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Understanding discrepancies between definitions of anti-Semitism

The best way to assure peace is to make sure that anti-Semitism is identified and denounced. It harms its victims as well as its victimizers.

Defining anti-Semitism. Credit: Lobroart/Shutterstock.
Defining anti-Semitism. Credit: Lobroart/Shutterstock.
Gina Ross
Gina Ross
Gina Ross, MFCT, is the founder and president of the International Trauma-Healing Institute USA and ITI-Israel.

Formally adopted in 2016 by 31 member states after a decade of research and political interchange, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of anti-Semitism addresses the virulent, multi-layered and chameleon-like nature of Jew-hatred.

While this definition of anti-Semitism addresses a dozen examples of anti-Jewish acts, it also points to anti-Zionism as this latest metamorphosis of attacks. While it maintains that denying Jewish self-determination, using double standards regarding Israel and criticism that uses dehumanizing and labeling language are anti-Semitic, it also adds: “However, criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic.”

Is there a valid reason for the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism (JDA) to challenge the IHRA?

Created by academics at educational institutions in the United States and Europe, the competing JDA definition is concerned that the IHRA one could “block criticisms against Israel and limit political speech and action concerning Zionism, Israel and Palestine.”

Both definitions recognize the discrimination, persecution and violence against Jews throughout history and the universal lessons of the Holocaust for bigotry based on racial, ethnic, religious or cultural bias. But they differ fundamentally regarding the role of Israel in Jewish identity and contemporary anti-Semitism. In fact, the JDA voices an ongoing concern that the IHRA definition harms the defense of the Palestinian cause.

The unique characteristic of anti-Semitism is due to its ancient nature and pervasive reach across countries, continents and civilizations. The very definition of “Jewish” indicates the complex nature of the Jews’ participation in society. Jews are at once part of a nation, ethnicity and religion, providing multiple entries for anti-Semitism to expand. Its metamorphosis from country to country and civilization to civilization means that it adapts to the acceptable parameters of its host society.

Thus, for example, when a world horrified by the atrocities of the Holocaust decided to banish Nazi anti-Semitism from polite society, a quick substitute developed—anti-Zionism, the demonization of the Jewish national movement. The irony is that many anti-Semites abhor Zionist nationalism yet exalt the Palestinian national movement, label Israel as apartheid and allows a Palestinian president to declare he wants a “Juden-free” state. Beyond targeting Israel, their abhorrence extends to targeting Jews in the Diaspora for being Jewish even if they do not feel attached to Israel.

The JDA signatories should be alarmed by this double standard. Regarding concern for the Palestinian cause, they can be reassured since IHRA supporters include international organizations such as the European Union Council, Parliament and Commission, as well as the Council of Europe, and international representatives such as U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres and Ahmed Shaheed, the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Religion or Belief. They all clearly take the Palestinian cause to heart in their financial assistance and policies. They may understand that the IHRA speaks a universal language that not only does not harm but can potentially help the Palestinian cause.

They recognize how appalling and alarming it was that Jewish communities in several E.U. countries (and now in the United States as well) are still vulnerable to widespread, irrational anti-Semitic hatred and attacks. Indeed, the IHRA definition was adopted in response to a period of troubling inaction in the face of rising anti-Semitism in Europe that stems from throughouth the Muslim world and contaminates the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The JDA’s fear that the IHRA definition can block criticism against Israeli policies, and limit political speech and action concerning Zionism, is strange considering the onslaught of unrelenting and ferocious demonization and attacks against Israel since its inception. With social media, verbal attacks have spread worldwide and are now manifesting in physical attacks.

Anyone interested in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can adopt a different path. They can support normalization between the Gulf states and Israel, and encourage others to follow suit. These deals can change the enmity dynamic between Jews and Muslims, and Israelis and Palestinians. For decades, the Palestinians were the unwitting pawns of this enmity, but they don’t need to hold on to hatred anymore. If encouraged, these new alliances between Muslims and Jews can positively impact Israeli, Palestinian and Arab-Israeli societies. The widespread acceptance of the non-legally binding IHRA definition by countries (including by Arab states) that support the Palestinian cause can be used to encourage and speed that change.

One of the JDA guidelines states that it is not anti-Semitic to support a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or to oppose Zionism. As Zionism lies at the heart of Israel, the national home of the Jewish people, it would naturally seem anti-Semitic to oppose Israel’s historical right to exist, even if this is not the intention. Opposing Zionism is experienced by many Jews as a significant macro-aggression, not a micro-aggression.

Another JDA’s guideline calls into question whether the BDS movement against Israel is anti-Semitic. The founders of BDS openly declare the intent to eradicate the Jewish state; the movement suppresses the freedom of speech of Jewish students and activists in the Diaspora as well. Yet the promotion of BDS only entrenches “the victim status” of the Palestinians, as if they don’t play any part in the conflict. It takes away from their internal locus of control and destroys efforts of cooperation; it holds them back from building a flourishing, self-reliant and cooperative society; and it exacerbates Israeli mistrust and making co-existence less possible.

Both the IHRA and the JDA definitions recognize the relationship between anti-Semitism and xenophobia, racism, radicalism and violent extremism—“isms” that threaten the well-being of hundreds of millions of people. Both seek tools to erase from the collective unconscious a scourge that has traveled in so many different paths along with history. But the IHRA places a much stronger emphasis on anti-Semitism’s daunting and uncanny ability to metamorphize and metastasize with its most recent attempt to couch its efforts under the guise of human rights and justice.

Anyone focused on helping the Palestinian cause must understand that ongoing threats of Jewish annihilation compromise the well-being and independence of the Palestinians. The best way to assure peace is to make sure that anti-Semitism in every shape is identified and denounced. After all, it harms its victims as well as its victimizers.

Reluctance to address the metamorphosis of anti-Semitism into anti-Zionism and the potential hijacking of the Palestinian cause harms the Palestinians and lessens everybody’s ability to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

A clear definition of anti-Semitism that protects the Jewish people and Israel is essential for supporting a promising future for the Palestinian people. The explosion of anti-Semitism and of enmity between Palestinians and Jews after the recent round of conflict with Hamas in Gaza this spring makes it more urgent than ever to understand that the two are closely related.

Gina Ross, MFCT, is the founder and president of the International Trauma-Healing Institute in the United States (ITI-US) and its Israeli branch (ITI-Israel). A specialist in individual and collective trauma, she authored a series of books “Beyond the Trauma Vortex Into the Healing Vortex.” She focuses her work on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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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