The World

We Need a Better Definition of Anti-Semitism

A popular working definition adopted by the U.S. government is overly broad and politicized.

Man in a yamaka hat looks at a Nazi exhibit in Yad Vashem.
People visit the Yad Vashem museum on Jan. 27, 2019, in Jerusalem.  Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images

During a period when far-right, white nationalist, and anti-Semitic extremists have been parading and brawling on the streets of American cities, storming and looting the U.S. Capitol, and even murdering Jews in their places of worship, debating the definition of anti-Semitism might seem to be a trivial and pedantic academic exercise. Yet it has become a hotly contested, politically controversial issue, not only in the United States, but also in other Western democracies, including Germany and the United Kingdom.

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The focus of the controversy is a brief “working definition” of anti-Semitism, initially published by a European Union agency in 2005 for the purpose of classifying and tracking incidents of anti-Semitism in EU countries. The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, an intergovernmental body, formally adopted this working definition in 2016. Since then, the IHRA definition, as it has become known, has been officially adopted or endorsed by more than 30 governments, including the United States. When President Trump issued an executive order on combating anti-Semitism in December 2019, it explicitly directed all U.S. federal agencies to “consider” this definition, particularly when enforcing anti-discrimination laws, such as Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. There have also been bills introduced in Congress seeking to codify the IHRA definition into U.S. law, which the American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights organizations have so far succeeded in blocking due to their concern that the definition could be used to censor or chill free speech.

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This concern is well-founded.

To be sure, the IHRA definition highlights numerous real examples of anti-Semitism. Dehumanizing and demonizing Jews; denying or minimizing the Holocaust; believing in the existence of an international Jewish conspiracy; and claiming that Jews collectively control governments, the media, the economy, or other social institutions are all clear cases of anti-Semitism, as is any rhetoric about Israel that recycles those long-standing myths and conspiracies. In its own words, “Using the symbols and images associated with classic anti-Semitism … to characterize Israel or Israelis” could constitute anti-Semitism. By explicitly recognizing that contemporary anti-Semitism can focus on Israel, rather than just Jews, the IHRA definition provides a more up-to-date understanding of anti-Semitism.  

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In practice, however, the IHRA definition—specifically some of its examples pertaining to Israel—has been misused to target pro-Palestinian advocacy, especially on college campuses. Scholars, students, activists, and even artists have been branded anti-Semites (even when they are Jewish) for opposing Zionism, advocating for a Palestinian right of return, or promoting the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign against Israel. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo even used the IHRA definition in an attempt to label Oxfam, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch as anti-Semitic because of their criticism of Israeli government policies and practices toward Palestinians.

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Using the IHRA definition to smear or silence critics of Israel not only threatens freedom of expression and academic freedom, as its own lead author Kenneth Stern has warned, it also undermines the fight against anti-Semitism as charges of anti-Semitism are devalued and increasingly perceived as politically motivated.

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This weaponization of the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism has been facilitated by its ambiguity. Although it does not simply equate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, or label all criticism of Israel to be anti-Semitic—as some opponents of the definition assert—its vague, conditional wording is open to misinterpretations and misuse. Its conditional phrasing—that criticism “could, taking into account the overall context” cross the line to anti-Semitism—is too often forgotten, or even purposefully ignored. Some of its examples relating to Israel are particularly prone to such problems.

It states, for instance, that “applying double standards by requiring of [Israel] a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation” could be anti-Semitic. This has often been interpreted to mean that any individual or group that denounces or protests Israeli human rights violations, rather than those of another country, has a “double standard” and is therefore guilty of anti-Semitism.

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IHRA’s concern about criticizing Israel by a “double standard” opens up almost any criticism of Israel to that charge. Yes, there are worse human rights violators than Israel in the world, but people can also have many reasons to focus on one country or issue over another. Was it an unacceptable double standard for American politicians to focus on the cause of Soviet Jewry in the 1970s, or on South Africa in the 1980s, despite the existence of far worse injustices all over the world? These were issues that moved Americans for a variety of reasons. Moreover, no two states are exactly alike. How can anyone possibly critique or take up a cause anywhere in the world by this standard? Must they focus all over the world in order to justifiably focus on any of it?

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No definition is perfect; and any definition of anti-Semitism, like racism, is bound to provoke some disagreement because it is such a complex, multifaceted phenomenon. It cannot simply be reduced to hate or prejudice or discrimination. And since anti-Semitism can, indeed, sometimes surface in criticism or protest of Israel, it is particularly difficult to clearly specify when opposition to Israel’s policies, or even to its existence, is anti-Semitic and when it isn’t.

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Rather than regard the IHRA definition as the final word on the fraught question of what contemporary anti-Semitism consists of, we should instead take it as a starting point. Indeed, it was never intended to be a definitive definition of anti-Semitism (nor, for that matter, was it intended to be codified into law). It literally calls itself a “working definition.” Unfortunately, for many, it has become a kind of holy text, carved in stone, which must not only be adopted, codified, and enforced, but treated as sacrosanct and unassailable.

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As scholars of anti-Semitism and modern Israel, we think the IHRA definition can be refined and improved (like any definition), and given its potential for abuse, we believe that this task is both necessary and urgent—especially since Secretary of State Antony Blinken has recently said that “the Biden administration enthusiastically embraces” the IHRA definition.

That’s why we have joined with 200 other scholars and experts from around the world to endorse the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism, the product of over a year’s work by an international consortium of leading scholars on anti-Semitism.

In the words of its authors, the JDA seeks “to provide a usable, concise, and historically-informed core definition of antisemitism with a set of guidelines.” In doing so, it aims to “strengthen the fight against antisemitism by clarifying what it is and how it is manifested,” while also protecting “a space for an open debate about the vexed question of the future of Israel/Palestine.”

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The JDA is far more specific than the IHRA definition in detailing what does and does not constitute anti-Semitism vis-à-vis Israel and criticism of it. Being more detailed, it is therefore less susceptible to misuse. It overcomes IHRA’s ambiguity by offering specific examples of criticism that crosses the line to anti-Semitism and criticism that in most cases does not, establishing clearer parameters and guidelines.

For example, applying the images or negative stereotypes of classical anti-Semitism to Israel, holding Jews collectively responsible for Israel’s behavior, demanding that Jews publicly condemn Israel or Zionism just because they are Jewish, or denying the right of Jews in the state of Israel to live with equality are all deemed anti-Semitic.

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In contrast, supporting the Palestinian demand for justice and equality, advocating a one-state or binational solution to the conflict, criticizing or opposing Zionism as a form of nationalism, or any “evidence-based criticism” of Israel—including comparisons to cases of colonialism or apartheid—are not “on the face of it” anti-Semitic. The same is true of supporting boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel, which are, it notes, “commonplace, non-violent forms of political protest against states.”

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In short, the JDA acknowledges that criticism of Israel or protests against it can be anti-Semitic, but it also makes clear that it is not necessarily anti-Semitic to boycott Israeli products, critique the ideology of Zionism, or oppose Israel’s self-definition as a Jewish state, even if many Jews might find these positions highly objectionable. It is likewise not necessarily anti-Semitic to criticize Israel unfairly or inaccurately. As the JDA puts it: “Criticism that some may see as excessive or contentious, or as reflecting a ‘double standard,’ is not, in and of itself, antisemitic. In general, the line between antisemitic and non-antisemitic speech is different from the line between unreasonable and reasonable speech.”

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No doubt, the JDA, like the IHRA definition, will elicit controversy and criticism, especially from those who insist that all anti-Zionism is inherently antisemitic or that the BDS movement is incorrigibly anti-Semitic. Since there is fierce disagreement about this—including among Jews themselves—it is highly unlikely that there will be a broad consensus in favor of any definition of contemporary anti-Semitism.

This is another reason why the Biden administration and U.S. lawmakers should resist the pressure to codify any definition of anti-Semitism into law. While it is necessary to have a definition of anti-Semitism for the purposes of recording and monitoring anti-Semitic incidents, and certainly for educational purposes, such a definition should not be used to enforce anti-discrimination laws or to advance a political agenda, as the Trump administration did with the IHRA definition.

The JDA will certainly not be the final word on this vital subject, but it is, we believe, an important step forward.

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