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JCRC Column: Defining Antisemitism

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The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of Anti-Semitism has recently come under fire and just his year two alternative definitions have been released.  The Nexus Document, and the much more widely known Jerusalem Declaration take issue with the IHRA definition for being too vague and too specific all at the same time.

According to the IHRA definition, “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews.”   Those who support the IHRA definition say it is very useful to say clearly that we really are talking about subtle perceptions of Jews that manifest in some kind of hatred of or bias against Jews.  Over the years many have preferred the term “Jew hatred” to Antisemitism since we do have such a hard time explaining what that word actually means.  Especially to non-Jews.  Maybe using the term “perceptions” is the most effective way of explaining the age-old stereotypes that often float in the air of some societies.

But of course, the most contentious part of the IHRA definition revolves around the same issue that is our community’s strongest unifying force and most divisive topic.  Israel.

Those behind the two alternative definitions believe that the examples given of when criticism of Israel crosses the line into Antisemitism go too far.  More importantly, they claim that to adopt these examples as Antisemitism would stifle the freedom to criticize Israel.  The only problem with that assessment is that it is wildly inaccurate.

Meanwhile, those who support the IHRA definition, would have you believe that it equates Antisemitism with Anti-Israelism – full stop. But it does not.  It says that it CAN be the same thing – and that is absolutely true.

Ira Forman

Ira N. Forman, who served as the State Department’s Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism from 2013-2017, recently wrote that the The working definition of anti-Semitism needs no rewrite.  The definition does not curb speech or equate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, it offers guidelines to help understand where speech crosses a line.”  And I would tend to agree with him.

The only speech it would curtail is when it does cross that line into Antisemitism – which is exactly what we want people in classrooms and lecture halls to stay away from.  And as he said quite clearly, the idea that ALL criticism of Israel crosses that line is just not reflected in the examples.

As is often the case, each side in this debate sees what they want to see in the IHRA definition – instead of what is actually there.  It is neither appropriate to weaponize the definition to quash debate or to blame the definition for how others mischaracterize it – and then provide alternative definitions that do not actually hold people accountable for crossing the line into Antisemitism.

ADL’s “Three D’s”

For many years the ADL’s “three D’s” were our touchstone.   Demonization, Double Standards and Delegitimization.

Demonization was often the easiest – both in terms of the horrible blood libel and graphics caricatures that reduced Jews and Israel to demonic, evil, perpetrators of ritual murder.

Double Standards also were fairly straightforward.  During a financial crisis, for example, why should someone be blamed for wrongdoing, just because he or she is Jewish.  And when you see countries all over the world – even the U.S. – struggle with civil rights, minority representation, and border disputes – how can you hold Israel to a standard of perfection that other countries are not held to?

Delegitimization, much like with the IHRA Definition, is where we met the most disagreement.  What does it mean to deny Israel the right to exist as a Jewish state – the homeland of the Jewish people?  Well, do we begrudge other countries the right to have a national identity with ties to their religious underpinnings?  No.  Does that character impede any democratic institutions they maintain?  No more so than in the U.S. where we also struggle with the separation of Church and State.  Is it wrong for a group or another country to call for the elimination of a nation despite political disagreements?  Yes – of course.

Greatest Challenges

Today – both the “three D’s” and the IHRA definition meet the greatest challenges when they address the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) issue.  But as Forman seems to claim, maybe they both actually do a fine job there too.

Are you denying Israel’s right to exist as an imperfect, yet normal country when you call for a boycott of its economy?  Many would say yes and claim rightfully there is simply no parallel with the abuses that justified the South African boycott.  Do you still have a right to question and debate the lack of movement on the Palestinian issue and any Israeli governmental over-steps?  Of course.  Do you also have an obligation to know the Antisemitic ideology behind the international BDS movement when you appear to join with their cause?  Absolutely.

Do we all have an obligation to try and work with those in our own community on the most productive way to have these conversations – despite the emotion it generates?  There can be no question about that.

Moving Forward

If we have any hope of moving forward as a community, we need to see how the “three D’s” and the IHRA Definition can be useful.  Let’s use them as a guide to have our conversation.  Let’s also use them as a way to identify extremes that may push the limits of free speech, hate speech, and Antisemitism – so we can prevent inappropriate harassment AND Antisemitism from within our ranks – and without.

The goal of these tools – after all – is to help us understand when speech may have gone too far – and when we need to really listen to those amongst us who are in pain because they care deeply about this issue – no matter which side of the political spectrum they are coming from.

To reach out to me, email dcohen@jewishrichmond.org.

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