The Mishnaic sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai spoke 18 centuries ago about a group of people in a boat. One of the passengers brandished a hand drill and began to drill a hole under his seat. When the others panicked, he asked why they would care if he confined his drilling to the space where he sat. To his fellow passengers, the answer was obvious: He was causing the entire boat to sink.
Last week, the White House released its unprecedented U.S. National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism. There is much to commend in this comprehensive strategy, including measures to bolster the security of Jewish institutions and steps to improve hate-crime monitoring and responses.
The 60-page document speaks to numerous challenges the Jewish community faces, such as online hatred, data collection and education. The administration deserves praise for its concerted effort to address the world’s oldest hatred in a serious, systematic way.
The administration’s affirmation of its earlier embrace of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism is an important addition to the White House document. But the reference to the IHRA definition is unfortunately offset by the Strategy’s warm mention of the Nexus Task Force definition, which punctures a hole in the IHRA standard.
“The Administration welcomes and appreciates the Nexus Document and notes other such efforts,” the strategy says.
The IHRA definition is the most widely accepted standard around the world for what constitutes antisemitism, one that the Biden administration has supported for the past two years. But its effectiveness is blunted by any official approval of one of several alternative definitions whose implications are rather sinister.
Much of today’s antisemitism consists of anti-Zionism in the form of virulent hatred of Israel, as opposed to the routine policy criticism that the IHRA definition explicitly states is not antisemitism. But the Nexus definition not only grants a permission slip to anti-Israel vitriol; it does so with shocking specificity.
One need look no further than its stipulation that “even contentious, strident or harsh criticism of Israel for its policies and actions, including those that led to the creation of Israel, is not per se illegitimate or antisemitic.”
It is well-known how harsh and strident criticism from Israel’s enemies can be, but this sentence gives cover to those who challenge Israel’s right to exist and wish to revive the canard that Zionism is racism.
The assertion that “opposition to Zionism and/or Israel does not necessarily reflect specific anti-Jewish animus” is an absurd affirmation of the rhetorical formula that one can hate the Jewish state and a national movement that forms a core component of Jewish identity without being antisemitic.
The Nexus definition also endorses the use of double standards and obsessive fixations on Israel, as evidenced by the declaration that, “Paying disproportionate attention to Israel and treating Israel differently than other countries is not prima facie proof of antisemitism.” By this obtuse standard, the United Nations’ singular dedication to bashing Israel with metronomic regularity is nothing to worry about.
Slanderous accusations that Israel is an apartheid state or a Nazi-like regime guilty of ethnic cleansing would find new life in light of the White House affirmation of the Nexus definition. Such defamatory language is calculated by Israel’s enemies to consign the world’s only Jewish state to pariah status, thus isolating it from the international community.
What’s worse is that allegations of apartheid tear at America’s national wound of racism and are likely to drive a wedge between Jews, blacks and other minorities.
One of the great lessons of recent years is that hatred of Israel is nothing other than antisemitism in a different guise. The Nexus definition, which legitimizes such hatred, has no place in a national strategy to combat a problem that this myopic definition enables.
The Nexus definition, now referenced in the White House National Strategy, is the hole in the bottom of the boat that Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai spoke of. The IHRA working definition of antisemitism is the vessel that carries our efforts to combat the problem, but the Nexus definition threatens to negate the former’s value as a consensus document and validate the wishes of antisemites by undermining the best tool available for exposing their hatred.