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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Many of these groups cite only the core definition — which simply describes anti-Semitism as “a certain perception of Jews which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews” — while ignoring the full text, which offers examples of how anti-Semitism can manifest itself. Taking “overall context” into account, the definition states, such examples may include:

• “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination — e.g., by claiming the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor”;

• “Applying double standards” to Israel by demanding it follow behavior not demanded “of any other democratic nation”;

• Comparing Israeli policies to Nazi policies;

• Using “symbols and images associated with classical anti-Semitism” to characterize Israel or Israelis.

The California State Assembly noted these examples and went further in some respects by adding on others such as calls to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel, and criticism of Israel as an apartheid state.

Kenneth Stern, the American Jewish Committee’s specialist on anti-Semitism and extremism is also one of the working definition’s authors. In an interview with the Forward he said the document was never meant to be a vehicle to repress speech, but rather “for monitors to have a common frame of reference.”

“The definition isn’t perfect, but I think it’s very, very good and very, very useful,” he said. “It gives a framework for people to have discussions of what is and what isn’t [anti-Semitism].” It should be used, he suggested, as a point of discussion, not as a standard to suppress or criminalize speech.

But Dror Feiler, chair of European Jews for a Just Peace, a group strongly critical of Israel, said: “This is the problem: You have a so-called working definition, and then other people use it as if it is the definition. Then the question is, who gave these people the mandate to make it a worldwide definition?”

Richard Kuper, a former chair of Jews for Justice for Palestinians, noted that a problem with the working definition is that Israel becomes a de facto focal point. “Underpinning that document is a presumption that criticism of Israel is likely to be anti-Semitism,” he complained.

But B’nai Brith, which also had a role in drafting the EUMC definition, strongly stands by it. “There are other things that could be added to it, but it’s still a very useful definition,” Eric Fusfield, the organization’s international director of legislative affairs, told the Forward. “We found that it’s been very useful in explaining to public officials, educators, journalists who might not really know what the modern manifestations of anti-Semitism are…. We really feel that there needs to be wider circulation of this document.”

It was in the early 2000s that the EUMC first sought to create a working definition of anti-Semitism in response to a rising number of hate crimes in Europe. The agency sought to create something for organizations who were helping it collect data in EU member states. The definition was sent to primary data collectors — public authorities, civil society organizations and Jewish community organizations — as a suggested guide for recording anti-Semitic complaints and incidents, with the resulting information forwarded to the EUMC.


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