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Thirty-nine words about antisemitism are splitting the Jewish community

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There’s a storm brewing in the American Jewish community over a definition of antisemitism that appears, upon first glance, quite banal.

“Antisemitism,” it reads in part, “is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews.”

But the language, adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance in 2016, comes packaged with a host of examples that describe various criticism of Israel as antisemitic. As much of the Jewish establishment makes federal adoption of the IHRA definition a top priority for the Biden administration, it has become a proxy for a wider rift in the Jewish community over the politicization of antisemitism.

“The Jewish community is pushing this because they see it as a tool that they want to use to stop certain speech they don’t like,” said Ken Stern, director of the Bard Center for the Study of Hate, who helped draft the language on which the IHRA definition is based.

On the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations announced in a release embargoed for Tuesday morning that 51 of its 53 member-groups had adopted the definition for their own use. The apparent show of unity masked an intensifying debate that reflects a deepening political divide between large, mainstream, well-funded groups led by the conference and more progressive, often newer, social-justice oriented groups like Bend the Arc, T’ruah and IfNotNow.

“I can’t totally speak to their intent,” Morriah Kaplan, strategic director at IfNotNow, which is focused on opposing the Israeli occupation, said of the organizations backing the definition, “but these are not people I trust to go after antisemitism.”

The Conference of Presidents, established in the 1950s to give American Jews a unified voice to communicate with the White House and world leaders, sent a letter on Jan. 12 to now-President Joe Biden urging him to use the IHRA definition to combat antisemitism on campuses.

But that letter was only signed by five member-groups and it is unclear how many of the 51 organizations that joined the Tuesday conference statement also support the call for Biden to use it.

In fact, several conference members had joined a competing Jan. 12 statement by the Progressive Israel Network, which cited “strong potential for misuse” of the definition. The Reform movement, the largest Jewish denomination in North America, announced Monday that it had adopted the IHRA definition but simultaneously opposed codifying the language in federal law. Bend the Arc, a major liberal Jewish group, also came out against government use of the definition late Monday.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment about whether Biden supports use of the IHRA definition.

Identifying the threat

As the establishment groups ramp up their lobbying for federal adoption of the definition, IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace, another left-wing activist group, plan to launch lobbying and educational campaigns to oppose the definition in the coming months.

Kaplan, with IfNotNow, and others on the left argue that after four years of the Trump administration, during which the antisemitic far-right gained new power, the most urgent threat to the Jewish community clearly comes from violent white nationalists.

Public opinion polls suggest that most American Jews agree: 75% said in an American Jewish Committee survey last year that the political right posed a serious antisemitic threat, compared to 32% who said the same about the political left.

Yet many mainstream groups continue to emphasize a need to fight antisemitism across the political spectrum. And the antisemitism that Jewish leaders call out on the left almost always refers to attacks on Israel that they believe cross a line. The IHRA definition, they say, helps clarify that line.

“Nobody has a problem of defining antisemitism if it’s waving Nazi flags,” said Abe Foxman, the former director of the Anti-Defamation League. “The definition deals with a lot subtler issues of what antisemitism is, which today unfortunately includes attacking Israel’s existence.”

Foxman said the IHRA language can be used to deal with all forms of antisemitism, but critics say those promoting the definition are doing so at the expense of focusing on right-wing extremists.

They point to a November memo to Biden’s transition team from the Jewish Federations of North America outlining the organization’s priorities for fighting antisemitism. The document listed ISIS and Al Qaeda as threats to American Jews, but did not name right-wing antisemitism. Sandwiched between increased security grants and Holocaust education was promotion of the IHRA definition.

More outrage came following the Conference of Presidents letter, sent six days after a right-wing mob ginned up on antisemitic conspiracy theories stormed the U.S. Capitol.

“To go forward with a letter to Biden saying that college students advocating for Palestinian freedom are the greatest threat to American Jews was truly unconscionable to me,” said Rabbi Alissa Wise, deputy director of Jewish Voice for Peace, which is anti-Zionist and supports the BDS Movement.

Thirty-nine words about antisemitism are splitting the Jewish community

And while JVP and IfNotNow, a group highly critical of Israeli policy towards the Palestinians, often find themselves at odds with the Jewish establishment, the fact that several members of the Conference of Presidents — Ameinu, Americans for Peace Now and the Jewish Labor Committee — signed onto the Progressive Israel Network’s statement show the definition is also emerging as a broad fault line.

J Street, the liberal pro-Israel group that was rejected from membership in the Conference of Presidents in 2014, also signed onto the statement opposing the IHRA definition.

“The people who suffer first from these types of measures tend to be Palestinians and Palestinian-Americans,” noted Logan Bayroff, a J Street spokesman. “But it doesn’t necessarily stop there.”

A fraught definition

When Ilan Halimi was kidnapped, tortured and held for ransom in France 15 years ago by captors who believed his working-class Jewish family was wealthy, the authorities initially refused to treat the case as a hate crime.

Stern, the Bard scholar, said that the French police used a butchered understanding of antisemitism to absolve the kidnappers: “They thought Jews were rich so, ‘It’s a positive stereotype.”

Back then, Stern helped craft a predecessor to the IHRA definition for a European Union agency in 2005 using language nearly identical to that eventually adopted by international Holocaust organization in 2016. He said it was intended to help governments properly categorize incidents like the Halimi killing and to address attacks on Jewish institutions motivated by criticism of Israel, such as the 2014 firebombing of a German synagogue that local courts found was an attempt to “call attention to the Gaza conflict.”

The Conference of Presidents and American Jewish Committee, among others, have since held up the IHRA definition as the gold standard for anyone serious about cracking down on antisemitism. Proponents have cheered its adoption in various forms by more than 30 nations and the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations, along with a handful of college campuses across the United States.

“The IHRA definition is the most authoritative and internationally accepted definition of antisemitism,” William Daroff, chief executive of the Conference of Presidents, said in an email.

But critics, including Stern, say that the definition is now being weaponized to shut down legitimate criticism of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and treatment of Palestinians, while doing little to stop the actual threats facing American Jews.

“It’s been instrumentalized to go after criticism of Israel and pretty much nothing else,” said Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, which funds left-leaning Israeli human rights groups.

Since the Trump administration adopted the definition in 2019, conservative groups have claimed that a host of common criticism of Israel is antisemitic. For example, StopAntisemitism.orgreleased a report in December 2019 on “the new antisemites,” with cover art that equated Palestinian activists with Nazis and used the IHRA definition to label as antisemitic a spectrum of Israel commentary, including:

  • a Twitter post featuring a rabbit saying, “The Zionist entity has no ‘right to exist’”
  • an article criticizing the United Nations for leaving the Israeli military’s killing of children in Gaza out of a report on children killed in armed conflict
  • an IfNotNow blog post that described Israel’s occupation of the West Bank as an octopus

Last fall, a federal investigation into antisemitism at the University of Illinois was based on a complaint that used the definition to link swastika graffiti and the theft of mezuzahs in dorms with events related to Israel. The university subsequently affirmed the right of students to “openly express identification” with Israel “free from discrimination and harassment.”

And Canary Mission, the controversial website that lists students, academics and others it believes have shown anti-Israel bias, uses the IHRA definition, as adopted by the U.S. State Department, as its top criteria for inclusion.

The IHRA definition includes numerous caveats. It states that it is not meant to limit criticism of Israel similar to that of other countries. It also says that the examples offered, including claiming that Israel is racist, are not necessarily antisemitic. But opponents point to the University of Illinois investigation and Canary Mission, among other incidents, as evidence that in practice, the IHRA definition is invoked to deem much criticism of Israeli policy as antisemitic.

The definition’s proponents, in turn, celebrate its ability to target anti-Israel sentiment in a way that previous conceptions of antisemitism could not.

“This desire to promote a shared definition comes after efforts on college campuses and other places to define antisemitism without input from the Jewish community and to harass Jewish students for their religious and/or Zionist beliefs,” Stephanie Hausner, managing director of JFNA’s Israel Action Network, said in a statement.

Meant to polarize

People on both sides of this debate agree on one thing: its stakes. While critics like Friedman and Stern — who helped draft the language, but has since lost faith in it — lament how it has become a litmus test, others say that’s precisely why it’s powerful.

Mark Weitzman, director of government affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said the IHRA definition helps hold institutions accountable. He praised how it became central to the debate over antisemitism in the British Labour Party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn.

“Instead of a pro forma ‘I’m against antisemitism,’ and then drop it and go off onto the next tangent,” Weitzman said, “it became: where do you stand publicly on” the IHRA definition?

Weitzman led IHRA’s adoption of the definition and said it was approved by a panel of experts without political interference.

As evidence that the definition does not stifle campus activism, Weitzman pointed to Western Washington University, which became the first campus to adopt it in 2018, and has since become home to new chapters of Students United for Palestinian Equal Rights and Jewish Voice for Peace, groups who regularly put on events featuring strident criticism of Israel.

But Stern said he is increasingly concerned that the definition can be used to censor speech.

“It has become like rallying around the flag,” Stern said. “It’s become the symbol of: are we protecting Jews or are we not protecting Jews?’ and we’ve lost the critical ability to say what utility it has.”

Hard choice for Biden

Weitzman said he thinks much of the progressive pushback against the definition stems from the Trump administration’s embrace of it. President Donald Trump signed an executive order in 2019 adopting the definition for federal agencies, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo later used it to label three human-rights organization antisemitic.

“Some of the opposition was, to be blunt, because it was used by a president who was extraordinarily unpopular in many ways,” Weitzman said. “It’s guilt by association.”

Now, President Joe Biden has to balance competing demands from different parts of the Jewish community.

Thirty-nine words about antisemitism are splitting the Jewish community

Friedman said she believes the major groups like JFNA and the Anti-Defamation League, which signed the Conference of Presidents letter, are rushing to convince Biden that their preferred language represents the desires of American Jews before dissenting voices can be heard.

The Anti-Defamation League declined requests for comment.

The Reform movement’s opposition is one example of dissent that may hamper Daroff’s efforts to unify the Conference of Presidents membership behind the IHRA language.

“If the effect of application of the IHRA definition is to limit free speech,” the Union of Reform Judaism said in its Monday statement, “it threatens to divide the broad coalition needed to combat antisemitism.”

Arno Rosenfeld is a news reporter at the Forward. Follow him on Twitter @arnorosenfeldt or email arno@forward.com.

Authors

Arno Rosenfeld

Arno Rosenfeld

Arno Rosenfeld is a staff writer for the Forward, where he covers U.S. politics and American Jewish institutions. You can reach him at arno@forward.com and follow him on Twitter @arnorosenfeld.

39 words about antisemitism are splitting Jewish groups

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