Reform’s dangerous mixed message on defining anti-Semitism

The movement is signaling its discomfort with standing up against left-wing anti-Semites and its commitment to prioritizing partisan politics over communal safety.

The erection of an “Apartheid Wall” on the University of Minnesota campus. Source: University of Minnesota Students for Justice in Palestine via Facebook.
The erection of an “Apartheid Wall” on the University of Minnesota campus. Source: University of Minnesota Students for Justice in Palestine via Facebook.
Jonathan S. Tobin. Photo by Tzipora Lifchitz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

After a year when it seemed as if a civil war between conservative and liberal groups would tear it apart, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations managed to unite and take a stand on something important. The Conference announced this week that 51 out of the 53 groups affiliated with the umbrella group have adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Association’s definition of anti-Semitism.

In light of the rising tide of hatred for Jews coming from both the right and the left, this is an important step since the IHRA definition provides a clear framework for decent people of all faiths to label anti-Semitism no matter its source. And given that this definition has also been adopted by dozens of nations, including the government of the United States, the Conference’s move was as appropriate as it was necessary.

But there was one important caveat that takes the shine off of an announcement that was timed to coincide with International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The four groups that represent the Reform movement—the religious denomination with the largest American following—issued a statement that said that it endorsed the IHRA definition as a tool for monitoring anti-Semitism and “raising awareness,” but also added that it opposed codifying it as a matter of law.

This is no minor detail.

If the IHRA definition is just a talking point that has no application to law, it effectively hamstrings the efforts of both advocacy groups and government agencies to stop discrimination and targeting of Jews by anti-Semitic individuals, groups and institutions. Incidents and practices that are defined as anti-Semitism would therefore not be treated as hate speech.

Why would the Union of Reform Judaism, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, Women of Reform Judaism and ARZA, Reform’s Zionist arm, take such a stand?

Their statement claimed that if legal authorities used the IHRA definition, then it would involve restrictions on freedom of speech and wrongly punish those who merely wish to criticize Israel and its policies. That’s ridiculous since no serious person claims that mere criticism of Israel’s government is anti-Semitic, as opposed to actual efforts to delegitimize and destroy it.

Reform’s real reason is not only a disingenuous nod to its left-wing allies on “social justice” issues who also engage in anti-Semitic incitement against Israel. Its refusal to stand by the IHRA definition is about politics, not principle. Following the playbook of other partisan liberal groups, it fears that if the definition is used to punish anti-Semitic activity from left-wingers who hate Israel, it will distract the public from Democratic Party talking points.

Many liberals are determined not merely to call attention to far-right extremists and white supremacists, some of whom took part in the U.S. Capitol riot on Jan. 6, but to label all Republicans or supporters of former President Donald Trump as anti-Semites. Thus anything that reminds the public that BDS activists steeped in the harmful intersectional myths embraced by the left also practice anti-Semitism and do so in a manner that threatens Jewish students must be sidelined or silenced.

At the heart of the battle over the IHRA definition is the way it rightly labels those who demonize Israel, single it out to be judged by double standards applied to no other country and libel it by calling it an “apartheid” state or that its people are modern-day Nazis are, in fact, engaging in anti-Semitism.

Many on the left cling to the falsehood that anti-Zionism can be distinguished from anti-Semitism. But the fact remains that those who would deny rights to the Jews that they do not deny to any other people are engaged in bias against them, which is to say, anti-Semitism.

On college campuses, this involves not merely attempts to promote boycotts of Israeli products, but efforts that seek to shame and silence Jewish students, which sometimes spills over into more overt acts of intimidation and even violence. Institutions that allow such behavior or sanction it—as did New York University when it honored the local chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, the source of much anti-Semitic invective—are guilty of violating the rights of their students. Codifying the IHRA definition was behind the actions of the U.S. Department of Education when it threatened NYU and other universities that similarly endorsed anti-Jewish hate under the false cover of support for human rights.

Many Jews on the left were outraged rather than supportive of the Trump administration’s enforcement of the law against anti-Semites who targeted Jewish students, even stooping to absurd, and politically motivated, arguments claiming that doing so was itself anti-Semitic.

But Reform’s pushback against the IHRA definition is a matter of the movement’s political priorities in 2021.

The Reform statement made a point of claiming that support for Israel doesn’t necessarily mean that someone can’t be anti-Semitic. That’s technically true, though the people who might fall into that category are a tiny subset that is—like the equally minuscule group that support the effort to eliminate the only Jewish state on the planet but somehow claims that they don’t hate Jews—so insignificant as to be meaningless.

But not if you are determined to make the case that the flawed man who was the most pro-Israel president in American history—as are many of his supporters and voters—must also be categorized as anti-Semites because they fall under the category of anybody that liberals really hate must be Hitler. That’s true even if they are supportive of Jews and Jewish rights, and are hated by real anti-Semites on both the left and the far-right.

At this moment, the political left is determined to leverage national outrage over the Capitol riot into a political windfall that will discredit not only Trump but everyone associated with him.

As the attacks on synagogues in Pittsburgh and Poway, Calif., as well as the disturbing images from the mob that assaulted the Capitol building showed, right-wing anti-Semitism is real. But the attempt not merely to hype it but to claim the threat presented by left-wing Israel-haters or African-American extremists must be sidelined in order to focus on the extreme right is about politics, not the fight against anti-Semitism.

This is illustrated by the lack of alarm and slowness to act on the part of Reform when there was a surge of anti-Semitic violence against Chassidic Jews in the Greater New York area in 2019. It was equally on display by the indifference shown by Reform and others on the Jewish left about the presence of anti-Semites at hundreds of the “mostly peaceful” Black Lives Matter protests and riots last summer.

While Reform’s statement paid lip service to the notion that anti-Semitism exists on both the left and the right, its unwillingness to let the government fight Jew-hatred from the left shows that their priority is partisan politics, not the well-being of their fellow Jews. It’s solely because the IHRA definition does target Jew-haters from both the left and right that liberals want to shelve it or—as Reform intends by its stand—to render it meaningless. That’s a disgrace no amount of disingenuous rhetoric can conceal.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin. 

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