Arizona legislators are trying to amend their existing State hate crime law to include anti-Semitism as a category of bias. The bill passed the House 52 to 8 in late February with overwhelming bi-partisan support. It was expected that the Senate would do the same. That is, until Democrats did an about-face.
Current Arizona law gives the judiciary the option to enhance sentencing in crimes motivated by malice because of a victim’s actual or perceived race, religion, color, disability, national origin, gender or sexual orientation. In those cases, bias motivation is an “aggravating circumstance” for purposes of sentencing and can lead to longer sentences for defendants than could be imposed absent the bias. This existing law generates confusion about identifying bias against Jews.
The proposed amendment, carefully designed to cover only criminal acts, adds the category of “anti-Semitism” when state officials investigate and track crime with potential discriminatory motivation. Additionally, law enforcement is required to use the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of anti-Semitism as an evaluative tool to decide when criminal conduct warrants heightened sentencing due to evidence of prejudice.
The sponsors of this legislation believe that the addition of the category “anti-Semitism” to existing law will result in better tracking of bias crimes and provide more accurate data to help policy decision-making.
Arizona is not alone in its efforts to use the IHRA anti-Semitism definition as an evaluative tool. Legislators in Iowa are arguing for the inclusion of this definition in their discrimination law.
The internationally accepted IHRA working definition of anti-Semitism, also adopted by the U.S. Departments of State and Justice, encompasses the age-old hatred targeting Jews as well as modern anti-Semitism aimed at Israel as a proxy for Jews. It clearly distinguishes between legitimate criticisms of Israel that are protected as free speech and expressions that cross the line into unprotected anti-Semitic hate speech. Among the many examples of contemporary Jew-hatred are “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination,” claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a “racist endeavor,” and “drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.”
With legislators eager to address growing anti-Semitism in Arizona, the bill was the most sponsored piece of bi-partisan legislation in Arizona history. The House bill was sailing through—when the local ACLU and the anti-Israel organizations Students for Justice in Palestine, American Muslims for Palestine and Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and others launched a well-orchestrated and effective campaign of “intimidation by misinformation” in the Senate. They charged that the bill uses the IHRA definition as a weapon to stifle free speech. Even though the bill clearly states that “anti-Semitism does not include criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country,” opponents nevertheless claimed that the bill criminalizes criticism of Israel.
Support among Senate Democrats quickly evaporated.
The vote in the Senate was postponed and the legislature recessed due to the coronavirus outbreak. Jake Bennett, Director of State Legislative Affairs for the Israeli-American Coalition for Action, is working to promote the legislation. Interviewed by the Haym Salomon Center, Bennett expressed the opinion that the bill will pass even without Democratic support. However, he hopes that some Democrats will vote “yes” to maintain the bi-partisan nature of this effort and send a united message that anti-Semitism has no place in Arizona.
In this age of the coronavirus, when conspiracy theories on both left and right blame Jews and Israel for the worldwide pandemic, effective hate crime laws are all the more imperative. Will Democrats in the Arizona Senate validate the growing crisis of anti-Semitism-motivated crime by supporting this legislation or will they fall prey to fear mongering and propaganda?
Ziva Dahl is a senior fellow with the news and public policy group Haym Salomon Center.