Jewish organizations see American Bar Association antisemitism definition as a mixed bag

The American Bar Association, a law-school accreditor, voted to pass on the IHRA definition.

Credit: DCStockPhotography/Shutterstock.
Credit: DCStockPhotography/Shutterstock.

The 145-year-old umbrella group that bills itself as “the voice of the legal community” voted at its midyear meeting in New Orleans this week to adopt a new definition of antisemitism. But after the American Bar Association (ABA) membership eschewed the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition, prominent Jewish organizations are only wishing it a tepid mazal tov.

The ABA refuses to allow Jews to define what bigotry against them means, and it capitulates to those trafficking in antisemitism that leads increasingly to discrimination and violence against U.S. Jews, Stacey Burke, a Houston-based lawyer and marketing consultant, told JNS.

“The ABA has shown the Jewish community that we cannot rely on it to care about or protect us,” she said.

The American Jewish Committee stated its appreciation for the ABA condemnation of antisemitism amid “alarming” levels of antisemitism. But it added it is “disappointed the resolution omits the widely-recognized definition of antisemitism from the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, which provides clear guidance on what is antisemitism and what it is not.”

“Some ABA members claimed the IHRA definition inhibits free speech, because it considers all criticism of Israel antisemitic. That is false,” AJC stated. “Even a cursory reading of the definition would disprove that.”

On Twitter, the Anti-Defamation League thanked the ABA “for addressing antisemitism with Resolution 514.” But “including the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism would better reflect how antisemitism manifests today,” it added.

The Jewish Federations of North America tweeted applause for the ABA’s consideration of the resolution condemning antisemitism, but stated it is disappointed the ABA didn’t include the IHRA definition, “a tool we support that outlines modern manifestations of antisemitism.”

Charging a large group–with a dues-paying membership of about 194,000 and a portfolio that includes accrediting law schools–with combating antisemitism in the wrong way, or with insufficient intensity or a poor sense of direction, may seem like inside baseball.

But legal experts say this matters. The 4,000-lawyer strong International Legal Forum stated that the ABA “cowered to anti-Israel extremists” when it rejected the IHRA working definition.

The IHRA definition–which 40 countries, including the U.S., use–refers to antisemitism as “a certain perception of Jews,” which may be expressed as anti-Jewish hatred and which can be directed at non-Jews. It comes with examples and states, “Manifestations might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity. However, criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”

Several of the examples relate to Israel, including accusing Israel of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust, saying Jews are more loyal to Israel than the country where they live, claiming Israel is racist, comparing contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis, and holding Jews responsible collectively for Israel’s actions.

The ABA’s decision to remove the IHRA working definition represents succumbing to pressure from “a major campaign waged by extremist anti-Israel groups,” according to the International Legal Forum.

Without using a recognized definition of antisemitism, the ABA’s efforts are “no more than a symbolic statement of intent,” the legal forum stated. “Moreover, it affords the opportunity for those who seek to masquerade their antisemitism behind a façade of anti-Zionism or vilification of Israel to do so.”

Critics who claim the working IHRA definition silences critics of Israel or advocates for Palestinian rights are “being intentionally and willfully misleading,” according to the International Legal Forum.

“The working definition does no such thing, and on the contrary, makes it explicitly clear that ‘criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic,’” Arsen Ostrovsky, the forum’s CEO, said.

Burke, the Houston attorney and marketing consultant, told JNS that the ABA has an overstated reputation, but its decisions still matter.

“The American Bar Association is first of all a voluntary professional association,” she said, noting that only about 14.4% of lawyers pay to join the association. “However, it claims to be the largest voluntary professional association in the world.”

Most Americans see the ABA name and assume it speaks for all lawyers, she said. “I barely know any lawyers who belong to the ABA.” (ABA membership dropped to 14.4% of lawyers in 2017 from about 50% of lawyers in the 1970s, according to the ABA website.)

The ABA began with a 19-page, well-researched, thoughtful and meaningful resolution, “butchering” it down to just a few pages that are “performative, unhelpful and serving as fodder for those who hate Jews and Israel to show that lawyers don’t agree with the widely accepted and used IHRA definition,” Burke said.

In response to an inquiry, the ABA referred JNS to the resolution itself and the debate surrounding it.

“I do not believe this resolution is all that it could be or should be,” Robert N. Weiner, a Washington, D.C. delegate, said during the discussion. “Last-minute changes weakened it in a manner I think is unwise and unfortunate.”

But fellow members should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good, Weiner said. “We have to condemn antisemitism. The ABA has to condemn it. This resolution does that, and I urge you to support it.”

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