion, race, ethnicity, or national origin, and recommit our members to fostering diversity, equity and inclusion.  

ORIGINAL POST, June 4, 2024: At their next quarterly meeting on June 6 and 7, the Board of Regents will consider an amendment to the Handbook’s definition of discrimination so that it includes “citizenship or residency in a country with a dominant religion or distinct religious identity, and permit consultation of the [International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance] definition of ‘antisemitism’ and accompanying examples thereof.” It begs the question, could criticism of Israel and/or the Israeli government be considered discriminatory of Jewish people and the Jewish faith? The proposal, which has been submitted by Regents Joe Arrascada, Byron Brooks, and Stephanie Goodman, aims to add the IHRA working definition of antisemitism and specific examples to the Handbook which governs the Nevada System of Higher Education. The definition is already included in mandatory anti-bias and anti-discrimination training for Regents and NSHE employees.

The Nevada Faculty Alliance condemns antisemitism in all its forms, just as we condemn all forms of discriminatory and hateful behavior.  However, we vigorously oppose this proposal for infringing on the first amendment rights of free speech and freedom of religion, and we encourage all higher education employees in Nevada to voice their opinions to the Board.

The definition developed by IHRA provides examples of what can be considered antisemitism, but explicitly references Israel. Ironically, the author of the original definition on antisemitism that is used by the IHRA, Kenneth Stern, testified in Congress against enshrining the definition into any law because the definition “was not drafted, and was never intended, as a tool to target or chill speech on a college campus.” Instead, the definition was only meant to be non-legally binding guidance.

Indeed, the definition is not universally accepted even in the Jewish community. More than 1,300 Jewish college and university faculty members from across the United States have signed a statement that rejects the IHRA working definition because “[c]riticism of the state of Israel, the Israeli government, policies of the Israeli government, or Zionist ideology is not - in and of itself - antisemitic.” The group acknowledges there are differing opinions on Israel, even within its own ranks, but it cautions against the dangerous belief “that Jewish identity is inextricably linked to every decision of Israel’s government.” Instead of combating antisemitism, this notion may have the inverse effect and actually intensify the real threats Jewish Americans already face.

Other definitions of antisemitism exist, including the Jerusalem Definition developed by Jewish academics. It is unambiguous in its simplicity and makes no link between Jewish people and institutions to the government of Israel. Similarly, the Nexus Project, which has published multiple documents designed to guide policy makers in the fight against antisemitism, opposes using the IHRA working definition to formulate policies and laws.

In their submission, Regents indicate they have consulted with Jewish student organizations about this proposal, but we know of no outreach to Jewish faculty who are equally, if not more, exposed to antisemitic behavior. It appears the Regents submitting this proposal may have failed to recognize that Jewish NSHE faculty can provide valuable insights when forming a policy such as this.

NSHE is not the first place where ideological groups, motivated by former President Trump’s Executive Order 13899, have moved to enshrine this language into educational governance. Earlier this year, the American Civil Liberties Union issued a letter to the US Department of Education urging them to reject the IHRA definition in any rules, policies, or practices for enforcing civil rights because it “conflates protected political speech with unprotected discrimination, and enshrining it into regulation will chill the exercise of First Amendment rights and risk undermining the agency's legitimate and important efforts to combat discrimination.” 

Besides the obviously unconstitutional aim of suppressing the right of individuals to criticize government activities, the IHRA definition is ill-suited as the basis of a policy because it is simultaneously too ambiguous in one sense while being too specific in others.

First, the handbook change would include “citizenship or residency in a country with a dominant religion or distinct religious identity” as a potential basis of discrimination. There are a number of countries around the globe that have dominant religions or a distinct religious identity, such as Afghanistan, Cambodia, Egypt, India, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and others. Could this definition lead to an assault on free speech for far more than one nationality and curtail objective, rational discussions of international current events, politics, art, and literature in the future?

Second, it does not make sense to codify into the handbook incredibly specific examples of antisemitism that make direct references to a specific country without doing the same for other types of discrimination. 

College campuses are places in which students learn and create their world views. It is imperative that we keep free speech paramount on our campuses and encourage students, faculty, staff, and community members to understand that their words can literally be dangerous - something we have said to the Board in the past regarding oppressed identities. In other words, it is our responsibility to teach and remind students, and each other, of the weight that is our right to free speech, not to dictate what we can and cannot say as members of public higher education in Nevada. 

The NFA echoes the ACLU’s objections when they stated, “[a]dopting the IHRA working definition of antisemitism would lead to more censorship on campus, and change the nature of universities, which exist to promote the free flow of information and marketplace of ideas.“ We will vigorously defend the rights of all Nevada faculty members and students to engage in free speech and the uncensored exchange of ideas. It is a pillar of our mission as an organization, and a foundation of our profession. 

As stewards of higher education in Nevada, the Board of Regents should reject this proposal.

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