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Lankford Calls Out Myths Surrounding Antisemitism Awareness Act, Challenges Biden Admin to Adopt IHRA Definition of Antisemitism

CLICK HEREto watch Lankford’s speech on YouTube.

WASHINGTON, DC – Senator James Lankford (R-OK) spoke on the Senate floor in support of the House-passed Antisemitism Awareness Act and urged the US Department of Education to consider the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism when enforcing federal anti-discrimination laws.

Lankford called out online myths about the IHRA definition and re-affirmed how this bill will help address antisemitism on college campuses. Lankford is the co-chair and co-founder of the Senate Bipartisan Task Force for Combating Antisemitism.


October the 7th, 2023, was almost five years to the day after the attack on the Tree of Life synagogue. Almost five years to the day. Antisemitism has been on the rise around the world, and unfortunately, here in America…on college campuses, we’re seeing conversations online. It’s not new. It’s old, but it’s on the rise in a way that we’ve not seen in a long time in the United States.

In 2019, Senator Rosen and I launched the Senate Bipartisan Task Force for Combating Antisemitism. We started that on the one-year anniversary after the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue. Our mission was pretty simple. We want to create a task force to be able to collaborate with law enforcement, federal agencies, state local government, educators, advocates, clergy, any stakeholders that want to be combating antisemitism with education, empowerment, and bringing communities together in conversation. Our goal was to speak out with one voice about hate to support legislative efforts to combat antisemitism, to promote Holocaust education, and to bring the issue of combating antisemitism to the forefront of our national conversation—and quite frankly, international.

She and I have worked together to be able to contact other nations and their parliaments, and what we’ve seen is antisemitism in other countries to be able to reach out to ambassadors, but also speak out on what we what we see here in the United States. That’s not changed. The State Department has offered this warning: history has shown that wherever antisemitism has gone unchecked, the persecution of others has been present or not far behind, defeating antisemitism must be a cause of great importance, not only for Jews, but for all people who value humanity, injustice. That’s our own State Department.

So now what are we going to do about what we’re seeing on college campuses?…Just in the last seven months, this has been on the rise in college campuses for quite a while, and many of us have been ringing that bell to say there’s something happening in the national conversation on our college campuses. So let’s find ways to be able to engage in this. Senator Rosen and I have a piece of legislation. It’s a compilation of multiple pieces that we’ve worked on for a very long time to be able to talk about it, antisemitism, and to say there are specific ways that our nation can get involved with this. I’ve affirmed President Biden, in areas where we agreed and there are some areas that he has brought up in the Task Force that he has created on the executive level to take on antisemitism nationally. Some of those things have been actually executed and carried out, and some of them have not. So we continue to be able to nudge in ways that we thought was appropriate, to be able to nudge and to be able to say things can be done.

It’s been leadership at our State Department that’s risen up on that. And some we’ve been actively involved in trying to be able to get into those positions, to be able to lead. My friend Tim Scott came to the floor to be able to ask for unanimous consent, to be able to pass his resolution to condemn antisemitism on college campuses. I want to thank my friend Tim Scott for his leadership on this issue and what he has also done to be able to raise awareness, but unfortunately, his request to be able to pass that resolution was denied. We should be able to find common ground on issues that condemn hate. His resolution was a simple statement. What are we going to do as a body to be able to condemn hatred in this area?

We should not ignore this. The House of Representatives last week brought up the Antisemitism Awareness Act. It was a bipartisan piece of legislation that they passed overwhelmingly in the House of Representatives that they have now sent to this body to be able to take up into debate and to discuss. What’s been interesting to me is when they picked up the Antisemitism Awareness Act as a nonpartisan piece of legislation.

This is a continuance of actually what happened under the Trump Administration. President Trump used these same definitions and the same process of putting it in the Department of Education, using what’s called the IHRA definition for antisemitism and the examples attached to it in Executive Order 13899. But what’s been fascinating to me is when the House of Representatives passed it, there was a whole group of folks and some folks from my own party that stepped up and said, ‘No, we can’t actually do this because this would inhibit free speech.’

I smiled at those same folks and said, ‘Did you say that when President Trump was actually using it as an Executive Order under his Administration?’ Because now they’re talking about making a statutory long term change. The IHRA definition is not new, by the way. The United States has been a party to this definition since the 1990s. International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition—that’s IHRA. That definition has been recognized all over the world as a basic definition, with examples of what antisemitism is. It’s not new to the United States. There’s many athletic teams that have recognized the IHRA definition for their team in their conversations. To be able to recognize what antisemitism is. And there’s 34 states, including my own state in Oklahoma, that have recognized the IHRA definition within our own state, to say this is how we’re going to define antisemitism in our state.

This is a very basic principle is difficult to discourage, which you cannot even define. And when someone makes just a blanket statement for antisemitism, it’s helpful to be able to put some definition to what does it actually mean? And what does that not mean? For instance, if someone were to say they disagree with the Netanyahu government, is that antisemitism? The IHRA definition would say, clearly it is not. We can disagree on governmental action. That’s a normal part of dialog. It also is not something that inhibits free speech or even hateful speech in the United States. Even foolish, even stupid speech can be said in the United States. It’s a protected right to be able to say whatever crazy thing you want to be able to say in the United States.

But when it shifts from free speech to inciting violence and threats, that’s shifted. That’s moved from just speech to now criminal action. The IHRA definition and what the House of Representatives passed last week in the Antisemitism Awareness Act, doesn’t limit speech in any way. In fact, it very specifically states it’s not trying to be able to take away any free speech rights of anyone. It specifically notes protection for the First Amendment rights of Americans to be able to say what they choose to be able to say. But what it does say is, if you’re on a college campus and you’re choosing to discriminate against Jewish students, that should fall the same as any other Title VI discrimination falls into. It’s no different. So if they’re doing discrimination on a college campus, you can’t just say, well, they’re discriminating against Jewish students.

So that doesn’t fall with under Title VI. This says note that clearly does fall with under Title VI areas and makes what has been implied clear what has been done by executive action in the past under the Trump Administration makes it clear for every Administration what has been done under the Department of State for three decades in the United States. Clear policy not just for the State Department, but also for the Department of Education. I think that’s a pretty reasonable way to be able to take on this issue, to be able to clarify what antisemitism is on a college campus or any campus that’s out there. But some of the responses I’ve already mentioned have been fascinating to me on this.

Things like I’ve already said, this is going to limit free speech. No, you still have the right to say something, to even say something dumb. That’s still a protected right of the United States. We can say things that we both disagree with. That’s a protected right. But you can move into criminal activity that’s not protected, and a university can not protect discrimination on their own campus. That would not be allowed. It does not—my favorite thing is—it does not outlaw the Bible. I’ve had folks that have said, ‘If you if you put in the IHRA definition, it outlaws the Bible.’ I’ve just smiled and said, that is absolutely ridiculous. And it’s not just me saying this. The Christian leaders that I know all over the country say that’s just a ridiculous statement.

There’s a letter that just came out this week from Pastor John Hagee, who leads the, what’s called CUFI—the national Christians United for Israel—and Ralph Reed, who’s the leader of the Faith and Freedom Coalition. They made this simple statement: ‘To the biblically illiterate claims that the Antisemitism Awareness Act is anti-Christian or is insulting as they are injurious.’ I’ve made it very clear on this as well. When people have asked me about this, to say that somehow the Antisemitism Awareness Act outlaws the Bible or our limit speech around the Bible. There’s a statement in the IHRA definition that talks about using symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism, and the examples it’s claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel to characterize Israel or Israelis. And so they take that one statement and pull that out and say, see, you couldn’t use the Bible on that. And I’ve laughed and I’ve said, well, I would just say not only what Pastor Hagee and others have said in other faith leaders around, but let me add a voice to this as well.

The Scripture is very clear from John 10 that Jesus laid his life down for others. He had the power to lay it down and the power to be able to take it up. That’s Orthodox Christianity, Orthodox Christianity says, my sin is what put Jesus on the cross. That’s what Scripture says…Our definition says is if someone is biased to say, ‘I hate all Jews because Jews killed Jesus’—they’re saying that’s an antisemitism statement. To be able to say that and I would also say it’s not only inconsistent with the clear teachings of scripture. It’s inconsistent with the faith practices of individuals. Not only is the New Testament exceptionally clear about respect for Judaism. But the guy on the cross was Jewish. His mom at the foot of the cross was Jewish. The disciples were all Jewish.

The people that wrote the New Testament were Jewish. So to somehow believe that Christianity would discount all Jews is to ignore the basic teachings of the New Testament. Besides the basic fact the Romans put Jesus on the cross. So somehow to say that this discount scripture that I’ve heard over and over again on social media over the past week, I think is absurd. Number one, and as John Hagee and Ralph Reed have said, it actually is insulting and injurious. There are folks that have said that there will be an international organization that’s now going to police speech in the United States. I would encourage them to please read the legislation, not what’s on social media, to be able to understand what this actually does. It does not give authority to an international organization to be able to step into the United States and to be able to police speech. It is very clear. It just says, this is what discrimination looks like under Title VI. Just like we have discrimination laws in other areas that the Department of Education could not say, well, it doesn’t specifically outlaw outline religion in this area.

And so if there’s discrimination against Jewish students, we can look the other way. That would stop under this piece of legislation. First things first. Let’s actually have real dialog as a country or we as a nation going to look the other way. When students are discriminated against on a campus, are we going to step in and say, no, we’re not going to just look the other way when there’s discrimination?

Because as I go back to the statement from our State Department, history has shown that wherever antisemitism has gone unchecked, the persecution of others has been present or not far behind. So let’s speak out and stop it. For individuals that want to have antisemitic beliefs, that’s still legal in America. To have antisemitic belief still protected as a right. I would say it’s hateful. I would say it’s bigoted, but it’s still your protected right to be able to have that belief. But when that speech moves to threats of violence and intimidation, it moves from a voice to an action that is criminal activity. And we should treat it as such, and we should not let it fester as a criminal activity and think it will not spread. It will. 

My final statement—for folks that track through social media. Where you see voices of antisemitism on social media, why don’t you be bold enough to be able to speak out for people that are being bullied online, and to say every person has the right to their faith and to be able to live that faith and have that protected? We as Americans have the right to have any faith of our choosing, change our faith, or have no faith at all, and that be protected. That should not be any less for a Jewish student anywhere online or on their own campus. So let’s speak out on their behalf. And instead of allowing them to be bullied on their campus or online, why don’t we speak up for their right to be able to live their faith and practice their faith as every other American? That’s what I think we should do on college campuses. And that’s a simple way that we can honor the dignity of every student. We’re going to disagree. There are people that have strong disagreements with the war that’s happening right now in Israel and in Gaza. So let’s talk about it. But let’s not discriminate while we do it. I yield the floor.