When you enter the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., you are confronted with chilling words, images and displays that evoke the horrors of the Holocaust.
On the third floor of the museum, framed by actual fence posts from Auschwitz, the words of Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel hit you with powerful force: “Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed.”
“Never shall I forget that smoke,” Wiesel said. “Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.”
The cursed disease of antisemitism did not die when Elie Wiesel was freed from the gates of hell. Perhaps there was a period after the Holocaust during which the vilification of the Jewish people was no longer tolerated; during which antisemitism and the persecution of Jews because they are Jews were unacceptable and abhorred.
Sadly, however, antisemitism has continued to adapt. As the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks observed, it is like a “mutating virus.”
Efforts have been made by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), along with agencies and governments around the world, not only to combat antisemitism but to provide a reasoned, contemporary definition of it.
I think it’s fair to conclude that the idea of a definition is broadly accepted, although the nature of such a definition is subject to intense debate, which deeply troubles me.
The IHRA working definition of antisemitism is the most comprehensive and widely endorsed and respected definition in the world. It has been adopted by over 40 countries.
Yet it has been subject to violent criticism for its inclusion of antisemitism directed against Israel. That is, the definition describes certain forms of vilifying Israel as antisemitism.
As a citizen of Israel, I may not like it when criticism of the Jewish state is so strong that it turns my stomach. But when such criticism is legitimate, albeit extreme and debatable, I have to recognize that, in a free and democratic society, I just have to accept it.
The IHRA definition agrees with this. It clearly states, “Manifestations [of antisemitism] 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.”
It pains me, however, that some of the IHRA’s examples of anti-Israel antisemitism are considered controversial by some.
For example: “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination,” “applying double standards by requiring of [Israel] a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation” or even “drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.”
There should be no dispute that such things constitute antisemitism.
As a lawyer who studied and practiced law in Canada, I am proud of Canada’s rule of law, which includes limitations on certain forms of speech. Sometimes, things go so far that they become intolerable and impermissible in any decent society.
Should any country tolerate being compared to the Nazis? Should this blood libel be tolerated only because it’s directed at Israel, the sole Jewish state on the planet? Is it so impossible to accept that the vilification of Israel can reach a point at which it is antisemitic?
Why is it wrong for the IHRA and those who have adopted it to simply recognize that some of the most common manifestations of modern antisemitism are directed against Israel as the “collective Jew.”
If hate is directed at me, why won’t you accept that I find it hateful? I am not stifling your free speech. I am not preventing criticism of Israel. I am not violating your rights or beliefs. I am putting up a stop sign and saying, “You have gone too far.”
I stand by my rights and obligations as a citizen of Israel and a Jew to defend myself, to remember the words of Eli Wiesel, to never forget the little faces of the children who were annihilated. When you curse me, I am the one who gets to define what is and what is not antisemitism.