Anti-Semitism Fight Hinges on Definition

California Ponders When Anti-Israel Speech Is Hateful?

Chilling Effect? Activists attend a California hearing about proposed measures to limit so-called hate speech, which some believe may include legitimate anti-Israel protests.
cecilie surasky
Chilling Effect? Activists attend a California hearing about proposed measures to limit so-called hate speech, which some believe may include legitimate anti-Israel protests.

By Seth Berkman

Published September 25, 2012, issue of September 28, 2012.
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When the California State Assembly passed a nonbinding resolution recently, urging state-funded colleges to clamp down on anti-Semitism, the storm that followed sent some of the resolution’s supporters backtracking.

The resolution’s wording, critics said, threatened to label as anti-Semitic those who strongly criticize Israel over its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, or advocate measures to oppose its policies.

Among other things, the resolution condemned calls to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel as a “means of demonizing Israel,” and included as examples of “anti-Semitic discourse” assertions that “Israel is a racist, apartheid, or Nazi state [and] that Israel is guilty of heinous crimes against humanity, such as ethnic cleansing and genocide.”

Critics replied that such actions chill free-speech advocacy. And in response, at least one co-sponsor now says she will push a new resolution in the legislature’s next session, one that celebrates the First Amendment and promotes an environment on campuses where students can feel safe to express differing opinions.

Once again, it seemed, the problem of defining anti-Semitism when it comes to Israel had tripped up efforts to combat anti-Jewish prejudice. And in this instance, as elsewhere, an obscure agency of the European Union emerged, improbably, as an underlying nexus in the dispute.

Like many others addressing the issue, the state assembly referenced a definition of anti-Semitism first put out by the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia, known under the acronym EUMC, in 2005. Yet oddly, it is a definition the center’s successor agency does not use in its own publications today. One of the center’s top officials for monitoring anti-Semitism refers to the definition as “an historical document” that was meant only as a “guide for data collection” for its affiliates.

“There is no issue of the FRA, as an EU agency, endorsing any definition,” the official, Ioannis Dimitrakopoulos told the Forward, referring to the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, the EUMC’s successor agency, by its acronym.

Nevertheless, what the EUMC referred to originally as a “working definition” has become a standard for important institutions on both sides of the Atlantic. Besides the California State Assembly, it is cited by the U.S. State Department, the United Kingdom’s All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Antisemitism, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and a recent report by a University of California commission on campus prejudice. The definition, which was composed with input from B’nai Brith International and the American Jewish Committee, is also endorsed by American Jewish groups and used in reports by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.


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