After A Dispute At The University Of Tennessee, Groups Urge Lawmakers To Clarify What's Anti-Semitic | Nashville Public Radio

After A Dispute At The University Of Tennessee, Groups Urge Lawmakers To Clarify What's Anti-Semitic

Mar 30, 2017

When does criticism of the nation of Israel cross into anti-Semitism?

Tennessee lawmakers are wrestling with that question as part of the debate over a measure that takes aim at the University of Tennessee, over its handling of some comments by Muslim students that critics say constituted hate speech.

The dispute goes back to August, when several UT-Knoxville students were accused of comparing Israel to Nazi Germany.

Aviva Vogelstein, a lawyer with the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, says a clear message needs to be sent that such comments aren't acceptable.

"We frequently find that universities fail to treat anti-Semitism with the same resolve they apply to other problems because they lack a uniform standard for determining what is anti-Semitic and what is not," she says.

That's where the Tennessee General Assembly comes in. The Brandeis Center wants lawmakers to write a definition of anti-Semitism into state law. House Bill 885 would place the definition alongside bans on sexual harassment and hazing on campuses.

The Brandeis Center is not the only group pushing the proposal. Proclaiming Justice to the Nations, a pro-Israel group based in Nashville that's perhaps best known for trying to block construction of a mosque in Murfreesboro several years ago, claims UT-Knoxville supports terrorism through student groups that it says are affiliated with Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.

But Nashville Democrat Mike Stewart says there's no evidence to support that.

"Apparently some students got together and said, 'From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,'" he says. "I mean, I don't really think that's evidence of UT harboring or supporting terrorists."

Whether such statements amount to hate speech is at the crux of the debate. The Brandeis Center says they do, when they imply violence toward Jewish people or call into question Jewish loyalties.

But some lawmakers say a ban on them would shut down all debate over the Middle East on Tennessee's campuses. They delayed a vote on the measure until next week to give the University of Tennessee time to respond.

The school says in a prepared statement that "the safety and well-being of its students is a top priority" and it is focused on creating a welcoming environment.

"Any suggestion to the contrary is not reflective of our Knoxville campus or the greater Knoxville community," it says. "We encourage and support dialogue among all of our students to promote better understanding and respect for differing points of view."

The university adds it looks forward to giving lawmakers more facts about the issue at future hearings.