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Efforts to combat anti-semitism multiply in the commonwealth

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(The Center Square) — As the Israel-Hamas war rages on and instances of antisemitism rise, so do attempts by Virginia lawmakers and state officials to stop it.

Thursday saw action from both Del. Dan Helmer, D-40, and Attorney General Jason Miyares on the issue. Helmer prefiled an antisemitism bill for the General Assembly’s 2024 session, and Miyares sent a letter to all state public school principals and superintendents reminding them of their obligations as public institutions in combating discrimination.

Helmer, who recently won reelection to his third term as a delegate and also announced a run for Congress to replace retiring Rep. Jennifer Wexton, D-10, is one of several Jewish state lawmakers, the son of an Israeli immigrant and the grandson of refugees and Holocaust survivors.

“This is deeply personal for me… We must take substantive action to protect the Jewish community, as well as any individual targeted based on ethnicity, to secure everyone’s fundamental rights to self-expression and safety in our Commonwealth,” Helmer said in a statement.

House Bill 18 would amend existing Virginia hate crime and anti-discrimination laws to include protections for ethnicity, in addition to religion, race and national origin. It would also “increase the penalties for crimes, including violent crimes and vandalism” when victimizing individuals based on their ethnicity.

Miyares sent a letter just under a month ago to Virginia college and university presidents regarding instances of antisemitism on college campuses. But the state Office of Civil Rights “has noted a rising influx of inquiries and complaints” of antisemitic behavior in K-12 schools, as well, according to Miyares.

Last month, The Center Square reported exclusively on a multicultural fair presented by a Northern Virginia school district that included a school representing Palestine. The display included maps of the State of Israel that were labeled as “Palestine,” while no reference to the Jewish state was included.

Stafford County Schools confirmed that a teacher, approved by administrators, put together the display and coordinating materials.

“Some schools and divisions have even promoted biased materials or stood by as staff and students spread false narratives and shout violent anti-Jewish slogans. This conduct harms our students. This is unacceptable,” Miyares wrote.

“I recently returned from a trip to Israel where I bore witness to evil. I watched videos that Hamas terrorists recorded as they calmly and joyfully committed unspeakable acts of brutality,” Thursday’s letter read. “I was disappointed to return home to encounter misinformation about, indifference to, and even celebrations of Hamas’s actions in some Virginia schools.”

Miyares’ went on in the letter to remind his readers of their responsibilities under the law and the possible consequences of not living up to them.

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits public schools, as recipients of federal funds, from discriminating against individuals on the basis of race, color, or national origin — and the U.S. Department of Education lumps religion in with those categories. Not only must they instigate discrimination, but they are also required to “remedy discriminatory hostile environments” on school campuses when possible, according to Miyares.

In addition, Miyares referenced several Supreme Court decisions that speak to teachers’ and administrators’ authority in schools.

While “students do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate[,]… the constitutional rights of students in public schools are not automatically coextensive with the rights of adults in other settings and … must be applied in light of the special characteristics of the school environment,” wrote Miyares citing Morse v. Frederick.

In other words, authority figures in schools are granted the ability to direct student behavior — to “regulate and prohibit conduct,” according to Miyares — because of the unique setting that is school, where adults are to facilitate a maximal learning experience for students.

Finally, Miyares urged schools to adopt policies that clearly and properly penalize students whose conduct is dangerous or unlawful or a form of bullying or harassment.

“I urge you to review your policies, student codes of conduct, and enforcement procedures to ensure that violations that are not otherwise protected speech will be addressed quickly and effectively andt that students bringing attention to violations are protected from retaliation,” Miyares wrote.

Helmer’s legislation and Miyares’ letter are the latest in a series of actions by state leadership to demonstrate support for Jews and Israel. They follow, as mentioned, a previous letter from Miyares, an executive directive from Gov. Glenn Youngkin to fortify Virginia institutions’ response to instances of antisemitism, a letter from Miyares to state sheriffs’ offices to send surplus gear to Israel’s aid, a Youngkin proposal to enhance the state’s hate crime budget, and other actions from the governor and attorney general.

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