The anti-Semitism permission slip Israel-haters wanted

Resentment about the widely accepted IHRA definition of Jew-hatred has produced a revision from partisan left-wing Jewish scholars that gives anti-Zionists an unwarranted pass.

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IHRA logo
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

Did the world need a new definition of anti-Semitism? Actually, no. The meaning of the term was fully explained in the document produced by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance in 2005. It laid out in detail not only the way it had operated in the past, but created a working definition that incorporated the way anti-Zionism had become the primary mode of expression for contemporary Jew-hatred.

As such, along with other examples, it included the way Israel was judged by a double standard not applied to any other country on earth. Also mentioned was treating Israel’s creation as a “racist endeavor” as opposed to an expression of the right of Jews to self-determination. Crucially, it also listed the use of analogies to the Nazis to criticize the Jewish state—something intended not only to delegitimize Zionism but to demonize Jews.

This definition has been accepted the world over by dozens of countries, including the United States. It was used to justify former President Donald Trump’s 2019 executive order to combat anti-Semitism on American college campuses. And last month, the administration of President Joe Biden reaffirmed that stand when it vowed to “embrace” the IHRA definition.

But now, a group of Jewish scholars and activists is seeking to challenge the IHRA. The Nexus Task Force, which is affiliated with the Knight Program in Media & Religion at the University of Southern California, has come up with an alternate definition of anti-Semitism.

Prior to the recent publication of its definition, the group pushed a letter to Biden signed by an array of leftist Jewish activists and mainstream liberal Democrats that warned against “turning anti-Semitism into a partisan issue.” The point was easily understood. The focus of its attention was entirely on anti-Semitism from far-right extremists it was determined to link to Trump. But it pointedly ignored left-wing and anti-Zionist anti-Semitism.

Although they deplored politicizing the subject, that’s exactly what they’re doing. The goal of their new definition, which overlaps to a considerable degree with the IHRA document while differing in a few key respects, is to essentially silence criticism of left-wing anti-Semites who use attacks on Israel as an excuse to vent their animus for Jews.

On the left, respect for the rights of Jews and Israel is out of fashion. Intersectional ideology, which falsely portrays the Palestinian war on Israel as linked to the struggle for civil rights in the United States, and critical race theory, which treats the Jews as products of “white privilege,” have both planted a bull’s eye on Jewish targets. The IHRA definition makes things difficult for such people. By promoting an alternative to the IHRA, the Nexus Group acts as a shield for those on the left who are promoting Jew-hatred.

Where does their definition differ from that of the IHRA?

It boils down to a few important points.

Unlike the IHRA, the Nexus definition makes a point of stating something that isn’t under dispute. No serious person asserts that all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic. More than 7 million Israeli Jews get up every day and criticize their government in much the same way that hundreds of millions of Americans do the same thing. That argument is a rhetorical straw man. What’s at stake in this question isn’t whether there should be a debate about Israeli policies; their goal is legitimizing those who assert that there shouldn’t be an Israel.

It is here that the Nexus group dances around the question of whether it’s OK to assert that the Jews should be denied that which no one seeks to deny to anyone else: the right to live in peace, freedom and sovereignty in their ancient homeland.

The Nexus definition asserts that: “It is antisemitic to treat Israel in a negative manner based of a claim that Jews alone should be denied the right to define themselves as a people and to exercise any form of self-determination.” It then goes on to also say that: “It is antisemitic to advocate a political solution that denies Jews the right to define themselves as a people, thereby denying them—because they are Jews—the right to self-determination.”

But in the section where the authors argue what should not be considered anti-Semitic, they contradict their previous points by saying: “Opposition to Zionism and/or Israel does not necessarily reflect specific anti-Jewish animus nor purposefully lead to antisemitic behaviors and conditions.”

Denying Jews the right to self-determination is the essence of “opposition to Zionism.” Zionism is a movement of national liberation established to give Jews the ability to assert their right to statehood and self-determination. If you are an anti-Zionist, what you are saying is that the Jews are not a people with those rights. Anti-Zionists consider Israel an illegitimate nation that deserves to be eliminated.

By way of rationalization, the Nexus Group claims that anti-Zionists may be motivated by an abhorrence for all forms of nationalism or out of a personal grievance against Israel’s creation which might have “adversely affected” them.

But this is disingenuous. Those who oppose all nationalism don’t campaign to deprive the people of any other nation of their rights. There is only one country about which there is an international movement dedicated to its destruction, and it is not a coincidence that it is the only Jewish state on the planet.

While Palestinian Arabs think they were “adversely affected” by Israel’s creation, that’s no excuse for their war against Zionism, whose purpose is to deny the legitimacy of any Jewish state, no matter where its borders might be drawn. Palestinians have used the language of anti-Semitism to justify their refusal to share land with the Jews long before Israel became a state. Their suffering since 1948 is a consequence of a war that was motivated by a desire to deny the Jews their right of self-determination and incited by their leaders using anti-Semitic rhetoric. That is something that continues to the present day in Palestinian schools and media in both the West Bank and Gaza.

Anti-Zionist groups that have taken up this cause do so with the same anti-Semitic language and motives. Yet they essentially get a pass from the Nexus definition.

Just as damning is the Nexus definition’s assertion that judging Israel by a double standard not applied to other nations and the disproportionate attention given to it is not anti-Semitism. While Israel should not be exempt from criticism, the obsession with it is not a matter of happenstance. Anti-Zionists are as obsessed with Israel in the same way that anti-Semites have always been obsessed with Jews. Anti-Zionism is a cover for what in any other context would be rightly labeled hate.

Also conspicuous by its absence in the Nexus definition is a condemnation of the use of Nazi analogies against Israel—something that is not only egregious but an effort to both diminish the importance of the Holocaust and to, by means of transference, justify attacks on Jews and delegitimize them as the true Nazis. Omitting this important aspect of the IHRA definition is a permission slip for anti-Semites to deploy one of their most hurtful and unjust smears of Israel and the Jewish people.

It is one thing for liberals to seek to avert their eyes from anti-Semitism among their “progressive” allies and to see it only when it occurs on the right. That is a consequence of the toxic partisanship that afflicts American society. All forms of anti-Semitism should be opposed, no matter their origin. However, efforts to water down the definition of anti-Semitism in order to sanitize anti-Semitic hate from anti-Zionists on the left are inexcusable. The Nexus group’s “alternative” to the IHRA definition constitutes a new low point for liberals who prize their alliances with the intersectional left and advocates of critical race theory more than they do the safety of Israel and the Jewish people. This disgraceful effort should be rejected by all decent persons, Jew and non-Jew alike.

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

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