Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

N.M. gov. has ignored calls to pull executive order that could hinder speech critical of Israel

New Mexico’s governor has so far ignored calls from her constituents and the state’s most prominent civil rights organization to withdraw a once-obscure executive order that has received renewed interest three months into the war in Gaza.

In 2022, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed an executive order to direct all state agencies under her control to adopt and use the “Working Definition of Antisemitism” written by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

This week the governor’s office declined to answer questions about Lujan Grisham’s response to a letter asking her to rescind the order, and about how many times the state has enforced it.

“We are clear: Discrimination of any kind, including antisemitism, has no place in New Mexico,” said Maddy Hayden, a spokesperson for the governor. “The governor is also a staunch believer in free speech, and we have seen no indication that this order signed in 2022 is being misused in any way.”

In interviews with Source New Mexico, New Mexicans criticized the order as part of a broader attempt to conflate Judaism with Zionism, in order to expand the traditional definition of antisemitism to include criticism of Israel and quash expression in support of Palestinian self-determination.

Dr. Lori Rudolph is a professor of counseling at New Mexico Highlands University studying continuous traumatic stress in the West Bank, and a member of Jewish Voice for Peace.

She said it’s vitally important for Jewish people to counter the claim that criticism of Israel is the same as antisemitism. Lujan Grisham’s executive order is unfortunate, she said, because it undermines the credibility of claims of real antisemitism.

“We have a moral obligation to speak out against genocide, especially in light of our own history of genocide and the historical trauma that we carry,” Rudolph said. “It’s unconscionable to watch Israel committing the same atrocities that were committed against Jews in Europe, for example.”

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After Lujan Grisham signed the order two years ago, Rudolph joined civil rights attorney and author Jeff Haas, along with others affiliated with Jewish Voice for Peace, to gather signatures for a petition calling the governor to withdraw it.

For a couple of months that year, Haas said, the group tried to meet with the governor, but it did not happen.

Then in September 2023, a pro-Israel advocacy group in Santa Fe tried to get Lujan Grisham to enforce the order against Palestinian poet and journalist Mohammed El-Kurd to try to prevent him from speaking at the University of New Mexico.

In response, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico urged Lujan Grisham to rescind the order, arguing in a letter on Nov. 14 that it violates the state’s constitution.

ACLU-NM Executive Director Peter Simonson and attorney Kristin Greer Love told the governor her order “threatens freedom of speech,” which “applies to and protects everyone in our state — not just those with whom we agree.”

“We are deeply concerned that it could be used as the basis for silencing protected speech, and indeed have begun to see signs in New Mexico that our fears could be realized,” they wrote, citing the effort to silence El-Kurd. “We urge you to rescind this dangerous and unnecessary order.”

They wrote Lujan Grisham’s administration has legal tools to protect Jewish people in New Mexico and combat antisemitic harassment and discrimination, “But make no mistake: adopting the IHRA’s ‘working definition of antisemitism’ through an executive order is not among them.”

Maria Archuleta, a spokesperson for ACLU-NM, confirmed Wednesday the governor has not responded to the letter.

The ‘working definition’

The IHRA “Working Definition of Antisemitism” has been criticized by Israeli Jewish academics and lawyers defending the movement for Palestinian rights in the United States. The executive order adopts the definition by linking to a website but does not spell it out word-for-word.

Lujan Grisham’s order states the IHRA definition “has been an essential tool used to determine contemporary manifestations of antisemitism, and includes useful examples of discriminatory anti-Israel acts that can cross the line into antisemitism.”

Most notably, the IHRA definition asserts that “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor” is an example of “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination.”

This is immensely dangerous, because it means you can’t call Israel racist, says Dr. Fatima Van Hattum, a former member of the central committee of Lujan Grisham’s Council on Racial Justice and a member of the Muslim community in New Mexico.

“It means that any true historical recounting and examination of the Nakba — the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine — would be considered antisemitic,” Van Hattum said. “It means that any critique over half a century of Israeli occupation would be considered antisemitic. It means that any future solutions — like potentially one democratic, secular state in critique of an exclusively Jewish ethno-religious state — would also be considered antisemitic.”

In their letter to the governor, ACLU-NM wrote the order’s adopted definition is “unconstitutionally vague, classifying certain (unspecified) criticisms of Israel as antisemitic, leaving New Mexicans with uncertainty about whether their speech or expression could violate the law.”

The IHRA definition “does not allow for nuanced political debate and expression that are critical for a functioning democracy: it lumps in criticism of the government of Israel — and support for Palestinians’ rights — with the scourge of true antisemitism,” ACLU-NM wrote.

In doing so, the definition “impermissibly threatens to chill speech,” they wrote.

“Protected speech and expression include non-violent protest, activism, criticism of Israel and support (for) Palestinians’ rights,” the ACLU wrote. “One can criticize the government of Israel and support Palestinians rights without being antisemitic, just as one can criticize the Palestinian Authority or the governments of other Muslim-majority countries without being anti-Muslim.”

In her statement expressing the governor’s stance, Hayden added that “New Mexico stands alongside the Biden Administration and the majority of other states in adopting this stance against antisemitism.”

Van Hattum, who has a Ph.D in educational thought and sociocultural studies, said the order comes amid a push by the right wing in the U.S. for deeply restrictive policies preventing the proper teaching of slavery, Black history or colonization.

By endorsing the IHRA definition, both Lujan Grisham and Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives are limiting people’s “ability to factually recount the history of the Israeli occupation of Palestine,” Van Hattum said.

“It’s not only a First Amendment violation, but it’s very dangerous to our democracy in the same way these right-wing attacks on curricular materials and books are dangerous in the long term,” she said. “It means our country is becoming more and more fascist. That is not a small thing.”

From a perspective of racial justice in the U.S., Van Hattum said, “Israel, as a settler colony like the U.S., is built on violent dispossession.” She compared racism in a settler colony like the U.S. or Australia to an individual living with a chronic disease.

“If there is ever a future that isn’t just blatant occupation and genocide, and a political outcome where people can actually live together, this will still be the case,” Van Hattum said. “What this definition does is it denies us the ability to even engage in that discussion intellectually.”

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