Indiana lawmakers move forward with bills to ban antisemitism, expand workforce training funds

The priority bills drew several hours of testimony at the Statehouse from dozens of Hoosiers.

By: - January 11, 2024 7:00 am

A bill to define antisemitism attracted testimony from a diverse crowd on Wednesday in the House Chamber. (Whitney Downard/Indiana Capital Chronicle)

Indiana lawmakers are fast-tracking a bill they say will ban antisemitism in public educational institutions — although critics of the proposal maintain it limits free speech and conflates anti-Jewish rhetoric with criticism of a foreign government.

The legislation advanced from the House Education Committee on Wednesday in a bipartisan 12-0 vote, sending it to the full chamber.

Authored by Republican Rep. Chris Jeter, of Fishers, House Bill 1002 is a priority measure for the House GOP caucus.

Indiana law already bans discrimination on the basis of race and “creed,” which means religion. The legislation would specify that antisemitism — bias against Jewish people — is religious discrimination and is not allowed within the public education system.

The legislation uses a definition of antisemitism adopted by the U.S. State Department, U.S. Education Department and the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. And it makes clear that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country” is not antisemitism.

“This bill does not tell anybody what they can or cannot say, does not tell anybody what they can or cannot do. There’s no new crime. There’s no police force enforcing it. It’s simply a reflection of our values as a state when it comes to teaching our youth and our students,” Jeter said before the House Education Committee on Wednesday. “We have a long tradition of support for our Jewish community, and particularly our Jewish students. This bill reaffirms that — it makes it clear that they’re going to be safe here.”

Jeter filed an identical bill in 2023. It passed out of the House in a 97-0 vote but never received a committee hearing in the Senate, effectively killing the proposal. 

Sen. Jeff Raatz, R-Richmond, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said last month that lawmakers “have to be careful when putting together” any bills dealing with antisemitism. But it’s not clear whether his chamber will support the House bill this time around.

Antisemitism on Hoosier campuses

Some 40 people testified on the bill Wednesday at the Indiana Statehouse. Many were students or faculty at Indiana colleges, including Indiana and Purdue universities. A handful of high school students also spoke before lawmakers, sharing stories about various antisemitic incidents in their classrooms.

Rabbi Sue Silberberg, executive director at IU Hillel, said the bill is a much-needed response to a problem she has “faced and struggled with” during her tenure at Indiana University.

Since the Hamas attack in October, she said antisemitic chalkings, drawings on bridges and flyers hung around the campus have prompted an increase of scared and crying students to her office.

“I’ve seen antisemitism regularly throughout my years at IU. Thankfully, IU has tried to address it,” Silberberg said. “But the overarching problem has been that Indiana does not have a clear and strong definition of antisemitism, and it is not specifically identified or called out as a problem and something that we stand behind prohibiting or stopping in our state.”

At Purdue, public health student Honor Fuchs said she has faced antisemitism “in the form of wildly biased curriculum, hateful posters on campus and outright verbal attacks from students.”

She described an experience last fall, when she and other Jewish students were “mobbed, yelled at and insulted by fellow students” while holding a fundraiser on the campus.

“I couldn’t complain, because being called a Nazi pales in comparison to the real persecution my grandparents faced in Nazi-occupied Romania,” Fuchs said. “It is horrifying that in 2024, in the United States, I have to make these calculations of gradations of bigotry and discrimination.”

Günther Jikeli, associate director of IU’s Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism, also supported Jeter’s bill, noting that criticism of Israel is not the same as “wanting to destroy this person or this community or this state.”

But more than two-dozen critics of the bill pushed back, many emphasizing that criticism of the Israeli government does not amount to antisemitism. Some warned of witch hunts under the vague definition.

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Daniel Segal, representing Jewish Voice for Peace – Indiana, said the bill “undermines the struggle against antisemitism and would thus make me and other Jews less safe in Indiana.”

“House Bill 1002 makes it harder to fight the scourge of antisemitism, because its sole purpose is to sow confusion about antisemitism. We cannot fight what we are confused about,” he continued.

“If people want to respond to criticisms of the Israeli state, they should provide reasoned counter arguments, not fake charges of antisemitism,” Segal said. “Defenders of the Israeli state resort to these fake charges of antisemitism only when they lack such reasoned counter arguments.”

He added that the legislation would also “trample education” by making teachers and students “fearful of speaking openly, in regard to the history and current events in Israel and Palestine.”

Echoing others who testified, Anisse Adni, an Islamic studies teacher in Indianapolis, said lawmakers should take out “vague and ambiguous language” in the bill “that would restrict our constitutional right to freedom of speech.”

“If I, as an American citizen, have the right to criticize my own government’s policies — if I have the right as an American to ask my government to right its wrongs, to change its policies — and I have no fear of punishment or reprisal because free speech is enshrined in the constitution … Why would I, as an American, be okay with my right of free speech being impeded or restricted when criticizing a foreign government’s policies? It shouldn’t be wrong.”

“I’m not anti-Chinese if I criticize China’s government policies or their behaviors or whatever it may be,” he continued. “We should not conflate antisemitism with criticism of the Israeli government and its policies.”

Fixes to last year’s workforce training legislation

House lawmakers additionally advanced a bill that seeks to make fixes to a major work-based learning bill adopted during the 2023 session.

The new measure, House Bill 1001, authored by Rep. Chuck Goodrich, R-Noblesville, primarily seeks to allow money from the 21st Century Scholars program and Frank O’Bannon grants to be used by high school graduates for training by an approved intermediary, employer or labor organization — rather than for education costs at a college or university.

The bill would also permit annual career savings account (CSA) grants to be used by students to cover costs associated with obtaining drivers licenses, and extend the timeline for completing CSA applications.

Transition to teaching scholarships

The House Education Committee additionally voted unanimously on Wednesday to advance House Bill 1042, which stipulates that any dollars leftover at the end of each fiscal year from the Next Generation Hoosier Educators Scholarship Fund can be reappropriated to the state’s Transition to Teaching Scholarships.

Bill author Rep. Dave Heine, R-Fort Wayne, said the change could make an additional $3 million available for teaching scholarships.

Last year, Goodrich similarly authored HEA 1002, which put in motion statewide career-centered education and training programs that seek to graduate Hoosier students who are better prepared for the workforce. Paramount to that legislation was a provision to establish CSAs for students in grades 10-12 to pay for career training outside their schools. 

Participating students can use the $5,000 CSAs to pay for apprenticeships, career-related coursework, or certification.

Goodrich said his 2024 bill “widens the scope” of how those funds can be used and “removes barriers” faced by some Hoosier students who tried to access technical education and work-based learning opportunities over the summer.

Democrats on the committee took issue with multiple provisions in the bill, however.

Rep. Ed DeLaney, D-Indianapolis, pointed to language that expands the use of state-sponsored scholarships, which he said leaves out spending cap stipulations or specific restrictions around what funds can and can’t be used for.

“We’re going to enter into the program without any guidance for how much we’re going to spend?” DeLaney questioned.

Committee chairman Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, said the Indiana Commission for Higher Education (CHE) will instead have to decide when 21st Century and Frank O’Bannon funds are eligible for students post-high school.

Democratic Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary, also expressed concerns over the provision to fund drivers licenses.

“Are we going to start buying used cars, too? Will the next step be uniforms, or technical equipment, coming out of the scholarship accounts?” he asked.

Goodrich said in response that access to transportation “has been a huge issue for kids getting access to opportunities.”

Before voting on the bill, the committee unanimously adopted two amendments offered by Goodrich; one to clarify data reporting requirements associated with work-based learning programs, and another to add teaching to Indiana’s Next Level Jobs Employer Training Program grants.

DeLaney offered other amendments but they all failed.

The bill passed out of the committee in a 9-4 vote along party lines. DeLaney promised to call additional amendments to the bill on the House floor.

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Casey Smith
Casey Smith

A lifelong Hoosier, Casey Smith previously reported on the Indiana Legislature for The Associated Press. Internationally, she has reported on water quality across South America. She holds a master’s degree in investigative reporting and narrative science writing from the University of California/Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. She previously earned degrees in journalism, anthropology and Spanish from Ball State University, where she now serves as an instructor of journalism.

Indiana Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization.

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