The State Department has doubled down on its policy of defining delegitimization of Israel as a form of anti-Semitism, but is seeking to stay out of a raging debate over whether the definition should be used in the U.S.
In a response to Jewish Voice for Peace, a Jewish organization which supports boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel, the Obama administration’s top official charged with combating anti-Semitism defended the policy that labels certain forms of criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic, while arguing this does not imply support for any type of censorship or any limit on free speech.
Ira Forman, the administration’s special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism backed the use of the State Department’s “working definition” of anti-Semitism in its ties with foreign countries, explaining that it has been used in cases when criticism of Israel can potentially cross the line into anti-Semitism and that the definition is “in no way intended to silence speech.”
The definition, adopted over a decade ago includes demonizing Israel, delegitimizing it, and employing double standards toward Israel, as forms of anti-Semitic expression.
It has drawn attention recently following attempts by some pro-Israel campus groups to have the University of California system adopt this definition for adjudicating anti-Semitic speech on campus. This move could mean that students and faculty using language that delegitimizes Israel could be labeled as anti-Semitic.
The UC Board of Regents decided last month to postpone a discussion on this resolution, which could be one of the most consequential decisions facing the discourse over Israel in American college campuses. The delay, viewed by critics of the resolution as a major victory, will allow leaders of the UC system some more time to further consider the resolution, which has been at the center of the battle between groups on campus in past months.
The State Department, as is obvious from Forman’s letter to JVP, has no intention of stepping into the UC debate. But the special envoy’s closing line sends a strong signal to those debating the issue, making clear that this definition was never intended for use as part of America’s domestic debate over Israel. “We have found that the working definition and the examples of when criticism of Israel can be considered anti-Semitic are useful tools in our work to monitor and combat anti-Semitism outside of the United States,” Forman wrote.
But while the new letter does not help much with the internal debate, it could play a role in discussions the U.S. is conducting with several European nations regarding their view of anti-Semitism. The signal sent to foreign governments asked by the U.S. to curb anti-Semitism in their countries, is that the Obama administration does not see any contradiction between its commitment to free speech and the inclusion of some forms of anti-Israel expression in the definition of anti-Semitism. Forman’s letter also serves as a clear sign that the administration has no intention of backing down from its policy which views delegitimization of Israel as a form of anti-Semitism.
Jewish Voice for Peace had argued in its letter to the State Department that the definition is “overbroad” and that if implemented in the U.S. it would “unconstitutionally restrict freedom of speech.”
The group expressed its disappointment with the State Department’s refusal to change its definition. While stating the group’s appreciation to Forman’s expressed commitment to free speech, JVP’s Tallie Ben Daniel wrote that use of the definition will create a chilling effect for students and faculty discussing the Israeli – Palestinian conflict.
Resolutions adopting the State Department definition have already been approved by the California state legislature, but they are non-binding in nature. The decision to actually include this definition as part of the college set of rules is solely in the hands of the UC regents. Forman’s letter may not make their decision any easier.
Nathan Guttman staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Ha’aretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Contact Nathan at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman