Defining antisemitism: A vital step to unite voices against anti-Jewish bigotry

The U.S. government, 40 countries and nearly 1,100 states, counties, city councils and other entities have endorsed or adopted the IHRA definition.

Defining anti-Semitism. Credit: Lobroart/Shutterstock.
Defining anti-Semitism. Credit: Lobroart/Shutterstock.

American Jews, Jewish organizations and the federal government are increasingly concerned with the pervasive spread of antisemitism in the United States, including shootings in Los Angeles this year and the deadly attack at the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue. U.S. President Joe Biden warned of rising “antisemitic bile” during a recent White House event commemorating Jewish American Heritage Month. With anti-Jewish bigotry running rampant both online and offline, the need for a unifying definition of antisemitism is greater than ever to prevent hate-driven actions against Jews.

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA)’s working definition of antisemitism grew out of a long-term effort involving key stakeholders and international experts to agree on a single definition for an act of anti-Jewish hatred because it can only be fought or prevented if it’s clearly defined. As part of that process, in 2010 the U.S. State Department adopted a definition almost identical to the one eventually adopted by the IHRA. The U.S. government, 40 other countries and nearly 1,100 states, counties, city councils and other organizations have endorsed or adopted the IHRA definition—making it the most definitive and authoritative definition of antisemitism. Virginia is the most recent state to adopt the IHRA definition.

The Biden administration unveiled a preview of its new National Antisemitism Strategy after receiving input from more than 1,000 Jewish community leaders across different religious denominations. While IHRA is already used by the federal government, including the U.S. Education and State Departments, and has been praised by Antisemitism Envoy Deborah Lipstadt, it is unclear whether the proposed White House strategy will focus on IHRA as U.S. federal law does, or whether it will also reference another definition. The current administration has historically embraced and championed the IHRA definition while advocating for its adoption around the world. More than 175 American and international Jewish groups have urged the United Nations to endorse the IHRA definition.

The National Antisemitism Strategy comes with 200 recommendations: “100 meaningful actions that government agencies will take to counter antisemitism, as well as over 100 calls to action for Congress, state and local governments, companies, technology platforms, civil society, faith leaders, and others to counter antisemitism,” a White House official stated. This is the first White House in U.S. history to pioneer a plan to counter antisemitism in America.

The inter-agency group tasked with the creation of this National Antisemitism Strategy was announced last December by the White House amid a tidal wave of Jew-hating rhetoric by celebrities, pop stars and high-profile personalities. Never before had the White House hosted a summit for tackling the national epidemic of anti-Jewish hate sweeping the nation. Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff hosted the roundtable discussion between American Jewish leaders and senior administration officials. Speaking of the “epidemic of hate facing our country,” he stressed that “words matter,” and that both political parties must oppose hate and prevent the normalization of attacks against Jews.

Lesser-known events continue to stir great fear in U.S. Jewish communities as bigots become increasingly bold in their targeted attacks on Jews. In this month alone, a Colorado middle school student shouted at a Jewish student: “You should go back to the death chambers,” swastikas were drawn with feces at the University of California, San Diego, and a rock was hurled at an Orthodox Jewish man while he was walking into a synagogue in Queens, N.Y. These attacks range in level of severity and don’t follow a pattern based on location, age or time frame, but they are all defined as acts of antisemitism under the definition set by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA).

Speaking at the recent ADL National Leadership Summit, National Domestic Policy Advisor Susan Rice stated: “Antisemitic incidents, whether online or in person, threaten Jews’ sense of safety. Yet, all of us are worse off when the Jewish community is intimidated, harassed, and attacked for who they are or how they worship. We know all too well that those who peddle antisemitism typically traffic in many forms of hatred.”

Points to consider:

  1. You can’t fight or prevent what you can’t define.

We are better equipped to fight an enemy we can identify. When the definition of what constitutes antisemitism is muddy, complicated or vague, the resources to fight it are harder to recognize and mobilize. You can’t stop hate if you can’t define the beliefs and actions that are considered hateful. Having a unified definition of what antisemitism looks like, we are better able to identify it, condemn it and take effective action against it.

  1. The IHRA definition has bipartisan support.

To prevent situations of antisemitism from becoming open to interpretation through the prism of partisan views, the IHRA definition helps build a united front against hate. Every action that takes place against Jews can be measured against the formula of an accepted standard for what constitutes antisemitism. Jew-hatred should not be weaponized for political gain. There needs to be a unified voice against hate across the political spectrum, as well as a willingness to come to the table in agreement with a banner definition to define what hate is and what actions demonstrate it. This is a basic first step in both preventing and combatting hate on a national level.

  1. Jewish identity must be both protected and celebrated.

Being Jewish is about more than attending Shabbat services or eating latkes on Chanukah. Jewish identity is highly personal and means different things to Jewish people. Jewish identity spans a wide landscape covering religion, culture, ethnicity, tradition, connection to Israel and a shared 4,000-year history as a people. American Jews should not fear wearing a kippah (yarmulke) or a Star of David or be forced to decide whether they should hide their Jewish identity for their own safety. Every expression of Jewish identity and culture should be freely celebrated and protected and it’s not just identity that must be protected—it’s people, too.

  1. Antisemitism is an “everyone problem,” not just a Jewish one.

Antisemitism has left an imprint on virtually every continent—affecting societies, governments and even innocent bystanders to antisemitic events. Antisemitism doesn’t only live in the European rear-view mirror of the Holocaust or in the peripheral vision of American history. It’s in the head-on traffic across the United States and around the world that Jews face daily. Anti-Zionists, white supremacists and Jew-haters from all socio-economic and political fronts are turning up the heat on hate as antisemitism in the United States surges to the level of normalization. The responsibility of governments, elected officials, influencers and everyday citizens to take an active stand against hate is more vitally needed than ever. Throughout history, those who stood silent in the face of hate often found that after the Jews were rounded up, they were next. Antisemitism relies on weaponized conspiracy theories that can be turned against any group, and that can tear societies apart if allowed to fester.

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