Congress Must Act Now to Protect the Jewish Community

Saadah Masoud and his friends are the exact reason why numerous states across the country are passing antisemitism bills, and his lawyers’ assertions in federal court are why Congress also needs to act.
March 9, 2023
Photo by Wenhan Cheng from Pixabay

It is rare that the Jewish community should thank an antisemite, but the case of Saadah Masoud is an exception. Masoud’s actions, arguments and stunning admissions, detailed in his federal hate crimes sentencing hearing last week, prove once and for all that some “anti-Zionism” is really nothing more than antisemitism. Masoud and his friends are the exact reason why numerous states across the country are passing antisemitism bills, and his lawyers’ assertions in federal court are why Congress also needs to act.

On at least three separate occasions, Masoud and his accomplices violently assaulted innocent visibly Jewish men, one of whom they sent to the hospital. Masoud’s attorneys actually had the audacity to argue that he did not target these innocent American Jewish people because he is an antisemite, but rather because he was seeking to “promote social and political goals.” They admitted he should not have used violence, but claimed he did so because he feels so “deeply” about the “occupation of Palestine” and apparently just lost himself in the moment(s).

Incredibly, because there is currently no federal definition of antisemitism to which prosecutors can point when assessing the intent behind discriminatory action or hate crimes, that excuse might even have worked, just as it has in other similar instances. But this time, thank God, there was undeniable evidence. In their filing, heroic prosecutors showed the Court the defendant’s messages, in which he and his friends conspired in advance to commit the attacks on Jews. In one instance, Masoud actually warned them, “Remember, don’t chant out jews, it’s the Zionists,” in an apparent attempt to preserve the very argument his lawyers later tried to make. In private, however, he and his friends repeatedly dropped the “anti-Zionism” veil, and referred to their victims and their would-be victims as “Jews.” During one of the attacks, Masoud himself forgot to heed his own warning, asking Victim 3, “Are you a f—ing Jew?” before he punched him in the face.

And so Masoud will go to prison, as he should. But the question remains: What if he had been smart enough to hide his venomous hatred for Jews instead of putting it in writing? When a Chinese American is attacked because of someone’s hatred for China, it is readily understood as an act of racist or national origin-based discrimination. How could anyone argue that assaulting an innocent Jewish person because you don’t like the Jewish State is somehow “political” and not antisemitic?

The answer can be found in recent surveys that show that roughly half the U.S. population does not know what “antisemitism” means, while over 85% actually believe at least one anti-Jewish trope. Those numbers explain why authorities have had so much trouble enforcing existing laws without a definition. Bad actors, like Masoud, regularly take advantage of this massive knowledge gap: They commit heinous acts of discrimination and violence against Jewish people, then claim it was not antisemitism, but some more socially acceptable bias, and that charges of antisemitism are an attempt to somehow “silence critics of Israel.” So thank you, Masoud, for your service in exposing that particular lie, and to your lawyers for clarifying why we need a federal bill giving authorities a standard to use as evidence of intent for unlawful antisemitic conduct or hate crimes.

To be clear: Such a bill would not affect an antisemite’s ability to spread their hateful message, and would not ban or limit speech. It would only prevent antisemites from getting away with unlawful discriminatory actions. Unlawful discriminatory conduct can range from illegal hiring, firing or housing decisions, to hate crimes and discriminatory harassment. None of that is protected under the First Amendment. Nor would such a bill somehow “chill” protected speech. A unanimous Supreme Court ruling in Wisconsin vs. Mitchell (1993) held that when it comes to evaluating discriminatory actions “The First Amendment does not prohibit the evidentiary use of speech to prove motive or intent.” That is just how antidiscrimination laws always work.

Such a bill would not affect an antisemite’s ability to spread their hateful message, and would not ban or limit speech.

You don’t have to look far to understand why this bill is so desperately needed. Just this week, a judge in San Francisco dropped hate crime charges against a man who walked into a synagogue near his house and started firing blanks at a group of elderly Jewish people who had gathered for a Torah study session. The man has a documented history of posting antisemitic propaganda and antisemitic slurs, including photos of himself dressed as a Nazi soldier. The defense countered that he was a “history buff” with an interest in military uniforms, and that he wasn’t antisemitic because he himself was a non-affiliated Jew. (For the record, Jewish people can also be antisemitic.) Witnesses said that he uttered the words “Mossad” and “Haifa” during the attack. But because there is no legal standard definition to point to, the judge found “no substantial evidence of bias” against the Jewish community. This is why these bills are important.

In terms of which definition to use, there is really only one answer. The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism is already used by several departments within our federal government, and has been embraced by Presidents of both parties, over 30 U.S. States, dozens of countries worldwide, and (perhaps most importantly) the vast majority of Jewish people and organizations across every spectrum, who believe that it best captures their shared lived experience of how antisemitism manifests. It is the only near universally accepted definition of antisemitism that there is or ever has been, and it has proven to be an essential tool for identifying contemporary manifestations of anti-Jewish bigotry or hate.

The IHRA definition explicitly states that criticism of Israel, like any other country, is not antisemitic. And yes, it alsoincludes some examples of anti-Zionism that can, sometimes, contextually, cross the line into antisemitism: For example: holding Jews collectively responsible for the actions of the Jewish state. The reason the specific Israel-related examples are provided in the IHRA definition (and are clearly so important) is explicitly not because all criticism of Israel is antisemitic, but precisely because there are those who claim that nothing can ever cross the line. Unfortunately, that is where you consistently find bad actors, like Masoud, who hide their vile antisemitism behind the thinnest of anti-Zionist veils.

Of course, there are some fringe groups even within the Jewish community who do not like the IHRA definition. But their concerns are (allegedly) all about the dangers of using IHRA as a speech code, and in that sense, they are correct: The IHRA definition should never be used as a speech code because regardless of how you feel about the definition’s examples and whether they cross the line into antisemitism, even antisemitic speech is protected under the First Amendment.  But despite how anyone feels about the IHRA definition generally, or how it could theoretically be used in other contexts, the bill proposed here does not limit any speech at all. Like the state antisemitism bills that are already in place, this bill would only use the IHRA definition to assess antisemitic motives behind already unlawful conduct. It is demonstrably not about protecting Israel; it about protecting Jews. The problem is that Jews, even those who do not support Israel, are often targeted for discrimination because antisemites like Masoud hold them accountable (or pretend to hold them accountable) as an excuse to attack them for a perceived connection to the Jewish state. The IHRA definition makes it clear that doing so is not “social or political”—it is antisemitic.

Congress should act now, in a bipartisan manner, to make sure that Masoud and people like him can no longer pretend that hatred for Israel is an excuse to unlawfully discriminate against or violently attack a Jew. And unless anyone is planning to commit acts of discrimination or hate crimes against Jewish people, such a bill should face zero opposition.

 Dr. Mark Goldfeder is Director of the National Jewish Advocacy Center.

Did you enjoy this article?
You'll love our roundtable.

Editor's Picks

Latest Articles

More news and opinions than at a
Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.