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Debate | Should the Biden Administration adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism?

On a recent trip to Israel, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the U.S. now officially considers the BDS movement to boycott Israel to be antisemitic. Soon after, news broke that Pompeo also plans to label Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Oxfam as antisemitic for their anti-Israel activism. In so doing, Pompeo was relying on the controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Association’s working definition of antisemitism, which is famously murky when it comes to distinguishing between anti-Zionism and antisemitism.

The definition itself is rather ambiguous: “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews.” But even more controversial are the “contemporary examples of antisemitism,” some of which are about Israel. For example, it lists “applying double standards by requiring of [Israel] a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation” and “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor” as examples of antisemitism.

While this makes the IHRA definition unpopular with Israel’s critics and allies of the Palestinians, its strictness in policing extreme anti-Zionism is the source of its appeal for others; most recently, the Jewish Federations of North America urged President-elect Joe Biden to promote the IHRA definition.

Given how important this topic is to our community, we asked Forward contributing columnists Joel Swanson and Ari Hoffman to debate the question: The IHRA definition of antisemitism — yea or nay?


Ari Hoffman: For some, antisemitism is like pornography: In Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous formulation, “You know it when you see it.” But for many others, a definition is crucial; after all, you can’t fight something without naming it. Without a diagnosis, it is nearly impossible to formulate a treatment plan.

This would be true of nearly any prejudice, but it is especially trenchant in the case of antisemitism, which is subject to disguise and mutation, and adept in the donning of masks.

Ari Hoffman | Artist: Noah Lubin

Ari Hoffman Image by Noah Lubin

To that end, the IHRA’s provides both a definition of antisemitism and eleven examples of what the prejudice might look like in action. Of these, seven mention Israel, which has occasioned outrage from progressive critics, who suggest that conflating the Jews and the Jewish State distorts antisemitism into Zionist advocacy.

That perspective is wrong for two reasons. First, the IHRA’s definition explicitly states that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.” This means that knocking Bibi, or vociferously criticizing settlement policy, or arguing for more robust rights and protections for Israeli Arabs is all fair game. What is not is accusations of dual loyalty, or arguing that Israel “invented or exaggerated the Holocaust,” or “holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.”

The second reason why including language around Israel in a definition of contemporary antisemitism is that the two can not honestly be disaggregated when discussing the phenomenon of animus towards Jews. It continues to be the case on college campuses as elsewhere that hatred of Israel is what Jew hatred looks like to the next generation of American Jews. One has only to look at the British Labour Party to see just how seamlessly anti-Israel and anti-Jewish sentiment coexist and overlap.

The reality is that the kinds of extreme rhetoric this definition targets should not be controversial, regardless of where you stand on Israel.

Joel Swanson: In the spirit of the Hanukkah season, I’ll begin with a note of concord: We both agree that antisemitism is a major problem in the United States, and we agree that a definition of antisemitism is needed. And while you and I have disagreed in the past on the question of whether anti-Zionism is inherently antisemitic, I agree that there are forms of anti-Zionism that are surely antisemitic. No matter your position on Zionism, blaming all Jews everywhere in the world for the actions of the state of Israel is antisemitic.

Joel Swanson | Artist: Noah Lubin

Joel Swanson Image by Noah Lubin

Agreement aside, I don’t agree that the blanket adoption of the IHRA definition of antisemitism is the best path forward. Consider one of the examples of antisemitism offered by the IHRA: “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.” This is a deliberate conflation of “right to self-determination” with the existence of the state of Israel as a Jewish voting-majority state. There are lots of forms of self-determination that do not require a state, and Jewish history offers myriad examples of them.

Moreover, if claiming that the “State of Israel is a racist endeavor” makes one antisemitic, think of the range of scholars we would have to expel from the cannon, not just Palestinian post-colonial scholars but a huge number of important Jewish thinkers, too, ranging from anti-Zionist Satmar Hasidim to the early twentieth century Bundists and Territorialists. All of them were proud Jews who came to the conclusion that the Jewish right to self-determination should not take place within the framework of a nation state with a perpetual Jewish voting majority. Does that make them antisemites?

The truth is the nation-state as a unit of political organization is a recent invention. And there are a great range of Jewish expressions of self-determination that do not take the form of supporting a Jewish-majority state.

Moreover, you defend the IHRA definition of antisemitism on the grounds that it specifies that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.” But if “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor” is antisemitic, then the much of postcolonial studies has to be banned.

Because a lot of post-colonial theorists do in fact argue that nations like the U.S. and European states are racist endeavors. Lots of thinkers, including many Jewish thinkers, apply the lens of settler colonialism not just to Israel, but to the modern nation-state itself.

In the name of protecting Israel from double standards, the IHRA creates a double standard that uniquely protects Israel from arguments about the fundamental racism and imperialism of the nation state.

And this would have real consequences for academic inquiry. Indeed, it already is. The renowned political philosopher Achille Mbembe, currently a professor in South Africa, has been condemned as antisemitic, with real consequences for his academic career. But Professor Mbembe is not applying a double standard to Israel; he’s applying to Israel the same critique he levels against South Africa and a whole host of other states. It’s no wonder a lot of Israeli academics have signed a statement supporting Mbembe and attacking the IHRA definition of antisemitism.

Moreover, the IHRA definition would render huge amounts of Palestinian politics as antisemitic. Take, for example, former Israeli Arab Knesset Member Jamal Zahalka’s bill to grant equal voting rights to Jews and Palestinians living in the West Bank. The proposal would not have expelled any Jews. But under the IHRA’s definition of antisemitism, MK Zahalka’s advocacy for equal voting rights would be ruled out of bounds as “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination.”

Ari Hoffman: I wonder how much of your objection to the language of the working definition is really an argument that any definition of antisemitism is going to sweep up a small subset of cases that don’t quite fit. I think that’s a legitimate point, and it has to do with the perils of trying to set a standard in a world where conversations and politics evolve rapidly.

On the substance of your objection, while I agree that there is play in the joints for an occasional case that somehow splits the difference between antisemitism and a rejection of Israel’s right to exist, I support the overall gist of the IHRA’s instinct.

To argue a mere seventy years after the Holocaust that the Jews should not be able to pursue self-determination as one state among many in their historic homeland is an extraordinary claim. It often involves historical revisionism that seeks to undo the relationship of Jews to the Land of Israel, which dates to the dawn of recorded history. It also almost invariably involves painting Israel with uniquely evil colors, because why else negate Jewish self-determination and allow over twenty Muslim states to pursue their destinies under crescent flags? What about Palestine? Would labeling its creation a “racist endeavor” be seen as acceptable and even commendable?

As for your other point, I’d shed few tears for the demise of most post-colonial studies departments; in fact, far too many of them have wholesale bought into the Israel-obsessed ideology that this definition seeks to name and shame, and have pursued an anti-Israel agenda with utter impunity under the fig leaf of anti-Zionism.

Academic appointments are no excuse for the kind of pure hate we have too often seen emanating from seminar rooms and faculty lounges.

You challenge the right to self-determination clause with two main examples: apartheid South Africa and current one-state ideology. On the former: As mentioned above, there is nothing in this definition that would tar strenuous criticism of Israel’s government and policies as antisemitic, including its presence in the West Bank. A more exact analogue would be arguing for the abolition of South Africa as a country and denying the right of South Africans to self-determine. Would that make sense? There is also the practical matter that the rights and representations of Arab Israelis in the State of Israel make any comparison dubious at best.

The latter objection, that the definition defames one staters, trips up on the same sort of selectivity bias. Why is it only Israel that has to abolish itself to be acceptable to the community of nations? When protesters chant “Palestine, from the River to the Sea,” is the reality one state for all of its citizens? My sneaking suspicion is that the vision is a darker one.

Joel Swanson: You argue that “denying the rights of South Africans to self-determine” is most directly analogous to the IHRA’s example of “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination” as a form of antisemitism. But today, essentially no one defends apartheid South Africa as a nation that was necessary to grant unique self-determination to the white Afrikaner people. No one argues that the shift from ethno-nationalism to civic nationalism in 1994 was somehow racist against Afrikaner identity. And yet, that is essentially the argument that proponents of the IHRA definition are making today.

If you’re not going to argue that ending apartheid in South Africa was “abolishing” the state, then how can you argue that the exact same policy change would deny Jewish self-determination, when all MK Zahalka is calling for is civic equality?

But I also think that the IHRA definition is dangerous for Jews. As you yourself point out, seven out of the eleven examples of antisemitism offered by the IHRA focus on Israel, meaning that the bulk of the IHRA’s definition ignores diasporic Jews. This runs counter to the concerns of American Jews today, which polling shows are more concerned about far-right antisemitism than leftist anti-Zionism or Islamist antisemitism.

By focusing so heavily on Israel at the expense of other forms of antisemitism, the IHRA’s definition of antisemitism is doing a disservice to American Jews, by refusing to help us confront real antisemitism where we see it. That’s why Kenneth Stern, author of the IHRA definition, wrote last week that the definition he himself drafted focuses too much on Israel-related antisemitism, and not enough on white supremacism and far-right conspiracy theories.

This overemphasis on Israel isn’t a mere academic argument, either. When you focus your definition of antisemitism so disproportionately on Israel, as the IHRA does, you give Zionists tacit license to practice antisemitism in other forms.

When your definition of antisemitism focuses its attention on Israel, it can miss the other diverse forms that antisemitism takes in the world today. And that’s bad for the Jews, as much as it is for Palestinians.

Ari hoffman: I take your point that it is in fact the case that occasionally countries are so unjust, so blatantly unfair and malignant, that they have to be undone and renovated from the ground up. The 20th century is no stranger to such bulldozer jobs, and that kind of thinking still lives in all of those who support regime change abroad, whether in Iraq at the beginning of this millenium, or in Iran today. I will leave it to our readers to determine if Israel, a country with a 20% minority population that is strongly represented in its legislature and in the highest echelons of its judicial system, and that has repeatedly made peace with its neighbors despite being subject to seven decades of relentless war and attack from those very same neighbors, is different from the South African apartheid regime.

As to your point about emphasis: Reading through the definition in its totality, I don’t quite agree that it is unfairly weighted towards the Middle East. Israel is not found at all in the text of the definition itself, only in the illustrative examples. Obsession with Israel is one strand of antisemitism, but it is not the only one.

Joel Swanson: I think we fundamentally disagree about what it means for a country to be “undone and renovated from the ground up.” I simply cannot accept that granting equal voting rights to everyone living in the territory governed by Israel in a binational state — a policy, by the way, supported by many prominent early Zionist activists — means bulldozing Israel from the ground up, nor that it automatically constitutes antisemitism.

And it seems a bit contradictory of you to cite the rights granted to Israeli Arabs in Israel as evidence for why Israel should not introduce policy changes that would grant further civil rights to Arabs. You are essentially arguing that Israel deserves self-determination because it gives its minority citizens rights, but let’s not give them too many rights.

But for me, the broader point has less to do with our disputes over the framing of conceptual terms like “self-determination” and “Jewish statehood,” and more to do with my concern that the IHRA definition wants to render debates over such terms out of bounds, by defining them as so rooted in antisemitism that we cannot even have such discussions.

When we define terms like antisemitism too broadly, we miss the nuances that can be worked out in more detailed academic debates, the debates in, among other places, post-colonial studies departments that you seem to want to shut down. Universal definitions of antisemitism applied so broadly that they are now being wielded against academics and universities seem antithetical to that goal.

Joel Swanson is a contributing columnist for the Forward and a Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago, studying modern Jewish intellectual history and the philosophy of religions. Find him on Twitter @jh_swanson.

Ari Hoffman is a contributing columnist at the Forward, where he writes about politics and culture. He is an Adjunct Assistant Professor at N.Y.U., and his writing has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Tablet Magazine, The New York Observer, and a range of other publications. He holds a doctorate in English Literature from Harvard and a law degree from Stanford.


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