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How should US anti-Semitism be defined in the Biden era?

The US's Jewish community is debating whether the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance's working definition should be enforced as government policy.

By Emily Tamkin

“Do we need this definition?” Hadar Susskind, the president and CEO of Americans for Peace Now, put that question to me in response to a growing debate in the US over how the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) defines anti-Semitism. 

Americans for Peace Now is a non-profit organisation dedicated to finding a comprehensive political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In January, the group was one of two members of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations  the leading umbrella network of American Jewish institutions – that elected not to adopt the IHRA’s working definition of anti-Semitism. The definition was first published in 2016. However, as the Trump era ends and the Biden administration begins, and with anti-Semitism on the rise and progressive groups pushing for a change in Democratic policy toward Israel, questions of who defines anti-Semitism, how and why it matters are taking on a new salience. 

The IHRA working definition states: “Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.” 

Along with the definition, the IRHA published a number of examples of anti-Semitic behaviour, such as, “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, for example, by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour,” “Applying double standards by requiring of [Israel] a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation,” and “Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis’.

The issue before Jewish groups of whether or not to adopt this definition – and, critically, whether to push to have this particular definition further inform US policy – is one of debate in the American Jewish community and across the American Jewish institutional spectrum. It’s a debate about free speech, about power and about who gets to speak for American Jews.

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In 2004, Kenneth Stern was the lead writer on what would later become the IHRA’s working definition, and at the time he was also the American Jewish Committee’s anti-Semitism expert. Stern has said that the purpose of the 2016 definition was to guide European governments in collecting data on and monitoring anti-Semitism. And, indeed, 29 countries now use it to help determine what is and is not anti-Semitic sentiment and abuse. What it was not intended to do – again, according to Stern – was to be an enforceable code for what is and is not hate speech on university campuses. 

In late 2019, however, the Trump administration implemented an executive order that stated that the Executive Branch should use the 2016 IHRA definition, including the examples, when looking into civil rights complaints, including those that are filed to the Department of Education with respect to allegations of discrimination on campus. 

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Stern warned at the time that deploying the definition and its examples as policy, as dictated by Trump’s executive order, could be weaponised and used to, for example, prohibit certain speakers and protests. Stern, writing in the Guardian, argued, “I’m a Zionist. But on a college campus, where the purpose is to explore ideas, anti-Zionists have a right to free expression.”

According to Yousef Munayyer, a Palestinian-American writer and analyst, the bigger picture behind the potential political use of the definition by policymakers and enforcers also includes a push to limit Palestinian free speech and demands for greater rights.

Munayyer notes that efforts in the United States to pass laws against the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement  an organisation which works to pressure Israel to comply with what the BDS considers are its obligations under international law  have failed when faced with laws protecting free speech. Munayyer says that to apply the IHRA definition as Trump did, however, could allow opponents of the BDS movement, and those who want to limit criticism of Israel more generally, to bypass laws protecting free speech – for example, they could use pre-existing laws against discrimination and interpret them to curb Palestinian rights activism. “This is about binding institutions to take action against people who those behind this effort want to see silenced,” Munayyer said of the push to have the definition transformed into policy.

In the Biden era, the debate on how to use the IHRA definition has taken on a new life and meaning. On 12 January 2021, leaders of the Conference of Presidents, as well as the heads of leading American Jewish groups, such as the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League, signed a letter to the then president-elect Joe Biden. The document, first obtained by Jewish Insider, called Trump’s executive order “an important and impactful step forward in protecting the rights of Jewish students” and asked that the Biden administration instruct federal agencies to consider the IHRA working definition and its examples in their work. This week Kara McDonald, the US deputy assistant secretary for democracy, human rights, and laboursaid that the State Department under Biden “embraces and champions” the IHRA working definition, which the Conference of Presidents commended.

It is unclear what the impact the State Department’s support for the IHRA definition will have on domestic policy. Some leaders of Jewish organisations say that using the IHRA working definition in relation to policy is essential for having a common understanding of anti-Semitism and working to combat it effectively. “The IHRA working definition was meant to do just that, work. It is designed for application, not gathering dust,” the Conference of Presidents said in a statement to the New Statesman. The US has in place anti-discrimination and hate crime legislation, and this definition, too, the statement argued, “should continue to serve as an educational and informative tool to assist local, state, and national authorities that are responsible for identifying, combating, and monitoring anti-Semitism and hate crimes”. Far from stifling criticism of Israel, the Conference of Presidents added, the IHRA working definition is, in fact, intended to distinguish between legitimate criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism.

David Harris, CEO of the American Jewish Committee, noted that the IHRA working definition and its examples came out of watching European countries attempt to confront rising anti-Semitism, and realising that “without a basic and widely-accepted definition, the effort to respond would be hampered from the get-go”. Harris also noted that the working definition wasn’t a legal tool and there are no concrete illustrations of its legal use, even though critics frequently argue that it “chills” free speech.  

But not everyone agrees. On 12 January, as an almost counter, or at least a supplement, to the Conference of Presidents letter to Biden, the Progressive Israel Network  a group of ten organisations “committed to pursuing democracy, equality and peace in Israel”  released a statement opposing the IHRA working definition’s application into US law or policy. “We respect the original creation of the IHRA working definition as an illustrative tool and as part of a larger and ongoing conversation about the nature of anti-Semitism,” the statement reads. But “its adoption in law or policy at the state, federal and university level and in corporate governance has the potential to undermine core freedoms, and in some cases already has”. 

Susskind, whose organisation Americans for Peace Now signed the statement by the Progressive Israel Network, said: “The whole point of this,” referring to the push for political use of the IHRA definition, is “defining any criticism [of Israel] as anti-Zionist”, and to conflate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. Using the IHRA definition as policy, he said, could be used against Palestinian students who want to talk about the Nakba — in reference to the period when, in 1948, roughly 700,000 Palestinian Arabs fled or were expelled from their homes. Equally, Susskind notes, it could also be used against Jewish groups “who speak out against the occupation”. Americans for Peace Now, he said, does not support BDS, but it does support a boycott of goods produced in Israeli settlements — and under this definition, he said, such a boycott would be labelled anti-Zionist and then, in turn, anti-Semitic. Americans for Peace Now also put out a statement expressing disappointment in the Biden administration’s support for the IHRA definition.

“If you took the definition — even with the examples — if you lived in a black hole in the far reaches of space, and you read that, sure,” the definition and examples might be fine to help enhance understanding of anti-Semitism, said Susskind. But for Susskind, as we do not live in the far reaches of space, there is a real political context with political actors who will push to the limit what is considered legitimate speech and activism for Palestinian rights. 

If the IHRA definition is implemented as policy, a key question for Susskind and others is who gets to say what criticism of Israel does and doesn’t count as anti-Semitic. “It’s not good legislating or good law-making to trust in good faith,” echoed Logan Bayroff, the communications director of J Street, a self-described “pro-Israel, pro-peace” group that also signed onto the Progressive Israel Network statement against turning the IHRA working definition into law or policy. J Street, unlike Americans for Peace Now, did not see a problem with the State Department’s support of the IHRA definition. “We believe that utilisation of the definition as one tool and point of reference for identifying anti-Semitism, without codifying it into or otherwise giving it the force of law, is appropriate,” said Bayroff.

The Trump administration revealed how legitimate forms of advocacy can be suppressed, including those with which J Street disagrees. To take one example, former secretary of state Mike Pompeo declared in his final days in office that “anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism” — apparently disregarding the fact that there are many people who argue that no group has a right to a state, including some American Jews.  

Similarly, Bayroff said, the push to use the IHRA definition as policy is not only too broad; it’s also too narrow, as it fails to grapple with rising far-right extremism and white supremacy. One of the members of the mob that stormed the Capitol on 6 January was photographed wearing a “Camp Auschwitz” sweatshirt — exemplifying why some fear that the focus on the IHRA definition, and on the issue of what can and cannot be said about Israel, does not do enough to recognise the threat of rising white supremacy and right-wing anti-Semitism in the US today.

“I think for a number of politicians, they feel, ‘Oh, we will adopt this definition, and then we’ve checked the box on responding to anti-Semitism,’” said Dove Kent, senior strategist at Bend the Arc, a progressive Jewish movement which also opposed the government use of the IHRA definition as policy. 

“There are very tangible things that we really want our elected officials to do,” Kent said, including investing resources into examining the infiltration of white supremacists and nationalists in law enforcement. Simply adopting the definition does not cover any such real, concrete steps.

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There are many Jewish organisations in the United States that do support the IHRA working definition of anti-Semitism. Last week, 51 of the Conference of President’s 53 member organisations elected to adopt the definition. 

But what “adopting the IHRA definition” meant also varied from group to group. Some — such as the Conference of President’s leadership and the American Jewish Committee — wanted to see the IHRA working definition used to shape policy. Others, like the Union of Reform Judaism, the largest denomination in the US, stated that, while they considered the IHRA definition helpful, they did not want to see it used as policy. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union of Reform Judaism, told the New Statesman that the IHRA definition should be used to inform policy, but it should not dictate policy. The Union of Reform Judaism was one of eight Jewish groups that last week signed an open letter urging the Biden administration and Congress to use the IHRA definition in a “distinctly non-legally binding” manner. 

“IHRA’s definition,” Jacobs said, “has global stature and is an important tool in the fight against rising incidents of anti-Semitism,” but, according to Jacobs, it was never intended to be codified —  and that’s why the Union of Reform Judaism doesn’t feel it should be. 

Jacobs added: “We felt that since the administration and Congress will be focusing early on how they will be addressing the escalating manifestations of anti-Semitism we wanted to urge them to make good use of the definition but be careful about their wording and policies to ensure that it was used correctly.” The Union of Reform Judaism also wanted to emphasise, he wrote, that effective use of the definition “is one of a number of important steps that a robust response to anti-Semitism should entail”. 

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Beyond countering hate, protecting free speech and defining what constitutes legitimate activism, there is also the question of who gets to speak for American Jews. Certainly, 51 out of 53 groups at the Conference of Presidents is a significant number, but it is not every American Jewish institutions, nor is it representative of the entirety of American Jewish life. And even the 51 groups that agreed to adopt the definition did not agree to what should happen next.

That does not mean that groups in the American Jewish community don’t want to be united in fighting anti-Semitism. Rabbi Jacobs, for example, explicitly said: “The Jewish community is united in its understanding of the threat anti-Semitism poses and the need to combat it.” And not even everyone agrees that there’s significant disagreement; the Conference of Presidents referred to support for the definition as “the consensus position of American Jewry”.

Still, Bayroff expressed a longstanding concern that some in the Jewish American community take it upon themselves to speak for all Jewish Americans when engaging with policymakers and elected officials, without consulting the many people that they should first, or without representing the full spectrum of opinions. But so, too, did he express a belief that things are changing.

In 2009, when the Obama administration was beginning its work, J Street had only recently been founded; the Progressive Israel Network was still ten years away from being born. IfNotNow, an organisation that describes itself as a “movement of Jews to end Israel’s occupation and transform the American Jewish community,” was founded in 2014.  Bayroff says that today, “the landscape really looks different” than it did at the start of Obama’s first term.

Many say that there was a shift over the course of the Trump administration, most notably by the former president’s support towards Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu  as Netanyahu’s association with Trump created scope for liberal American Jews to further criticise Israel. But Bayroff argued that despite some seeing support for the alignment as established Jewish institutions prioritising Israel over speaking out against Trump, the situation also opened a greater debate by and within Jewish organisations, too. 

To put it another way: there is a version of events in which all American Jewish groups move to adopt and push to codify the IHRA working definition. But here at the beginning of the Biden administrationthat’s not the version that we see unfolding. 

[See also: Anti-Semitism in the time of Trump]