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Does defining anti-Semitism squelch free speech or just hate speech?

No racism is acceptable, and no moral person should tolerate anti-Semitism.

Elan Carr, U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, at the U.S. Department of Justice Summit on Combating Anti-Semitism in Washington, D.C., July 15, 2019. Credit: DOJ.
Elan Carr, U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, at the U.S. Department of Justice Summit on Combating Anti-Semitism in Washington, D.C., July 15, 2019. Credit: DOJ.
James Sinkinson
James Sinkinson
James Sinkinson is president of Facts and Logic About the Middle East (FLAME), which publishes educational messages to correct lies and misperceptions about Israel and its relationship to the United States.

In 2016, the 31 member states of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) created a non-legally-binding “working definition” of anti-Semitism. This definition was subsequently adopted or endorsed by several nations and many organizations worldwide, including the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Canada, and the U.S. Department of Education, as the basis for understanding the boundaries of Jew-hatred.

This definition has since become a lightning rod for anti-Semites and anti-Zionists, who have claimed it inherently stifles criticism of the State of Israel and thus, free speech.

These critics ignore the actual language of the definition, which clearly states that criticism of Israel will only be defined as anti-Semitic if it applies “double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.” In other words, if someone is singling out Israel above other nations—using double standards, demonizing and delegitimizing it—then that would meet the criteria of anti-Semitism. Otherwise, it does not.

Firstly, it is absurd to state that any criticism of Israel’s actions constitutes anti-Semitism because Israel is criticized by decision-makers and opinion-shapers around the world every day, not least in Israel itself, where freedom of speech, open and free elections and the right to demonstrate are utilized frequently.

Foreign governments or international institutions regularly release communiqués and statements criticizing Israel for some action or event, and clearly the overwhelming majority are from nations that Israel has full relations with, and so cannot be described as anti-Semitic.

Supporters of Israel must, nonetheless, debunk the strawman argument that Israel and its supporters cry anti-Semitism every time the nation is criticized. This argument is itself intended to devalue the offense of racism against Jews.

In fact, no Israeli representative or pro-Israel supporter has ever claimed that all, or even most, criticism of Israel is not legitimate or welcome as part of rigorous democratic debate regarding the Jewish state.

Yet the problem remains that there has never been clarity about what constitutes anti-Semitism. Unfortunately, its perpetrators would prefer it to remain that way, so their actions are not liable for criminal or civil recourse or social recriminations.

There is obviously a desperate need for an internationally recognized definition of anti-Semitism to combat this scourge.

Anti-Semitism remains the only form of prejudice—really a form of racism because it relates to bigoted prejudice against a certain people—that is more likely to be defined by the perpetrators than the victims.

As a glaring example, bordering on the absurd, the “patriarch of anti-Semitism,” Wilhelm Marr, the 19th-century German publicist who proudly coined the self-identifying term, later said, “One cannot today criticize Jews without being called an anti-Semite.” This demonstrates that even the proudest and most open of Jew-haters recoiled at being defined as an anti-Semite.

In fact, the whole idea that perpetrators define the nature of a racist attack, and not the victims, contradicts societal norms. In 1999, after the killing of a black teenager in the United Kingdom, a subsequent official inquiry defined a racist attack as “any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim.” The Jewish community appears to be the only one not allowed to define prejudice against it. Definitions of racism against other peoples, or Islamophobia, have never received the level or breadth of attacks that the definition of anti-Semitism receives.

Those who seek to defend their anti-Semitic statements disparage the definition by using deflection and distraction in claiming it is impossible to criticize Israel. This has been branded the “Livingstone Formulation,” named after the former London Mayor Ken Livingstone, who constantly made anti-Semitic references and claimed he was merely critiquing Israel’s actions.

Many polls and surveys have demonstrated a direct link between those who hold anti-Semitic beliefs about Jews in general and dislike for Israel. A recent report by the AMCHA Initiative titled, “Understanding Campus Antisemitism in 2019 and Its Lessons for Pandemic and Post-Pandemic US Campuses,” reports a rise in harassment of Jewish students on college campuses is linked to anti-Zionist activism. Where BDS and other anti-Israel activities are the highest are also the places where Jews are more regularly harassed and attacked.

A good way to understand whether criticism or attacks on Israel fall foul of the line that separates genuine debate and anti-Semitism are the “three Ds,” or the “3D test” (delegitimization, demonization and double standards), a set of criteria created in 2004 by former Prisoner of Zion Natan Sharansky.

The previous lack of a unified and vigorous definition meant that anti-Semites could continue to act with immunity and impunity, knowing they would not be prosecuted for their actions. Thus, criticizing the IHRA definition is an important defense for those engaged in Jew-hatred.

Even online, Jews do not receive the same level of protection as other targeted groups. Facebook’s Director of Content Policy Stakeholder Engagement, Peter Stern, recently attested to the usefulness of the IHRA working definition when Facebook first developed its hate speech policy. However, Stern admitted that Facebook does not have a policy aimed at combatting online anti-Semitism. He further admitted that Facebook does not embrace the full adoption of the IHRA definition specifically because it condemns modern manifestations of anti-Semitism relating to Israel.

Others, like The New York Times, have regularly critiqued the IHRA definition on the basis that it stifles debate and stands against freedom of expression—which would ring less hollow if the Times wasn’t itself embroiled in accusations by former editors of “self-censorship” and a “new McCarthyism.”

The good news is that today there is the IHRA definition—a strong, logical and insightful one. Yet this definition must be enforced more widely by institutions, politicians, celebrities and thought leaders.

Today, disparagement of black people as black people is socially and politically unacceptable—as it should be—and violators pay dearly, often by losing their jobs and status. That same standard is not observed when it comes to anti-Semitism. Just look at how Mel Gibson has been “rehabilitated” in Hollywood and how Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan continues to rub shoulders with senior American politicians and celebrities, even after referring to Jews as cockroaches and calling Jews “satanic.” No racism is acceptable, and no moral person should accept anti-Semites.

While fair-minded criticism of Israel is welcome, condemnation of the Jewish state using delegitimization, double standards and demonization is always anti-Semitic. Comparing Israel to Nazi Germany (when there is no affinity), claiming only Israel is a colonial state (among a dozen states ratified by the United Nations in the mid-20th century), falsely accusing Israel of apartheid, asserting that today’s Jews are not related to the ancient Israelites (when DNA, language and culture link them inarguably)—these are not criticisms, they are examples of anti-Semitism, and their perpetrators should be roundly condemned.

James Sinkinson is president of Facts and Logic About the Middle East (FLAME), which publishes educational messages to correct lies and misperceptions about Israel and its relationship to the United States.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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