DES MOINES — The Iowa House on Thursday approved a bill defining anti-Semitism and providing guidance to those investigating anti-Semitic crimes and discrimination, despite Democrats objecting that the bill sends a message that discrimination against Jews is more serious than attacks on other minorities.
But House File 2504, which had 48 Democratic and Republican co-sponsors, is needed to give state officials an objective definition of contemporary anti-Semitism “to ensure proper assessment of criminal and discriminatory incident motivated by anti-Semitism,” Rep. Brian Lohse, R-Bondurant, said in opening a rare Thursday evening debate.
It would not be a new classification of crime and would not expand legal protections, he said.
“It fills a gap in our code with respect to this unique type of discriminatory behavior,” Lohse said.
The bill was approved on a party-line vote, 51-45.
The bill would codify the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of anti-Semitism, the international standard used by the U.S. Departments of Justice, State and Education, he said.
According to the definition, anti-Semitism is “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”
Lohse listed statistics from law enforcement and groups tracking discrimination showing that Jews are among the most likely minority groups to be victimized and that the rate of hate incidents is increasing.
“In addition to the obvious white supremacist activity, there is now an uptick of propaganda on college campuses and in communities, along with hateful robocalls aimed at voters,” Lohse said.
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That wasn’t news to Rep. Ras Smith, D-Waterloo, who related his experience of opening his Capitol mailbox to find a flyer featuring a hooded member of the Ku Klux Klan and a message that “lynching is for amateurs.”
“The sad truth is that evil does exist,” said Smith, who is black. “Hatred is allowed to operate in many forms. Sometimes it finds its way into this beautiful building.”
For nearly two hours, Democrats objected to the bill, arguing that rather than address discrimination, it would say discrimination against Jews is more important than discrimination against others.
There are more attacks on African Americans than on Jews, said Rep. Bruce Hunter, D-Des Moines.
But by adopting the anti-Semitism law, the Legislature would be saying crimes against Jews are more serious than crimes against blacks, gays, Muslims and other minorities.
“That’s the message you’re sending,” he said. “And in today’s world, that’s a dangerous message.”
The Legislature “should not pit people against each other, make people choose who should be protected,” Rep. Jo Oldson, D-Des Moines, said.
“We all want hate to stop,” Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad, D-Des Moines, said, “but to just include just one religious group, that sets up a process that I don’t think we want to set up.”
Rep. Ruth Ann Gaines, D-Des Moines, said she’s lived long enough to know positive change is difficult, takes time, “takes strength of character and, above all, takes trust, trust in the people you are working with.”
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The bill is deceiving because on the surface it appears the Legislature is doing the right thing, Gaines said. But Iowans “who have walked to the beat of a different drummer, spent our lives trying to explain who we are and what has happened to us don’t look at things in a vacuum.”
The bill is “exclusive” because it says that Jews who have been discriminated against are different, superior to the others who have suffered discrimination.
She blamed the sponsors’ “lack of experience, lack of involvement in diversity, your lack of listening, lack of working harder trying to understand.”
It tells non-Jews who have been the victim of discrimination their pain “is a different kind of pain, a lesser pain, a pain that is not as important.”
However, Rep. Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake, who offered a similar bill, said the meaning of the bill seemed to get lost in the debate.
“I don’t think that pointing out a problem that we need to address minimizes other problems that need to be addressed,” Upmeyer said.
So after three hours and remarks by 30 lawmakers, Lohse summed up this bill saying, “We all want to stamp out hate ... I truly do believe HF 2504 does move us to that goal.”
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