(March 19, 2021 / JNS) There is a curious sentence that appears in the definition of anti-Semitism currently being tested by a group of progressive Jewish Americans. It reads as follows: “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.”
The definition of anti-Semitism in which this sentence appears is intended an alternative to the one formally adopted in 2016 by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). That text now provides a recognized framework for the hundreds of governments, local authorities, universities and other public institutions that have endorsed the IHRA definition to ascertain whether a particular action or expression is anti-Semitic. In many anti-Semitic incidents—as is documented annually in the statistical reports of Jewish organizations around the world—the offending party will invoke Israel or Zionism as a reason for attacking a Jewish target. It is therefore critical, especially for law enforcement and judicial officials dealing with hate crimes, to have a clear understanding of how hatred of the Jewish state can feed attacks on the Jewish communities who live outside its borders.
However, as the wording of the sentence that I quoted above suggests, the goal of this alternative definition isn’t to enhance our capabilities in this regard. In the guise of concern about the “longest hatred,” the mission here is to absolve those who express this hatred through attacks on Israel of the label “anti-Semite.”
Unhelpfully, the alternative definition under discussion here doesn’t provide any examples of what “contentious, strident, or harsh criticism of Israel” might look or sound like. If I turn up to an anti-Israel demonstration brandishing a placard of an Israeli flag with its Star of David replaced by a swastika, am I merely being “strident,” or have I crossed the line into openly taunting Jews by comparing them to the Nazis? If I wear a T-shirt that says “Camp Auschwitz,” I will uncomplicatedly be called an anti-Semite, but what if I wear one that says “Overthrow Zionism”? If I publish an article in which I argue something like “Israel’s defenders always invoke the Holocaust to defend Zionist oppression of the Palestinians, conveniently overlooking the common roots that this brutal form of colonialism shares with Nazism,” am I speaking truth to power, or am I refashioning the medieval blood libel for a modern audience?
On all these points, the alternative definition is incapable of providing answers that are, well, definitive. One can imagine furrowed eyebrows and murmurs among its authors that such anti-Israel expressions might be “inappropriate,” but even more, one can envision the generous application of words like “strident” to subtly excuse those phrases and slogans about Israel that most Jews and many non-Jews would agree were anti-Semitic.
There are other ways in which this alternative definition—produced by a group calling themselves the “Nexus Task Force on Israel and Antisemitism”—offers escape routes to those whose opposition to Israel’s existence is cast as anti-Semitic by others. “[S]omeone’s personal or national experience may have been adversely affected by the creation of the State of Israel,” the definition advises, in arguing why anti-Semitism cannot be the default explanation for “harsh” words or actions concerning Zionism. Again, this begs far more questions than it answers.
To begin with, the wording here is ridiculously vague. Are we talking about individuals whose lives were directly and immediately impacted by Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, or does “personal or national experience” cover subsequent generations, no matter how far removed they are, or where they were born? If I tell a Jewish student on campus that I rejoice when Israelis are killed in terror attacks because part of my family is descended from Palestinians who fled in 1947-48, does that give me a pass when I am accused of anti-Semitism? If it was the other way around—for example, if a Generation Z Jewish student with a family link to the 800,000 Jews expelled from the Arab world was to unleash a stream of generalized anti-Muslim invective at a campus meeting—such an outburst would correctly be deemed as racist, so why the double-standard?
Then there’s this: “Paying disproportionate attention to Israel and treating Israel differently than other countries is not prima facie proof of antisemitism.” In a theoretical sense, that’s perhaps true, but if heeding that observation is always your point of departure when it comes to the real world, then you are unlikely to judge anything that smacks of disproportionality as anti-Semitic. Is the U.N. Human Rights Council anti-Semitic for having a permanent agenda item that is dedicated to Israel’s alleged crimes and no other U.N. member state, or is that disproportionate focus warranted by the reality on the ground? How are we to explain the stance of states like Venezuela and Iran who decry Israel as the world’s worst abuser, yet help protect China from international scrutiny of its genocidal persecution of the Uyghur minority? If I declare that the Zionism of Theodor Herzl is a form of racism, but not the Arab nationalism of Michel Aflaq, can one be certain that anti-Semitism is not part of my reasoning?
I am skeptical that enthusiasts of the alternative, non-IHRA definition of anti-Semitism are particularly worried by these questions. What they have concocted is not a tool for debate, but rather one for disruption. It’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that each time the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism is used to highlight an instance of Israel-centered Jew-hatred, some bright spark will Google the “Nexus” definition to explain why it isn’t anti-Semitic. Should that become a trend, then be assured that the authors of this definition will have performed the most profound disservice to the Jewish people.
Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.
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