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Proposed NC antisemitism legislation faces backlash over First Amendment concerns

File photo of North Carolina House speaker and U.S. Congressional candidate Tim Moore speaking to the crowd at a Trump rally in Greensboro, N.C., on March 2, 2024.
Matt Ramey
File photo of North Carolina House speaker and U.S. Congressional candidate Tim Moore speaking to the crowd at a Trump rally in Greensboro, N.C., on March 2, 2024.

North Carolina lawmakers are considering a proposal to expand the definition of antisemitism in state law.

Republican House Speaker Tim Moore said the legislation is in response to hate speech directed at Jewish people in the wake of Israel's war in Gaza. His bill would use the definition of antisemitism created by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

That group's definition features examples that include criticizing the state of Israel. The group asserts that antisemitism includes "claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor" and "applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation."

House Bill 942, titled the "SHALOM Act," would put those examples in state law "as a tool and guide for training, education, recognizing, and combating antisemitic hate crimes or discrimination and for tracking and reporting antisemitic incidents in this state."

Opponents say putting that definition in state law would violate free speech rights.

Groups like Jewish Voice for Peace and the ACLU are holding an event Wednesday morning calling on lawmakers to reject the bill when it gets its first committee hearing later in the day.

"Safety for our communities will never be achieved by restricting the public’s right to criticize the Israeli government’s policies and actions," Jewish Voice for Peace said in a news release. "Now more than ever, NC elected leaders need to be addressing antisemitism alongside Islamophobia at the root."

Moore said those fears aren't warranted and similar bills have passed in other states as well as in Congress.

"It's legislation that carefully strikes that balance between the First Amendment, the right for folks to go out and protest peaceably, but balances against and punishes hate speech and intimidation, which cannot be accepted," he told reporters.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Raleigh has been urging its members to call lawmakers in support of the bill. It said the measure "would allow the state of North Carolina to have clearer guidelines for prosecuting antisemitic hate crimes."

Moore said the legislation is needed to respond to incidents associated with pro-Palestinian protests on college campuses like UNC-Chapel Hill.

"The targets of this are clearly Jewish students, who are being singled out, who are being intimidated, who are being harassed, who are being physically assaulted," he said, "and that's not right, and it needs to be dealt with."

With Moore's backing, the measure is likely to pass the House. Senate leader Phil Berger hasn't said if his chamber will take up the bill, but he's voiced similar concerns about antisemitism. He recently returned from a trip to Israel sponsored by an affiliate of AIPAC, a pro-Israel lobbying group that has donated to a variety of North Carolina elected officials from both parties.

Berger told reporters he visited some of the sites Hamas attacked last October, and he had to go to an air raid shelter when the country faced Iranian airstrikes last month.

"It was a very informative trip," he said. "It was in many respects a trip that I am still trying to process."

Colin Campbell covers politics for WUNC as the station's capitol bureau chief.