(February 10, 2023 / JNS) In the world of Jewish advocacy, the “working definition” of antisemitism endorsed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) has almost acquired the status of a sacred text. Its observations and recommendations are widely regarded as unarguable, so much so that many pro-Israel activists are satisfied to simply cite the definition’s insights on the relationship between anti-Zionism and antisemitism when they are confronted by BDS activists and the like.
Meanwhile, every outside endorsement of the definition—so far, nearly 40 countries, the United Nations, the Council of Europe, the Organization of American States and numerous civic and voluntary agencies—is eagerly trumpeted as one more sign that the world is finally waking up to the true nature of its oldest hatred.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I regard the extensive international support for the definition as an overwhelmingly positive development. I just think we could do a better job with the definition itself, and that doing so would only make our position stronger.
The latest edition of “Israel Affairs,” an academic journal, includes my extensive paper identifying what are, in my view, the four key expressions of antisemitism in our own time. I break these down into “neo-traditional,” referring to the recycling of medieval falsehoods about Jews during the COVID-19 pandemic, along with other dated tropes about shadowy Jewish financial clout; “anti-Zionist,” referring to the assault on Jewish collective survival implicit in calls for the elimination of the State of Israel; “Holocaust relativization,” referring to the invocation of the extermination of 6 million Jews as an analog for contemporary crises that are mostly frivolous when compared with the Shoah; and “anti-Judaism,” referring to the various efforts to stigmatize and outlaw core Jewish rituals such as male infant circumcision and the slaughter of animals under the laws of shechita.
Taken together, these four forms represent a comprehensive assault on Jews as a self-identifying group, decrying their supposed hegemonic influence on international politics and finance, targeting their national identity and emotional affiliation with the State of Israel, questioning and undermining Jewish collective memory of the Holocaust, and caricaturing Judaism’s religious imperatives as irredeemably inhumane.
My underlying point is that while antisemitic ideology isn’t very imaginative, it compensates for that weakness by being highly adaptive—able to reinvent its obsession with supposed Jewish malignancy in almost any situation and winning supporters accordingly.
Because of that, I argue, we need an internationally accepted definition of antisemitism that is nimble enough to account for these nuances and courageous enough to undergo revision when circumstances demand. Rest assured that the antisemites will adapt, even if we don’t.
To my mind, there are four main ways that the IHRA definition, which suffers from being poorly written and imprecise in key places, could be improved. To begin with, there’s the opening sentence: “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews.” This is far too vague and quite confusing for the uninitiated, particularly when the primary audience is studying the definition for its practical usage. More accurate and efficient would be a declarative formulation, for example: “Antisemitism is the negative, hostile or hateful perception of the Jewish people as a collective, expressed through a range of rhetorical, violent and discriminatory measures targeting Jews, or those perceived to be Jews, as well as their property and their communal institutions.”
Then there’s the proverbial elephant in the room: the complete absence of the word “Zionism” from the definition. This omission undermines the contention that contemporary anti-Zionism is a specific form of antisemitism that shares many of the same fixations over Jewish wealth and influence as do its other forms. It also dilutes the historic centrality of the Zionist movement over the last century as a focus for Jewish identity and as an instrument for the rejuvenation of the Jews in the wake of the Holocaust. Hence, the sentence in the definition that identifies as antisemitic “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g. by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor” might be rewritten to say, “Depicting Zionism, the Jewish national movement, as inherently racist and the State of Israel as an illegitimate entity.”
An additional sentence on anti-Judaism needs to be added, perhaps by acknowledging as antisemitic those efforts to prevent, in my suggested wording, “Jewish communities from observing their most sacred religious practices, such as consuming kosher food and circumcising male infants at the age of eight days, through legislative or other measures.”
Finally, the trend in many countries in eastern and western Europe to appropriate the Jewish victims of the Holocaust—as part of a wider attempt to stress the sufferings of non-Jews under Nazi occupation—should also become part of the definition’s purview. To preserve the historical integrity of the Holocaust, a new clause in the definition might read, “Out of all the victim groups persecuted by the Nazi regime, Jews were held up as the ultimate enemy of humanity, in whose destruction the collusion of non-Jewish populations under Nazi occupation was often encouraged and in many cases received.”
These small but important fixes would make the IHRA definition a much more comprehensive and persuasive text. The counter-argument that the definition is already in its final version, and that amending it would be overly cumbersome, given the number of parties that have already signed up to it, will merely allow the antisemites to stay one step ahead of those whose job it is to combat them.
I’m also acutely aware that the IHRA definition has been attacked by those who resent its identification of antisemitism with anti-Zionism, and I can understand how such a hostile environment might create anxieties about amending the definition among its supporters. Again, though, I don’t find that argument very convincing. If anything, attempts to create an alternative to the definition like the so-called “Jerusalem Declaration” should animate our own intellectual efforts in its defense, to the point that we are willing to make revisions to it when warranted. Otherwise, history will run away from us.
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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