The high-stakes debate over how the US defines “antisemitism”

The high-stakes debate over how the US defines “antisemitism”

President Joe Biden departs a celebration marking Jewish American Heritage Month in the East Room of the White House on May 16, 2023, in Washington, DC. | Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The White House’s new strategy for fighting antisemitism has global implications.

Swastikas painted on walls. A hostage crisis at a synagogue in Texas. The rapper Ye tweeting, “I’m going death con 3 on JEWISH PEOPLE.”

“The rise in antisemitism is astonishing, never before seen in this country,” Liz Sherwood-Randall, the White House’s homeland security adviser, told the Council on Foreign Relations on Wednesday. “We’re not only seeing the kind of antisemitism that led to my mother being chased home from school in Omaha when she was a little girl. But that there’s actually increasing violence against our Jewish communities, threats of violence, acts of violence in synagogues.”

The number of incidents has risen to a new high. Because of that, President Joe Biden launched the White House’s first national strategy to address antisemitism, which was released this morning.

“In the past several years, hate has been given too much oxygen, fueling a record rise in antisemitism,” Biden said Thursday while announcing the report. “It’s on all of us to stop it.”

But that report, with 100 actions federal agencies will take within the next year to counter antisemitism, was first held up by the question of how to define “antisemitism.”

The State Department and other federal agencies use a definition promoted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). The first part of the IHRA working definition is pretty straightforward: “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

But then it goes on to chart out 11 examples of its use in practice, seven of which relate to Israel. Governments’ and nonprofits’ embrace of that definition can effectively set the bounds of criticizing Israel, whether those are criticism of Israel’s policies or comments expressing opposition to Zionism, the ideology underpinning the establishment of the State of Israel.

Ye expressing vitriol against the Jewish people is a clear-cut case. But when academics in Europe who are involved in Palestine activism have expressed criticism of the State of Israel or of Zionism, the IHRA definition has been deployed to label them as antisemitic. A 2019 lawsuit against the University of Massachusetts Amherst cited IHRA in an attempt to cancel a pro-Palestine event.

The White House strategy did not exclusively endorse or embrace the IHRA definition — even after intensive lobbying from establishment Jewish American organizations, like the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the American Jewish Committee. That may be because the definition has been politicized, with a robust and far-from-settled debate among the American Jewish community about its shortcomings. There are also other definitions, like the Nexus document, which the White House report mentions alongside the IHRA one.

Major progressive Jewish American organizations see this as a victory because the IHRA definition, however widely adopted, has been used to limit speech around Israel and Palestine. It conflates antisemitism with criticism of Israel and with anti-Zionism. “This definition is being used as a tool to suppress dissent against Israeli government policy,” says Yousef Munayyer, a researcher at the Arab Center Washington DC think tank. “It’s largely been seen as this sort of inter-Jewish American debate over the technicalities. But in reality, this is an issue with international dimensions.”

The White House’s acknowledgment of several definitions of antisemitism, as technical as that might sound, holds significance — especially as Israel’s extreme-right government pushed the US to adopt the IHRA definition.

It goes to a bigger question about how much of the antisemitism conversation should be about Israel, and to what extent the discourse should be policed.

Why IHRA matters

Antisemitism in America is rising, but hate crimes are notoriously difficult to track. The exact numbers are not established in part because data depends on reporting from law enforcement that offers “incomplete and inaccurate” information, as Marie Cohen has reported in Jewish Currents.

Defining antisemitism introduces another complication into the tracking.

The most prominent nonprofit to monitor civil rights issues as they relate to Jews in America is the Anti-Defamation League, and their data is similarly enmeshed in this controversy. “ADL has frequently included incidents of anti-Zionist political expression in its antisemitism tally,” writes Cohen. (The ADL notes that “forms of anti-Israel political protest and expressions of opposition to Israeli policies are not included in the Audit,” but, “It is antisemitic to direct anti-Israel messaging at Jewish institutions or schools.”)

The contours have long presented a problem, and it’s part of the origin story of the IHRA definition.

In the early 2000s, the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia and others developed a working definition of antisemitism that was later adapted by the political organization associated with the European Union called the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

It also sought to navigate through the complicated questions that might follow from those broad principles. That’s where the definition gets controversial.

Groups that take more progressive stances on Israel, like J Street, Peace Now, and the New Israel Fund, have come out against the definition. The National Council of Jewish Women calls the definition a good “education tool” but cautions, “We do not recommend this be codified into law or used to prohibit freedom of speech in any way.” Israeli and Palestinian human rights groups, American civil liberties organizations, and the American Bar Association have also rejected it.

The 11 examples of antisemitism cited by the IHRA definition include, “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.” But for many critics of the state of Israel, the establishment of a state with a religious character that excludes certain citizens from self-determination is indeed racist. Palestinians living under Israeli occupation lack the rights and freedoms associated with Israeli citizenship, and have no path to get it. But calling out the Israeli state’s policies as racist could be construed as antisemitic under this definition.

Another example cited by IHRA is “Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.” The celebrated Israeli columnist Nahum Barnea recently compared the Israeli settler rampage on a Palestinian village to Kristallnacht, the night in 1938 when Germans destroyed Jewish shops and homes in a coordinated wave of deadly hate. Is that antisemitic?

Then there is the saying that it’s antisemitic to hold “Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.” If a group protests against Israeli policies in front of a synagogue, is that considered antisemitic?

To be sure, Israel is sometimes used as a blunt instrument to express bigoted perspectives about Jews. But IHRA doesn’t have clear answers to any of these concerns, which is why several experts, organizers, and practitioners I interviewed described the IHRA definition as a tool, but one that exists among many definitions that are helpful in describing complex political and social events.

Still, the IHRA definition has gained currency in the US and worldwide. The State Department adopted it in 2010, the European Parliament in 2021, and six countries have formally implemented it.

Representatives of the Israeli government have been forthright that the intentions of codifying the definition have broader implications. “We work with the Foreign Ministry to bring nations around the world to adopt the wider definition of antisemitism outlined by IHRA,” says Israel’s minister of diaspora affairs Amichai Chikli in an interview with Ynetnews. “The IHRA definition is currently one of the most essential and strategic tools for the fight against antisemitism, with an emphasis on ‘new antisemitism’ that strives to deny the legitimacy of the State of Israel to exist.”

Yousef Munayyer notes that the Israeli government’s and US Jewish community’s emphasis on the IHRA definition is a recent shift. For the last few years, the Israeli government worked with advocacy groups to push forward anti-boycott laws in states across the US to protect the State of Israel from economic protests. Now that those efforts have clashed with the First Amendment in court and led to grassroots advocacy against it, they have shifted more energy to IHRA as a tool. “It is a major policy priority of the Israeli government to get the United States and other governments to adopt this definition,” Munayyer explained.

Establishment Jewish groups like the ADL, the American Jewish Committee, and the World Jewish Council have made adopting the IHRA definition a pillar of their policy.

“The entire IHRA definition is broad enough to address and engage on modern antisemitism, as we find it, and that is what’s needed in order to more effectively combat this evil,” Max Sevillia, an ADL vice president, told me. “I don’t think it overemphasizes anti-Israel anything. It’s one of the many examples of how antisemitism is manifested.”

But Hadar Susskind, president of Americans for Peace Now, a progressive nonprofit linked to Israel’s peace movement, told me, “The IHRA definition is about policing discourse about Israel. Period.”

In the last few months, Israeli Knesset members of the right-wing parties started calling human rights groups antisemitic under IHRA.

The debate in the White House, explained

Countering antisemitism is an issue that’s so important to President Joe Biden that he got fired up about it at the White House’s first-ever Jewish American Heritage Month reception on May 16. He reminded the audience that he ran for the presidency in response to the white supremacist march in Charlottesville in 2017.

“I will not remain silent, nor will any of you,” he said alongside first lady Jill Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and second gentleman Douglas Emhoff.

Now, the White House has taken a strategic position in the IHRA debate by deciding not to adopt it exclusively, but mentioning it alongside other definitions.

This was not a given. The State Department’s special envoy for countering antisemitism, the scholar Deborah Lipstadt, endorses the definition. Her boss, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, has “enthusiastically” backed IHRA, and the State Department has encouraged other governments to sign off on it. Five sources familiar with the task force’s deliberations said that this inter-community debate has held up the release of the report.

What’s important is that Biden’s White House appears to understand that antisemitism is connected to other forms of hatred. In December, Biden launched the new task force to “better coordinate U.S. Government efforts to counter antisemitism, Islamophobia, and related forms of bias and discrimination within the United States.”

The White House has engaged a diversity of stakeholders on this — a thousand different stakeholders played a role, as Biden said recently. Activists told me about listening sessions with progressive Jewish groups, academics, students, and Muslim groups. It hasn’t just relied on the establishment Jewish American organizations, who have long held a monopoly on this discourse and rhetoric.

But the White House strategy seems to acknowledge that the IHRA definition has been politicized. “As we confront antisemitism, we do so with profound respect for our democratic traditions, including free expression and speech protected by the First Amendment,” it reads.

In navigating pressure from establishment groups and progressive organizations, Biden’s team took a more inclusive approach. “The White House knew that they would anger the majority of American Jews who are progressive, and other communities, namely Muslim and Arab, who would be directly targeted by the administration adopting a speech code like this,” says Simone Zimmerman, the communications director of the Diaspora Alliance.

This view meshes with Kenneth Stern, an author of the IHRA definition, who wrote in the Guardian that it shouldn’t be enshrined into law or used to regulate speech. “The reason why I think it’s so contentious is that there’s a debate inside the Jewish community of what it means to our identity in terms of our relationship with Israel,” Stern said on a podcast in 2021. “I don’t know how that gets settled, but we’re fighting this out as a proxy battle about demanding that people have Israel as part of their identity.”

By not prioritizing any one definition in this debate, the White House is instead putting the focus on the pillars of the strategy: increasing awareness, improving security of Jewish communities, pushing back against antisemitism, and building new coalitions against hate. “It matters. It’s the most ambitious, comprehensive effort in our history to combat antisemitism in America,” Biden said earlier this month.

How the White House can address right-wing antisemitism

A recent Elon Musk tweet highlighted one of the key issues the task force should confront: right-wing antisemitism.

On May 15, the Twitter owner posted that “Soros reminds me of Magneto.” George Soros — who is Jewish and a billionaire financier known for backing progressive organizations and political campaigns — has long been a boogeyman of far-right conspiracy theorists. Musk compared him to the X-Man supervillain, Magneto, who is Jewish, and Musk followed up by saying, “Soros hates humanity.”

It was perhaps the world’s loudest dog whistle.

Antisemitism is a unique form of hatred but it’s also connected to the spike in white nationalist views in this country. Former President Donald Trump has dined with a prominent white supremacist and has long used antisemitic stereotypes. “I think that the amount of hate he unleashed,” says former State Department envoy for countering antisemitism Hannah Rosenthal, “set the tone for this country.”

When Rosenthal was Obama’s envoy to combat antisemitism in the State Department, she would hold trainings for foreign service officers on what antisemitism is.

She recalled being asked: If someone says the Palestinians have a right to a country, is that antisemitic? If people are having a protest about Israeli policy in front of a synagogue, is that antisemitism? “I’d say, I’m not gonna give you glib answers. Let’s talk about that. Sometimes, it’s nuanced. Sometimes, it’s very clear,” she told me. “What happened in Pittsburgh was antisemitic.”

In 2018, a gunman killed seven people worshiping at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. When Trump came to visit after the fact, the synagogue’s Rabbi Jeffrey Myers offered strong words. “I said to him, ‘Mr. President, hate speech leads to hateful actions. Hate speech leads to what happened in my sanctuary, where seven of my congregants were slaughtered. I witnessed it with my eyes,’” he later told CNN.

Many experts see the uptick in antisemitic attacks largely stemming from the normalization of bigotry, which former President Donald Trump and his supporters have enabled. Yet right-wing influential voices have downplayed this dynamic. The author Bari Weiss, for example, in her 2019 book How to Fight Anti-Semitism, underplayed Trump’s bigoted rants. She devoted much of the book, however, to what she views as left-wing antisemitism, which is often just criticism of Israel.

Some advocates and organizers told me that the retrenched antisemitism is rooted in white nationalism. So it doesn’t make sense to cordon off this form of bigotry from others. In this sense, it’s noteworthy that this was all launched as a task force on “related forms of bias and discrimination,” but started with a process on antisemitism.

From Rosenthal’s perspective, coalition-building is important, but this also requires a stand-alone effort. “Unless someone is tasked with looking at antisemitism, it won’t be looked at,” she told me.

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