RNS] — The American Jewish community is pushing synagogues and other communal organizations to agree to an antisemitic definition. That’s understandable, given the reemergence of antisemitic white supremacism on the right alongside a persistent association of hostility to Israel with hostility to Jews on the left.
It’s open to question whether the definition of serves any useful purpose. It is as follows:
Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Antisemitism can be expressed verbally or physically against Jewish or non-Jewish people and/or property, as well as Jewish community institutions and religious establishments.
Following this vague pronouncement are 11 examples of things that “may serve as illustrations” of antisemitism. These include “Calling for or aiding in the killing or harming Jews in the name a radical ideology, an extremist view religion”, and “Holding Jews jointly responsible for the actions of the state Israel
Indeed, seven of the 11 examples relate to Israel in one way or another, including the charge that Jews in the Diaspora are more loyal to Israel than to “the interests of their own nations” and the assertion that Israel itself is “a racist endeavor.” This emphasis reflects the fact that the definition originated in the early 2000s, in response to an increase in attacks on Jews in Europe after the Second Intifada. There was an impression that Europeans didn’t understand the evolution of anti-Jewish sentiment since the Nazi era.
Fast forward to 2016, when the definition was officially adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, an intergovernmental agency charged with advancing and promoting Holocaust education, research and remembrance around the world. The agency clarified that the definition was not legally binding, and that any criticism of Israel that is similar to that directed against other countries was not antisemitic. Along with the top American Jewish agencies, a significant number of countries signed on.
Despite the disclaimers, there was considerable pushback — not only from Palestinian groups but also from progressive Jews, who felt that what was now called “the IHRA definition” went too far in branding criticism of Israel as antisemitic. Kenneth S. Stern, a lawyer and former executive at the American Jewish Committee who helped draft the original definition, publicly expressed concern about its being used to suppress free speech on college campuses.
Last March, a group of Jewish scholars working under the auspices of the Knight Program in Media and Religion at USC proposed an alternative definition titled the Nexus Document. The same month saw publication of the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism, a similar effort that was signed by some 200 Jewish academics from around the world.
Both documents criticize the IHRA definition for lack of clarity — their own formulations are certainly clearer — and give examples of what they do not as well as what they do consider antisemitic with respect to Israel. Both documents, for example, deny that Zionism is a form antisemitic. (The IHRA document doesn’t mention Zionism in any way.
The Nexus Document asserts that “(p]aying disproportionate attention towards Israel and treating Israel different than other countries isn’t prima facie proof that antisemitism exists.” The Jerusalem Declaration states that “(b]oycott divestment, sanctions and other non-violent forms are commonplace, nonviolent forms to protest against governments. They are not antisemitic .”
in the Israeli case.
In other words, the question of how to define antisemitism has become an internal Jewish debate about what grounds are legitimate for criticizing Israel. As the other definitions suggest, the IHRA definition can be used in a variety of ways, some positive and others less.
Last summer, the European Commission published a handbook that used the IHRA definition as the basis for identifying a number of actual statements and behaviors as examples of antisemitism. The handbook demonstrates that the IHRA definition can be used as a guide for understanding antisemitism.
On the other hand, last month the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center — named for a renowned Nazi hunter — published its annual list of the “Global Anti-Semitism Top Ten.” The entire country of Germany earned the No. 7 for failing to take sufficient action to combat antisemitism among Islamists, the right, and on the left.
The center singled out Michael Blume, the commissioner against antisemitism for the German state of Baden-Wurttemberg, for “anti-Semitic and anti-Israel activities on social media” because he allegedly “liked” a 2019 Facebook post from a “friend” that read: “Zionists, Nazis and radicals should quickly say goodbye to my friends list.” State officials were criticized for letting Blume “engage in these anti-Semitic and anti-Israel activities on social media.”
Blume said that he may have “liked” a post that was later edited, and that he believed that anti-Zionism equals antisemitism. Katharina von Schnurbein, the European Union’s coordinator for fighting antisemitism, tweeted that the criticisms of Blume “not only blur #antisemitism & harm the fight against it, they also discredit the invaluable legacy of #SimonWiesenthal. “
“(Y. “You cannot fight ‘antisemitism’ while opposing all who attack Zionists, demonize Zionism,” Rabbi Abraham Cooper wrote in an email to The Jewish Telegraphic Society. “This fact is embedded in the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism.”
As I mentioned, the utility of the IHRA definition remains open to question.