PolitiFact VA: Despite heated debate, little change in antisemitism protections
The General Assembly agreed on a nonbinding definition of the term, but couldn’t compromise on hate crime legislation.
Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s efforts to pass a package of bills cracking down on antisemitism in Virginia produced plenty of debate in the General Assembly this winter but only modest changes to state laws.
The bills were recommended by the Commission to Combat Antisemitism. Youngkin created the 19-member panel on his first day in office in 2022 to combat rising incidents of hate-based harassment of Jewish people during the previous three years. Although Virginia did not report antisemitic violent assaults during that span, the committee reported there were increases in antisemitic vandalism and the spread of anti-Jewish flyers.
Three bills were introduced based on the committee’s recommendations, and two passed: a measure that will provide a nonbinding definition of antisemitism and a resolution that will establish May as Jewish American Heritage Month.
Supporters say the measures will improve understanding of Jewish ethnicity and education on antisemitic acts.
But legislation that would have added antisemitism to Virginia’s hate crimes laws failed because the Republican-led House and the Democratic-led Senate disagreed on the bills’ wording and their technical classification in state law.
A broad coalition of mainstream Jewish organizations in Virginia endorsed the legislative package. Opposition was voiced by members of the Virginia Coalition for Human Rights, an organization that objects to Israel's treatment of Palestinian people and said the bills were a state endorsement of those policies. Several people who spoke against the legislation were Jewish, and several were of Palestinian descent.
Here’s a overview of the three bills.
Definition of antisemitism
The definition includes:
- Calling, aiding or justifying killing or harming Jews “in the name of a radical ideology or an extremist view of religion.”
- Making stereotypical allegations about the collective power of Jews such as the “myth about a world Jewish conspiracy or of Jews controlling the media, economy, government or other societal institutions.”
- Denying the Holocaust or accusing Jewish people of exaggerating it.
- Accusing Jews “of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.”
Some opponents said other parts of the definition linked antisemitism to criticism of Israel's government. They pointed to a section that states antisemitism includes “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.”
Proponents said the definition does not tie antisemitism to criticism of Israel. They pointed to another section that says “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.“
The bill, awaiting Youngkin’s signature, creates a nonbinding law — meaning it does not carry penalties, have enforcement mechanisms and will not be published in the Code of Virginia. Instead, the definition will be filed as an act giving guidance on how to identify antisemitism under hate crime laws and in other circumstances.
Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant (R–Henrico) sponsored the Senate bill. She said its purpose is to reduce antisemitism by helping the public recognize it, not create tougher penalties.
Jewish American Heritage Month
A resolution establishing May as Jewish American Heritage Month in Virginia passed without opposition. It says, “In light of continuing and reemerging anti-Semitism in America, expressed openly and violently, it is crucial that the history, heritage, and culture of Jewish Americans be fully known, understood, and valued.”
Virginia laws already provide special penalties for crimes committed against people because of their religion or national origin. An effort to go one step further and add “antisemitism” to hate crimes and civil rights laws died when the House and the Senate failed to compromise.
Both chambers agreed that inserting the word “antisemitism” into the laws was not the way to go, in part because there is no binding definition of the term in Virginia — including the nonbinding definition they ultimately passed. There were also concerns that antisemitism might be construed to only apply to religiously observant Jews as opposed to those who are ethnically Jewish but not observant.
The Democratic-led Senate passed a bill adding offenses committed against people because of their “ethnic origin” to hate crime laws. Those offenses are already recorded by the state as hate crimes but carry no additional penalties. The Republican-led House passed legislation that added persons “of the Jewish faith or ethnicity” to existing hate crime laws.
Senate and House Democrats said the existence of the terms “religious conviction” and “ethnic origin” in hate crimes law would provide clear coverage to Jews and possibly some other religious minorities in Virginia. House Republicans disagreed.
“We really wanted to keep [the word ‘Jewish’] in the bill because that’s what we were trying to get at,” said House Majority Leader Terry Kilgore (R–Scott), who sponsored the House legislation.
The chambers also disagreed on how the final bill should be classified. The Senate bill would have inserted “ethnic origin” directly into hate crime laws. But the House bill with the term “Jewish” would not have become part of state code. Instead, it would have filed as an advisory act expressing the intent of the General Assembly.
Kilgore said the bills aimed at curbing antisemitism received strong and varied reactions from the Jewish community and other minority groups. He said his legislation was an attempt to strike a compromise with all stakeholders, “Unfortunately, we just couldn’t get there.”
Although the results from Youngkin’s package of laws combating antisemitism were modest, Kilgore said they were still worthwhile.
“We did make some progress ... and we got word out that we're trying to help fight antisemitism,” he said. “A lot of people came to Richmond to speak on the subject.”
Several Democrats said Republicans seemed more interested in the short-term political gains from supporting bills to curb antisemitism than the legislation’s substance.
“This seemed to be an effort to say you’re doing something as a result of the governor’s commission on antisemitism; an effort to give the governor some sort of a political win,” said Del. Marcus Simon (D–Fairfax), who is Jewish.
All 140 seats in the General Assembly are up for election this fall, and Youngkin — who has almost three years left in his term — is frequently mentioned as a possible dark horse candidate for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. While Youngkin has said he’s focused on being governor, he has not ruled out a White House bid.
The state Republican Party hopes to make the partisan split on Youngkin’s package an issue this fall. It posted a web ad on Feb. 24 that said, “Democrats are against combating antisemitism.”
“That’s preposterous,” said Sen. Scott Surovell (D–Fairfax), who is Jewish.
Republican Party of Virginia, web ad, Feb. 24, 2023
Email from Ellie Sorensen, press secretary for the Republican Party of Virginia, March 6, 2023
Interview with state Sen. Scott, Surovell, March 2, 2023
Interview with Del. Marcus Simon, March 3, 2023
Interview with Del. Terry Kilgore, March 9, 2023
Interview with Vicki Fishman, director of D.C. and Virginia government and community relations for the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, March 6, 2023.
Gov. Glenn Youngkin, news release, Feb. 24, 2023
Commission to Combat Antisemitism, “Combating Antisemitism in Virginia,” Dec. 5, 2022
International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, “The working definition of antisemitism,” accessed March 6, 2023
Legislative Information System, HB 1606, HB 2208, HB 1898, HJ 543, SB 1252, SB 1184, SB 1375, 2023 session
Virginia General Assembly, Senate floor sessions, Feb. 23, 2023,
Virginia General Assembly, House floor sessions, Feb. 6, 2023,Feb. 7, 2023, Feb. 23, 2023
Virginia General Assembly, Senate Judiciary Committee meeting, Jan. 25, 2023
Virginia General Assembly, Senate General Laws and Technology Committee meeting, Jan. 25, 2023
Virginia General Assembly, House Rules Committee meeting, Jan. 31, 2023
Virginia General Assembly, House General Laws Committee meeting, Feb. 2, 2023, Feb. 15, 2023
WRIC, “Virginia House passes bill to formally define antisemitism under state law,” Feb. 24, 2023