The problems with an increasingly dominant definition of anti-Semitism (opinion)
Was Albert Einstein an anti-Semite? Was Hannah Arendt? These questions may sound ludicrous. Yet, according to the definition of anti-Semitism that more than 30 countries — including the United States through the Biden administration — recently adopted, these two leading intellectuals could very well be labeled as such. This is due to an open letter they sent on Dec. 4, 1948, to The New York Times, claiming that the right-wing Herut Party in the newly formed State of Israel was “closely akin in its organization, methods, political philosophy and social appeal to the Nazi and Fascist parties.”
The list of potential anti-Semites goes on. Take the British American Jewish historian Tony Judt, who not long before his death from Lou Gehrig's disease in 2010 described Israel as “autistic” after it had put Gaza “under a punishment regime comparable to nothing else in the world.” The late Hebrew University philosopher and biochemist Yeshayahu Leibowitz would not have fared much better given his criticism of the growing “phenomena of Judeo-Nazism” following Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Finally, Israel’s most prominent human rights organization, B’tselem, would also fit the anti-Semitic bill, as it has recently published a report entitled “A Regime of Jewish Supremacy From the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea: This Is Apartheid.”
The definition in question is the 2016 International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) “working definition of anti-Semitism,” which has become a tool of choice for so-called pro-Israel organizations. This definition shifts the meaning of anti-Semitism from its traditional focus on hatred of Jews per se — the idea that Jews are naturally inferior and/or evil, or a belief in worldwide Jewish-led conspiracies or Jewish control of capitalism, or some combination thereof — to one based largely and, it seems, most importantly, on how critical one is toward Israel’s colonial and rights-abusive policies.
The problem, of course, is that when a state’s actions and its government’s policies cannot be critiqued, then the pursuit of knowledge and academic freedom are threatened. If successful, Israel’s use of the anti-Semitism charge to silence serious and well-grounded criticism could very well become the template for other countries, including the United States government, and powerful corporations to mobilize different kinds of hate-speech accusations to protect rights-abusive behavior.
A Confusing and Misleading Definition
According to the IHRA 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.” This formulation, as numerous Holocaust scholars have explained, is vague to the point of being unusable. It both relies on ambiguous terms such as “certain perception” and “may be expressed as hatred,” while also failing to mention key issues such as “prejudice” or “discrimination.”
The second part of the IHRA’s definition provides 11 examples of contemporary manifestations of anti-Semitism, seven of which refer to the State of Israel. One example of anti-Semitism is the claim “that the existence of the State of Israel is a racist endeavor” while another involves the requirement that Israel behave in a way “not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.” Surely it should be legitimate, not least in a university setting, to debate whether Israel, as a self-proclaimed Jewish state, is “a racist endeavor” or a “democratic nation” without being branded an anti-Semite.
On the one hand, as Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt rightly points out, the examples marginalize the kinds of anti-Jewish attacks in recent years — from Pittsburgh to Halle, Germany — that have resulted in mass casualties or the broader rise of fascism in the United States with its deeply ingrained anti-Semitism, as evidenced by the Jan. 6 riots at the Capitol.
On the other hand, many scholars have criticized the Israeli state, underscoring its discriminatory and racist policies toward non-Jews. The controversial 2018 "nation-state bill," which reaffirms the Jewish character of the state and legalizes discriminatory policies against Palestinian citizens, is a clear manifestation of a racist law. Moreover, the fact that millions of Palestinians have been living under Israeli occupation for over 50 years without basic civil rights undermines the IHRA document’s assumption that Israel is a liberal democracy like all others.
It is therefore not surprising that concern about the IHRA definition has been growing. Professional associations, such as the British Society for Middle East Studies, student groups and more than 100 Palestinian and Arab academics and intellectuals have argued that the IHRA definition is being used to stifle not just criticism of Israel but also, and more widely, support for Palestinian rights. Roughly 200 international scholars working in anti-Semitism studies and related fields — including Jewish, Holocaust, Israel, Palestine and Middle East studies — just drafted the Jerusalem Declaration on Anti-Semitism, a new definition that responds to the IHRA one and is inspired by the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the 1969 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. Their aim is twofold: 1) to strengthen the fight against anti-Semitism by clarifying what it is and how it is manifested and 2) to protect a space for an open debate about the vexed question of the future of Israel/Palestine. Meanwhile, 40 Jewish organizations including the fastest growing — and explicitly anti-Zionist — Jewish organization in the United States, Jewish Voice for Peace, have “unequivocally opposed” the IHRA definition, precisely because its focus on Israel gives the definition a “strong potential for misuse.”
Today, however, it's no longer a matter of potential misuse. That has become apparent even in colleges and universities, supposedly bastions of open intellectual and political debate. An article in The Conversation has traced how authorities have charged people who have criticized Israel with being anti-Semitic at several institutions in the United States where local jurisdictions have adopted the IHRA definition. There are currently ongoing investigations at Rutgers University, Duke University and the University of North Carolina, with another pending investigation at New York University. These attacks appear to be the harbinger of things to come. They are destructive not only for academic freedom but also for antiracist struggles on campuses.
In response, scores of Israeli academics working in the U.K. have written a letter denouncing the definition and called on university leaders to refuse the demand by Education Secretary Gavin Williamson to adopt the definition or face punitive action. As noted in an extensive report about anti-Semitism on campus from a working group at the University College of London: “The IHRA working definition is unhelpful in identifying cases of harassment … the core definition itself is too vague and narrow, and the 11 examples often do not match experience.” Based on this report, the university’s academic board recommended retracting the adoption of the definition and replacing it with one “fit for purpose.”
Considering that most universities have robust guidelines that prohibit racist or anti-Semitic utterances, the adoption of the IHRA definition does not add substantive content that might help reduce hate speech on campuses. Moreover, antiracist working groups within universities that we have spoken to are all vehemently against adopting the IHRA definition.
Even the primary author of the definition himself, Kenneth Stern, has declared that “right-wing Jews are weaponizing it,” nowhere more so than on college campuses. As he put it, the widespread use of the definition on campuses “will harm not only pro-Palestinian advocates but also Jewish students and faculty, and the academy itself.”
Why Is the Criticism Ignored?
Unfortunately, such critiques have barely dented the definition’s acceptance within the corridors of institutional power. Here are six major reasons why.
First, all of Israel’s governments, from 1948 until the present, have equated Israel with the Jewish people. The equation is based, however, on an empirical fallacy, since more than half of the worldwide Jewish population does not live in Israel, more than 20 percent of the country’s citizens are not Jews, and an additional five million stateless Palestinians live within the area that Israel controls. The conflation of Israel with all Jews has, in fact, been a core goal of Zionism from the start, and its success has led to a myopic focus on criticism of Israel as the main threat to Jews worldwide.
Second, the fact that the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance drafted the definition creates an immediate association with the Holocaust. That makes it exceedingly difficult to question the definition’s accuracy or motives.
Third, more than half a century of distorted media coverage of Israel has left the majority of Americans and many Europeans largely ignorant of Israel’s rights-abusive policies, helping to cast Israeli Jews as the eternal victims and Palestinians as aggressors. That has allowed the IHRA’s proponents to classify Israel as a liberal democracy when it's anything but for half the people living under its control, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.
Fourth, institutionalized Jewish life in the diaspora has, for over half a century, focused on supporting Israel. Thus, the IHRA definition serves the purposes of mainstream Jewish organizations quite well, especially when it comes to policing speech in the media and in cultural spheres as well as on college campuses. In this regard, it is not particularly surprising that 145 organizations representing a who’s who of right-wing Zionist groups sent a letter to Facebook’s Board of Directors, calling upon them to fully adopt the IHRA definition as the “cornerstone of Facebook’s hate speech policy regarding anti-Semitism.”
Fifth, while the IHRA document casts the definition as legally “nonbinding,” and therefore not capable of stifling free speech and academic freedom, it is packaged as especially relevant for law enforcement agencies and for “training police officials.” The impact of the document is thus clear: its “nonbinding” designation frames the definition as benign and distracts us from how it is being used to surveil and even criminalize critical speech about Israel.
The final and in many ways most important reason the IHRA definition has been widely adopted is that it allows conservative and even moderate political forces to discipline, silence and marginalize progressive voices against racism, poverty, the climate crisis, war and predatory capitalism. Palestinians have managed to globalize their struggle for self-determination, and progressives of different stripes has championed their cause over the years. Yet now if Black Lives Matter, climate, Indigenous or feminist activists voice support for the Palestinian cause while criticizing Israel, they can be branded anti-Semitic, which can, in effect, delegitimize the other progressive issues such activists support.
A Devil’s Bargain
The fact that the IHRA definition is being wielded as a weapon to suppress a variety of progressive causes and as a tool to punish activists who fail to dissociate from Palestine is also apparent on university campuses. If a recent opinion piece in Inside Higher Ed specifically cited the IHRA definition as “great … and readily available” for teaching about anti-Semitism in universities, the reality is that it isolates Jewish students who are concerned about social justice. Rakhel Silverman, national organizer for the group Judaism on Our Own Terms, or Joot (until recently known as Open Hillel) explained to us, “The official stance of Hillel against any collaboration with anti-Zionist or BDS-supporting (which is considered anti-Semitic according to the IHRA) groups on or off campus prevents Jewish students from working with other social and racial justice and interfaith groups, including progressive Jewish groups. We can't work to unite against white supremacy or engage with Black-Palestinian solidarity groups because these groups support BDS, even though many Jewish students support BDS as well.”
Ultimately, however, the IHRA definition is not only deployed as a weapon against progressives, but it also allows Israel to create alliances with anti-Semites. Indeed, the definition can be seen as playing a role in achieving one of Theodor Herzl's wishes, expressed in a June 12, 1895, diary entry, where he notes that a Jewish state would lead anti-Semites to “become our most dependable friends. The anti-Semitic countries our allies.” Once criticism of Israel becomes the primary marker of anti-Semitism, then the unquestioned support of American evangelicals for Israel is considered a blessing, even as anti-Jewish stereotypes remain prevalent among members of their communities, while Israel’s alliance with Europe's most illiberal and anti-Semitic governments (particularly Hungary's and Poland's) is considered ethically kosher.
Despite the incessant work of the pro-Israel lobby and the Israeli government, this kind of devil's bargain will not end up benefiting Jews, particularly those in the diaspora. Only the most honest and robust debate about Israel and Zionism, on campus as well as more broadly, will ensure Jewish students and the wider Jewish community are truly protected from anti-Semitism and can participate most fully in the struggles for social, racial, economic and climate justice that have finally been foregrounded today.
Neve Gordon (@nevegordon) teaches in the school of law at Queen Mary University of London. He is the co-author of Human Shields: A History of People in the Line of Fire and a signatory of the Jerusalem Declaration on Anti-Semitism and the letter of Israeli academics working in the U.K. Mark LeVine is professor of history at University of California, Irvine, and a 2020-21 Guggenheim Fellow. Among his books on Israel are Overthrowing Geography: Jaffa, Tel Aviv and the Struggle for Palestine; Struggle and Survival in Palestine/Israel (with Gershon Shafir); and One Land, Two States: Israel and Palestine as Parallel States (with Mathias Mossberg).
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