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New definitions of anti-Semitism are dangerous

Anti-Semites should not get a say in defining anti-Semitism, and the IHRA’s excellent definition of this phenomenon should not be changed to make them feel more comfortable.

International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance logo. Source: IHRA.
International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance logo. Source: IHRA.
Mark Goldfeder
Mark Goldfeder

In the last week alone, two different sets of liberal scholars published two separate new definitions of anti-Semitism that they each hope will replace the now standard International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition. Their respective projects, the Nexus Document (ND) and the Jerusalem Declaration on Anti-Semitism (JDA) are both unnecessary and dangerous.

They are unnecessary because, despite the misinformation campaigns that have been waged against the IHRA definition by those who wish to cross its lines, IHRA remains an excellent tool that simply does not do the bad things people claim it does. And yet, echoing the concerns of those the IHRA defines as anti-Semites, the Nexus website claims that the IHRA definition “is vulnerable to abuse.” The JDA takes it a step further, affirmatively declaring that IHRA “is unclear in key respects and widely open to different interpretations.”

Neither group provide any examples of how IHRA is actually unclear, but both are explicitly responding to the claim that IHRA somehow conflates political criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism.

First, IHRA does not conflate political criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. Indeed, it explicitly states that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country” is not anti-Semitism—but that holding Israel to a different standard than the rest of the world just might be.

Second, as to the groups’ point that there could be non-anti-Semitic reasons for singling out Israel—that is true. Which is why the IHRA definition also says that the examples given “could, taking into account the overall context,” be anti-Semitic.

The reason the specific Israel-related examples are provided in the IHRA definition (and are clearly so important) is explicitly not because all forms of criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic, but precisely because there are those who claim that no criticism of Israel can ever cross that line. Unfortunately, that is where you consistently find actual bad actors, who hide vile anti-Semitism behind the thinnest of anti-Zionist veils.

The JDA notes that the number of IHRA’s examples focusing on Israel “puts undue emphasis on one arena,” while the Nexus group is concerned that “important aspects of contemporary anti-Semitism are insufficiently emphasized in IHRA, such as white supremacy and how anti-Semitism grows in a politically polarized environment.” Both concerns are hard to understand.

The IHRA definition does not raise one form of anti-Semitism over any other; all anti-Semitism is bad, wherever and whomever it comes from. The (non-exclusive) list of examples does not include “white supremacy” because no one in polite society thinks white supremacy is acceptable.

The examples the definition provides are meant to serve as a guide to applying it in the kinds of situations that people like those belonging to the groups behind the ND and JDA tend to push back against, whether from ignorance or something more sinister. And while both groups are concerned about the danger of extremists on the “far-right,” they are wrong to think that the worst forms of anti-Semitism have nothing to do with anti-Israel sentiment. For example, just a few years ago in Wuppertal, Germany, a synagogue was firebombed but the culprits avoided jail time because the judge accepted their claim that firebombing a Jewish house of prayer was not anti-Semitic, but just the way that they chose to express their anti-Israel politics.

That is what happens when you do not draw some lines in the sand. Of course, after that episode, Germany embraced the IHRA definition.

Predictably, the IHRA’s loudest critics have already embraced the parts of the new definitions that they see as providing extra cover for their tactics, while simultaneously criticizing them for the exact same reasons that they criticized the IHRA definition. Namely, for “unjustifiably reinforcing attempts to couple anti-Jewish racism with the struggle for Palestinian liberation” and for still trying “to police some speech critical of Israel’s policies and practices.”

For those who wish to hide anti-Semitism behind anti-Zionism, no line will ever be acceptable.

That is why anti-Semites should not get a say in defining anti-Semitism, and that is also why an excellent definition—one that does not assume anyone or any movement is inherently anti-Semitic, but rather distinguishes between problematic and non-problematic behaviors—should not be changed to make them feel more comfortable. There is nothing wrong with an unapologetic demand for equality.

There is a reason why the IHRA definition is used by our federal government, the 31 member countries of IHRA, all 50 countries (except Russia) that comprise the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the European Commission, parliament, and all E.U. member states as well as Serbia, Bahrain and Albania. There is a reason why it has been endorsed by world leaders and adopted by a growing number of universities at home and abroad.

More importantly, there is a reason why hundreds of major Jewish organizations across the world, and across the political and religious spectrums, representing Jewish people of all ages and backgrounds, have all adopted the IHRA definition and urge others to as well. It is because they all agree that it best reflects their shared lived experience and the realities of how anti-Semitism actually manifests today.

The IHRA’s conduct-based, consensus-driven definition of what constitutes anti-Semitism is the only internationally recognized definition that there is, or ever has been. If the JDA and Nexus groups are concerned about its misuse, they should direct their time and energy towards explaining what the definition actually says and making sure that it is applied properly, rather than offering unnecessary adjustments that anti-Semites will use to dangerously undermine a near-universal understanding that is finally raising awareness of the problem’s many manifestations.

Dr. Mark Goldfeder is the director of the National Jewish Advocacy Center.

This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.

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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