Opinion | The Tough Task of Defining Anti-Semitism

The working definition does not chill free speech.
By | Nov 08, 2018

Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.

In recent years, the “Working Definition of Antisemitism” adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA)—an educational nonprofit with 31 member states—has become both a valued tool in the fight against rising anti-Semitism and a bone of contention. In the UK, opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn has spent much of 2018 fighting attempts by his Labor Party to adopt it as policy. But a host of NGOs and government institutions have already done so, finding it a helpful guideline for gathering data about serious and growing problems.

In the U.S., Palestinian rights organizations, some academics, the ACLU and many left-wing activists have opposed the use of the definition, some calling it a ploy to shut down any criticism of Israel. They object not to the core definition quoted above but to the list of examples that are appended to illustrate when speech about Israel may be a manifestation of anti-Semitism. The list includes examples such as “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”; “applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation”; or “using the symbols and images associated with classic anti-Semitism (e.g., claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis.”

Many critics assert that this formulation is designed by Israel supporters to persecute those advocating for Palestinian rights. One critic contended that the State Department’s similarly worded definition is “so broad and vague” that it actually equates criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, threatening free speech.

A little background dispels this argument. The current definition has developed over decades. By the late 20th century, the two predominant forms of anti-Semitism—Christian anti-Semitism and xenophobic racial anti-Semitism—were joined by a new form that peddles similar messages and images but demonizes the nation-state of Israel rather than Jews explicitly. Although experienced observers soon recognized this new form, institutions of government and civil society were often oblivious to it. In one egregious example, when a synagogue in Wuppertal, Germany, was firebombed during the Gaza war in July 2014, a German court ruled that the perpetrators were guilty of criminal arson but not of an anti-Semitic hate crime because their act was a protest against Israel’s actions in Gaza.

This does not mean that all criticism of Israel should be classified as anti-Semitic, nor that this new form predominates everywhere. However, anyone familiar with anti-Semitism knows that it evolves over time. And to fight it, one must identify its forms.

Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet refusenik, offered an early template, the “three Ds”—demonization, delegitimization and treating with a double standard—to distinguish between legitimate criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism. The UN’s World Conference Against Racism in Durban in 2001 provided additional motivation. Ostensibly a gathering to fight discrimination, the Durban conference turned into an anti-Semitic lovefest, so much so that the United States withdrew its delegation. Material circulated there included flyers showing Hitler with the question “What if I had won?” and the answer “There would be NO Israel and NO Palestinian bloodshed.” This was not mere criticism of Israel.

By 2004, U.S. State Department officials were using terminology similar to Sharansky’s to distinguish anti-Semitic rhetoric from other criticism of Israeli policies. Once the European Union’s Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) put together a detailed version in 2005, others followed: IHRA passed nearly identical language in 2016, and at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), 56 of 57 member states (all but Russia) supported it.

Those who insist that the Working Definition conflates anti-Semitism with any criticism of Israel appear not to have read it. The language is carefully structured to make clear that there are many ways to criticize the State of Israel without being anti-Semitic: The preamble states, “The following examples may serve as illustrations,” and it continues, “Contemporary examples of anti-Semitism in public life…could, taking into account the overall context, include…” (Emphasis mine.) It adds, “However, criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic.”

Specific accusations of speech suppression often prove hollow. When I was working at the State Department as a special envoy on anti-Semitism, Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) published a flyer charging the department with using the definition to suppress the speech of Palestinian rights activists. We asked the JVP Washington office to prove the assertion or withdraw the flyer. They withdrew it.

In fact, false charges of anti-Semitism are extremely harmful to the battle against true bigotry. Of course, some will unfairly charge anti-Semitism in an attempt to silence others. But most activists in this field realize that free speech is actually essential to the fight against hatred. There’s a reason we have minimal hate speech prohibitions in the United States yet also the most secure Jewish community in the history of the diaspora: Although you can say the most hateful things about Jews here, when you do you often face verbal blowback or social ostracism. Hate speech has a price. No one likes to be called “racist” or “anti-Semite”—especially if the charge is frivolous. However, being called a name can sometimes help us understand how our original words might have been inappropriate.

To say Israel-related anti-Semitism is a myth is ludicrous; it exists, and the IHRA definition is a real-life response to it by people who work with the issue every day. The definition is not perfect, but it helps identify one of the most common forms of virulent anti-Semitism—without infringing on free speech.

Ira N. Forman is a senior fellow at the Moment Institute.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.