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Biden’s antisemitism plan adopts the IHRA definition

Quite correctly, the White House distanced itself from all attempts to water down the only consensus definition of antisemitism.

U.S. President Joe Biden during a speech in Washington, D.C., in 2022. Credit: Luca Perra/Shutterstock.
U.S. President Joe Biden during a speech in Washington, D.C., in 2022. Credit: Luca Perra/Shutterstock.
Mark Goldfeder and Arsen Ostrovsky
Arsen Ostrovsky is a human rights attorney and CEO of the International Legal Forum. You can follow him on Twitter at @Ostrov_A. Mark Goldfeder is director of the National Jewish Advocacy Center (@MarkGoldfeder).

Last Thursday, the Biden administration released its long-awaited National Strategy to Combat Antisemitism. The plan is bold, comprehensive and impressive. It contains numerous interesting components and over a hundred specific action steps that government agencies at the federal, state and local levels must to take to counter the rise of anti-Jewish hate and bigotry.

But there is one point that must be immediately highlighted and appreciated because it is the linchpin upon which all the other measures rest: Despite a massive last-minute pressure campaign from far-left extremists, the White House once again reaffirmed that the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA)’s definition of antisemitism is the one definitional tool that the United States has adopted and embraced.

The document states that the “most prominent” definition of antisemitism “is the non-legally binding ‘working definition’ of antisemitism adopted in 2016 by the 31-member states of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), which the United States has embraced.”

The U.S., of course, is one of those 31 states that adopted the definition in 2016. The strategy states, moreover, that the U.S. has not simply adopted but “embraced” it. It has done so repeatedly and over multiple presidential administrations.

While the National Strategy document acknowledges the existence of other unaccepted definitions of antisemitism, in the context of the plan they are only useful to the extent that they highlight why the U.S. has chosen to use the IHRA definition and only the IHRA definition.

For example, the report notes the existence of the Nexus definition, which was put together by left-wing academics and activists at the University of Southern California’s Knight Program in Media & Religion. The Nexus definition assumes that unless there is outright violence involved, anti-Zionism is generally not antisemitism. As Jewish experience as well as study after study have shown, however, that is obviously false.

To be clear: The Biden plan explicitly distances itself from the Nexus definition’s dangerously wrong understanding of antisemitism, and highlights two of the IHRA definition’s simple truths—that targeting Zionists is antisemitic and that there is a difference between legitimate criticism of a country and demonizing and discriminatory hate.

As the strategy explains: “Jewish students and educators are targeted for derision and exclusion on college campuses, often because of their real or perceived views about the State of Israel.When Jews are targeted because of their beliefs or their identity, when Israel is singled out because of anti-Jewish hatred, that is antisemitism. And that is unacceptable” (emphasis added).  

Under the IHRA definition, targeting or discriminating against Jews because they are Zionist is antisemitism. The Biden strategy confirms this. Under the Nexus definition, it is not antisemitism unless you also “attack and/or physically harm a Jew because of his/her relationship to Israel.” The Biden plan clearly rejects this.

The IHRA definition also notes that “criticism” of Israel crosses the line when it uses the classic tools of antisemitism—including demonization, delegitimization and the use of double standards—to talk about the collective “Jew among the nations.” Again, the Biden strategy confirms this, with an explicit acknowledgement that at least some “anti-Zionism” is clearly antisemitism.

In effect, the Biden administration reaffirmed that the U.S. has adopted and embraced one and only one definition of antisemitism, the IHRA definition, even if it somewhat clumsily “welcomed and appreciated” other efforts.

Hopefully, this will put the manufactured “debate” around defining antisemitism to bed once and for all. “Consensus” means a general agreement, not unanimity, and there can no longer be any serious debate about whether the IHRA definition is the consensus definition of antisemitism in the Jewish community and among world leaders.

In the end, after all of the conversation, 10 things remain true about the IHRA definition:

1) The IHRA definition remains the only definition that emerged from a comprehensive 15-year-long review process by a multitude of experts, lawmakers and civil society stakeholders. It was created in response to the rise in antisemitism and sought to define a reality on the ground, as opposed to other “alternative” definitions that emerged in response to the IHRA’s in a sad attempt to water it down.

2) It remains the only definition that has achieved widespread bipartisan support, having been embraced by both Republican and Democratic administrations and lawmakers.

3) It remains the only definition ever adopted by national and international governmental agencies, including over 40 countries and over 30 states, as well as over 1,100 other entities worldwide. It is the only definition the U.S. has embraced and put into practice among its various federal agencies.

4) It remains the only definition with the appropriate carve-outs, caveats and carefully balanced safeguards that take into account the importance of nuance and context in a situation that involves allegations of discriminatory behavior.

5) It remains the only definition whose use by the government has ever been tested and upheld in Court. See Bochra v. United States Dep’t of Educ., No. 21 C 3887, 2022 WL 4182405, at *4 (N.D. Ill. Sept. 12, 2022).

6) It remains the only definition that has an actual demonstrable track record of effectiveness in curbing anti-Jewish hate and bigotry by providing a clear framework to identify and confront antisemitism. It has been used by police officers, prosecutors, judges, educators, state employees and human-rights monitoring bodies, among others.

7) It remains the only definition accepted by the vast majority of the Jewish community across all political divides and religious spectrums, representing all ages and backgrounds.

8) It does so because, as the Biden plan underscored, the IHRA’s remains the only definition that accurately reflects the reality of how anti-Zionism is often used as a veil for antisemitism.

9) IHRA remains the only definition that does not play politics with Jewish safety and fearlessly captures the essence of antisemitism in many of its various forms, regardless of its ideological source.

10) Finally, for all these reasons, the IHRA’s definition remains the gold standard definition of antisemitism, and the only one that lawmakers should turn to when assessing the motivation behind discriminatory conduct.

The focus of the White House strategy was never the question of how to define antisemitism. This is why the “discussion” of the issue is confined to a few short sentences. The reason for this is that the executive branch of the U.S. government, headed by the president, has already adopted and continues to use the IHRA definition. Thus, all of the strategy’s references to enforcement and training—whether at the State, Education or Justice Department—are already based on it.

To be clear, the White House strategy is not perfect. It is vague in places, clumsily worded in others and has a few major missteps. In particular, it lists the antisemitic Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) as an organization committed to fighting antisemitism.

Nonetheless, the strategy is the most comprehensive and multifaceted national plan to counter Jew-hatred to date. It contains many significant and positive elements, such as an annual threat assessment by the FBI and National Counter-terrorism Center on “antisemitic drivers of transnational violent extremism”; additional measures to make it easier to report hate incidents; measures to include antisemitism modules in diversity, equity and inclusion training for federal workers; and an awareness campaign to remind educational institutions of their legal obligation to proactively address incidents of bias.

Of course, the success of all of these measures hinges on the administration’s appropriate definition of what antisemitism includes. By once again openly embracing the IHRA’s definition, the administration has taken a significant first step towards ensuring that their plan will have an actual impact in protecting Jewish people. For that alone, we are thankful.

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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