Testimony of Judy Somberg on behalf of the Massachusetts Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild in opposition to Bill H.1558, An Act relative to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism

December 5, 2023

To Chairman James Eldridge, Chairman Michael Day, and members of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary.
I am writing to ask you to oppose Bill H.1558, An Act relative to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism.
I am submitting this testimony on behalf of the Massachusetts Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild. For over 80 years, the NLG has acted as the legal arm of social movements and the conscience of the legal profession.
The Massachusetts Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild is vehemently opposed to antisemitism, but this bill does not help to eliminate antisemitism. Furthermore, the IHRA definition of antisemitism has been used to censor free speech and stifle legitimate political discourse. Here are five examples of how that has occurred:
● Referencing the State Department’s definition of antisemitism, the Indiana University campus branch of an Israeli lobby group attempted to censor a November 2018 talk about Palestinian rights delivered by Jamil Dakwar, a prominent international human rights lawyer and director of the ACLU’s Human Rights Program. (https://palestinelegal.org/news/2018/12/17/iipac-jamil-dakwar)
● In September 2016, the University of California, Berkeley, suspended a course on Palestine in the middle of the semester, in blatant violation of academic freedom. The course suspension was a response to an international campaign by Israeli advocacy organizations arguing, erroneously, that the course was “antisemitic anti-Zionism” and in violation of the University’s Principles of Intolerance. The Principles of Intolerance were adopted as a milder version of the IHRA definition, after the IHRA/State Department definition had been rejected. (https://palestinelegal.org/casestudies/2017/10/13/uc-berkeley-suspended-course-on-palestine)
● In April 2019, a group of anonymous students filed a lawsuit asking the court to force the cancellation of a panel at the University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass). The panel was supposed to focus on the censorship of speech supporting Palestinian rights. The lawsuit argued that the IHRA definition of antisemitism justified a court order to cancel the event because the panelists’ criticism of Israel and its policies fell within that definition. The lawsuit came on the heels of letters from Israeli advocacy organizations (https://amchainitiative.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/UMass80-Org-Letter-4.23.19.pdf), the Massachusetts Republican Jewish Committee, and the Massachusetts Republican Party to UMass, warning the university that sponsoring the event would be a violation of federal policies around antisemitism. The lawsuit was voluntarily dismissed in December 2019.
● In March 2022, a student government committee at Arizona State University cited IHRA, falsely claiming the university was required to adhere to the definition in an attempt to prevent students from hosting a talk by Mohammed El-Kurd, a prominent Palestinian poet and journalist.
(https://palestinelegal.org/news/2022/5/10/asu-students-overcome-ihra-roadblock-to-mohammed-elkurd-event) The committee attempted to condition approval for the event on El-Kurd refraining from criticism of Israel, but approved the event after a warning from Palestine Legal (palestinelegal.org) that doing so would violate the First Amendment.
● In July 2022, criticism of Israel was used as a justification to deny Kenneth Roth, former head of Human Rights Watch, a fellowship with the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. According to Professor Kathryn Sikkink, the denial was due to Human Rights Watch’s “anti-Israel bias,” apparently evidenced by its criticism of the Israeli state’s human rights abuses. (https://www.thenation.com/article/society/hrw-harvard-israel-kennedy-school/) However, as Roth explained, “Israel is one of 100 countries whose human rights record Human Rights Watch regularly addresses.” (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2023/jan/10/kenneth-rothhuman-rights-watch-harvard-israel) Using similar logic, the IHRA definition prevents criticism of Israel and is used to chill protected speech and punish scholars, such as Kenneth Roth, who speak out against human rights abuses.
We urge you not to support this dangerous bill. Thank you.
Judy Somberg
for the Massachusetts Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild (www.nlgmass.org)
185 Devonshire St, Suite 302
Boston, MA 02110