Opinion | Silencing Criticism in the Name of Antisemitism Awareness

By | May 02, 2024
Antisemitism Awareness Act

Yesterday’s passage by the House of Representatives of the Antisemitism Awareness Act (AAA) in response to student demonstrations and encampments protesting the war in Gaza is a cynical, or at best naïve move that will only lend a hand to opponents of free speech and undermine democracy in the service of 21st-century authoritarianism—the same kind of authoritarianism that only seven decades ago engaged in the labeling, persecution and mass murder of Jews and other minorities in Europe.

The House would like to make the definition of antisemitism offered by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) the law of the land in the United States. The AAA would codify the executive order issued by then-president Donald Trump in 2019 and declare that antisemitism, as per the IHRA’s definition, is a prohibited form of discrimination on college campuses under Title VI. The IHRA definition has already led to the muzzling of critics of Israeli policy in Europe, most especially, and ironically, in Germany, where antisemitism “czars” have had the temerity to accuse Jewish critics of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza of antisemitism.

This is what the weaponization of antisemitism means—using allegations of antisemitism to practice intolerance and authoritarianism. 

The relevant element of the IHRA definition is that it allows antisemitism to be equated in some cases with anti-Zionism. This is, in fact, what we have been seeing on multiple campuses in the United States, where university presidents, abetted by such organizations as the Anti-Defamation League, have aggressively tried to shut down students’ demonstrations, in part on the grounds of alleged rampant antisemitism. Anyone who has spoken with the students who are demonstrating will have discovered that the vast majority of them have varying degrees of criticism of Israeli oppression of Palestinians, ranging from anger at the killing of tens of thousands of civilians by the IDF in Gaza since October 7, to a sweeping rejection of Zionism and descriptions of Israel as an illegitimate settler colonial state. These students could very well be judged as vehemently antisemitic according to the IHRA definition, no matter their utter rejection of that description. They may be said, according to IHRA, to be “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor,” or “Applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation,” or “targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity.”

In Germany there has been massive silencing of criticism of Israel long before October 7. In the US there has not been until recently, since IHRA is not the law but only one of several definitions offered by the State Department. In Israel literally every pro-Palestinian demonstration on a US campus is described as antisemitic.

There are hundreds of thousands of Jews in the world today who are, in fact, anti-Zionist. Some of them are members of the current Israeli government. Probably unbeknownst to most members of Congress, many ultra-Orthodox Jews reject Zionism as an attempt to preempt the arrival of the Messiah, the only theologically legitimate means of bringing about the redemption of the Jews and the end of the Exile. But it would be absurd, of course, to describe such Jews as antisemitic, not least because they consider themselves as the paradigm of traditional Judaism. They simply reject the political movement that is Zionism. Of course, there are many secular Jews as well who reject Zionism, and certainly abhor its current manifestation under the rule of such ministers as Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, who epitomize a frightening new Jewish supremacy, racism and fascism and aim at ethnically cleansing the West Bank and Gaza. And then there are many Israelis who see themselves as Zionists yet strongly oppose the policies of their government, including its oppression and displacement policies in the occupied territories.

Yet for many years now, consecutive Netanyahu governments have pushed other countries to adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism and to make it the law of the land. The goal of this endeavor is simple—namely, it strives to shut down, indeed criminalize, criticism of clearly indefensible Israeli policies whose ultimate objective is settlement and annexation of the occupied territories and the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian population.

The other effect of Israel’s attempt to ram the IHRA definition down the throats of other governments is a predilection to collaborate with right-wing regimes or parties, which could not care less about antisemitism or which have antisemitic tendencies themselves. It is for this reason that Netanyahu formed close connections with such leaders as Viktor Orbán, Vladimir Putin, Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping and, most relevant to the current moment, has for years leaned on support from the most Trumpist elements of the Republican Party. To be sure, Orbán, Putin and Trump share the authoritarian tendencies of Netanyahu and his supporters. Xi and Modi have developed their own types of ethno-nationalism in line with the ethno-nationalist tendencies of Israel’s increasingly extremist right.

In other words, defining criticism of Israel as antisemitic is the best way to help the current Israeli leadership practice unchallenged extremist, racist policies. But it is also a convenient way to make extremist, bigoted, racist and, yes, also antisemitic American and European leaders look squeaky clean. Describing liberal and tolerant opinion, concern with human rights and equality, and opposition to oppression and displacement as antisemitic legitimizes those who would like to practice precisely those very same policies against their own minorities, opponents and critics. This is what the weaponization of antisemitism means—using allegations of antisemitism to practice intolerance and authoritarianism.

That some American university leaders are currently complicit in this practice is especially troubling. It has exposed the deepening contradiction in American higher education. Universities that present themselves as bastions of liberalism, diversity and pluralism also want to sell themselves to their students as elite institutions that would open the path for them to join the legal, financial and political elites of the country. They offer students extraordinary facilities and charge them, or rather their parents, exorbitant sums for their service—the most important element of which is a door-opening graduation degree from an elite institution. 

But to afford this business model, these universities rely on powerful donors and boards, whose own politics differ markedly from those professed by these very same universities. Everyone in the business knows this, of course, but the topic never really rises to the surface, since everyone in the system is also its beneficiary. Only at a moment of crisis is the veil suddenly lifted. University presidents, who just weeks earlier boasted of their institutions’ diversity and openness, proclaim that their students are trespassing on private property, describe them as employing hateful speech, announce their responsibility to protect their communities, and finally call in the police to impose order and conformity. Forced to choose between the pressures from Congress and donors, and the desire of their students to demonstrate for justice and equality, even if in boisterous fashion, they opt to side with those who have political power and financial clout.

In this practice, university administrations are also helped by the growing confusion in our culture between subjective and objective reality. Some Jewish students, at times, perceive any support for Palestinian rights, and any call to end the occupation, as threatening and therefore, perforce, as antisemitic. But of course, this is merely a reflection of how they perceive reality, not reality itself. Worse still, it means that calls for liberating millions of people suffering under a policy of brutal occupation are perceived as aggressive and biased, while support for the state that exercises such policies is perceived as a defense of Jewish interests and rights. Here too, then, the distorted understanding of antisemitism means that allegations of what is, indeed, a vile sentiment, serve to justify the unjustifiable.

Where do we go from here? As I see it, we must not be afraid to point out the abuse of terminology for political, or even administrative goals, to say nothing of personal power and enrichment. There have always been those who accused others of their own sins and misdemeanors. There were and are antisemites who find shelter by attributing that sentiment to others, just as there were, in the not-so-distant past, antisemites who adopted Zionism as the best means of ridding themselves of their Jewish populations. Let us not shy away from exposing those old, sordid techniques, which have once again come into public discourse, abetted by the cynical and the naïve. The cost of not doing so will be much greater than that of pitching a few tents on the pristine lawns of elite universities. It will be the justification of bigotry, populism and authoritarianism in the name of tolerance. A path to hell paved by pretenses of good intentions.

Omer Bartov is a professor of history and German studies at Brown University and is considered a leading authority on the subject of genocide.

Top Image: Congressman Mike Lawler of New York co-sponsored the Antisemitism Awareness Act in the House of Representatives. Screenshot/C-SPAN.

For more on antisemitism and the IHRA definition:

We Should Not Replace the Working Definition of Anti-Semitism

The Difference Between Hating Jews and Antisemitism

The Semantics of Antisemitism

4 thoughts on “Opinion | Silencing Criticism in the Name of Antisemitism Awareness

  1. Michael Krause says:

    The author is willing to ascribe only the best and most benign motives to the participants in the pro-Palestine (also pro-Hamas) demonstrations, while ascribing only the worst and most vile motives to those who promote the IHRA definition. Does he not know that many who shout “end the occupation” consider ALL of Israel to be occupied territory? Of course, Netanyahu would like to brand all of his opponents as anti-semites; that doesn’t mean that NONE of them are.
    Notice that the demonstrations do not call for Hamas to cease fighting, or for Iran to stop funding them. That is because a)that’s not what the demonstrators want, b) if they did want it, Hamas and Iran wouldn’t care, and c) if they had been in Gaza on Oct 8 and demonstrated against Hamas’s brutal attack, they wouldn’t be suspended from school, they’d be dead.

  2. Davida Brown says:

    Amen to the above opinion by Michael Krause. Mr. Bartov doesn’t live up to his name! Nothing good came forth from his response. “Suffering under brutal occupation?” Really? This describes the so-called elected Hamas terror organization that remains in power indefinitely over Gaza. Mr. Bartov mentions sin and hell in his rhetoric; unfortunately, he failed to look in the mirror to view his own sin in the reflection. Hell is real, and God knows who goes in.

  3. Dennis Newman says:

    Opposition to the IHRA definition is not new. But the recent letter by Concerned Jewish Faculty that garnered 1,000+ signatures suddenly circulated just two days. Why? The House just then passed HR.6090, the Antisemitism Awareness Act of 2023, which would add federal legislative clout to the 2019 Executive Order enabling Title VI to be enforced vis-a-vis educational institutions (i.e., colleges and universities) that allow discrimination against Jews on the basis of national origin. (Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not cover religion per se.) The House vote for HR.6090 was overwhelming and bipartisan, but, yes, it’s true that it’s the GOP that’s seeking to capitalize, particularly electorally, on the anti-Israel/antisemitism explosion at colleges and universities.

    HR.6090 is short and easily read. While, sure, it’s political, neither its “sense of Congress” (e.g., ” it is the policy of the United States to enforce such title against prohibited forms of discrimination rooted in antisemitism as vigorously as against all other forms of discrimination prohibited by such title”), nor its findings (for example, that antisemitism is on the rise in educational settings) should bother anyone, other than antisemites. What, of course, *does* bother the Jewish faculty signatories of the recent letter is the IHRA definition of antisemitism. They believe that it is too impermissive of criticism of Israel. I get them. They’re afraid of weaponization of antisemitism by the right against the left. That’s a real concern. Both the right and the left are now weaponizing everything. But by the same token, I’m also an educated centrist. I’ve read the IHRA definition and compared it to the other leading candidates for the title of Best Definition of Antisemitism. Yes, the IHRA definition is toughest with respect to defining attack upon Israel to be antisemitic, but in view of the history of Israel and particularly of the terrible chapter of that history that began on Oct. 7, I think that toughness is appropriate. The IHRA makes clear that to be antisemitic, a critique must either be a derogatory smear or aver an existential threat. Criticizing policy or actions is perfectly O.K. But the IHRA puts forth a dotted line that needs to be drawn, now more than ever. Let me put it this way: Again, as a centrist, and an educated one at that, I know that only those who are intellectually incurious or dishonest or who are deeply antisemitic do not, for example, know that the River to the Sea meme — its origin, meaning, and application — all represent unambiguously the seeking out of the end of the Jewish state even within the 1948 Armistice borders; such that the River-to-the-Sea call, to the vast majority of Jewish and Israeli students and staff, who hear it is no different from how KKK rallying cries sounded to African-American ears (and the Arabic original from which From-the-River is derived is even worse). The letter’s academic signatories will differ on how they view the From-the-River meme, but they clearly don’t want it to be actionable under Title VI. Their motives? I can’t know that. My best guess is that some believe it to be protected speech, even if hateful; some agree with what they misunderstandingly, wrongly, think is its meaning; some agree with its meaning, i.e., the end of the Jewish state. I am quite sure the signatories would not, if polled, differ on whether KKK rallying cries should be actionable under Title VI (they will almost all say it should), and I am quite sure that the vast majority of signatories are on the political left. I therefore have come to the unfortunate conclusion that most signatories (1) do not realize, or do not put front and center, the vicious antisemitic tsunami sweeping across campuses nationwide; or (2) don’t care about it; or (3) are O.K. with it; or, worst of all (4) think, naively and dangerously so, that only antisemitism from the right comprises a real threat to American Jews, such that separating Jews from the evils, real and/or imagined, of a Netanyahu-helmed Israel, is the best way to combat Jew hatred.

    If this were really mostly about free speech — and not just the threat to it posed by the right (and, again, the House-passed bill had lots of Democratic support, the vote in favor was about 400-90) — these same signatories would have been in the forefront of efforts to stop the stifling of politically-incorrect speech, initiated and led by the left, on campuses and beyond, that’s been destroying open political dialogue for many, many years.

  4. Davida Brown says:

    Maybe we should get rid of our collective catagories of “right” and “left” (and even centrist) altogether! This becomes bogged down in so much political rhetoric, that we forget the time honored truths (rooted in the Bible of course) of good and evil…which are not as ambiguous as so much political jargon. I am not speaking about the nature of the species here; only acts of humanity that all can recognize, regardless of their belief systems. I think : “death to Israel” is pretty clear, as well as “occupiers”, apartheidists, etc. The land squarely belongs to Israel: Biblically, God gave the land to the Jews. Politically, through the UN vote, and humanely, the world recognized the need for a Jewish homeland after the worse case of genocide ever seen in the Holocaust. Who, in their right mind, and with even half a heart, would deny these people the small (and even made smaller) piece of mideastern land? Who, indeed?

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