We Should Not Replace the Working Definition of Anti-Semitism

By | Apr 02, 2021
working definition of anti-Semitism

For more than a decade, government and non-profit professionals tasked with combating anti-Semitism have championed the widespread recognition of a document called the Working Definition of Antisemitism. Just in the last few weeks, however, two alternative definitions have been released.

The first, by the Nexus Task Force out of the University of Southern California/Annenberg Knight Program, aspires to update, but not totally replace, the Working Definition to make it “more relevant.” It runs about 750 words (slightly longer than the Working Definition). It begins with a brief introduction/definition and focuses almost exclusively on the issue of the intersection between anti-Semitism and Israel. It provides nine examples of what types of speech or contact are anti-Semitic and four examples of what types are not.

The second, the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism, claims to “respond” and serve as “an alternative to the Working Definition.” The Declaration is considerably longer than the Working Definition—nearly 3000 words. It consists of a lengthy preamble, a short definition and 15 guidelines divided into general comments on the nature of anti-Semitism, examples of statements on Israel and Palestine that are anti-Semitic and examples of statements on Israel and Palestine that are not anti-Semitic. It criticizes the Working Definition for focusing too much on anti-Semitism associated with criticizing Israel and not on other forms of prejudice, though its own guidelines are largely focused on the same issue. It also states that the Working Definition has weakened the fight against anti-Semitism and implies the Working Definition threatens free speech—though it does not give any concrete examples. It is endorsed by 200 academics.

These two documents raise a number of interesting questions on what should or should not be classified as anti-Semitism. However, they are not realistic substitutes for the original Definition.

In order to better understand why the widely-accepted Working Definition has been, and remains, such an effective tool in combating anti-Semitism, one must examine the growth of anti-Semitism at the beginning of the 21st century. Then, as today, the oldest hatred took on many different forms. The haters associated with more traditional types—particularly extreme-right anti-Semitism—had no problem openly identifying Jews as the embodiment of evil. However, a newer type of anti-Semitism was more subtle. This was a form in which the old anti-Semitic memes were repurposed, replacing the word “Jew” with words like “Zionist” or “Israel.”

The 2001 UN World Conference Against Racism held in Durbin, South Africa, shocked the Jewish world as well as U.S. government officials because of the prevalence of the most vicious anti-Israel and anti-Semitic rhetoric. In the first few years of the new century, there was also a significant increase in anti-Semitic incidents in Western Europe. Most of this increase was carried out by extreme critics of Israel. Despite these developments, there were far too many who refused to recognize any language as anti-Semitic if the word “Jew” was not employed. 

This was the context in which the Working Definition was forged. In 2005, the European Union’s Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) developed the first comprehensive “Working Definition of Antisemitism—along with 11 illustrative examples of different types of anti-Semitism. A slightly modified version of the EUMC definition and its attached examples was adopted by the 31 member states of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) in 2016. It is this IHRA definition that has become the standard for governments and non-government institutions around the world. 

Since the adoption of the IHRA Working Definition, significant progress has been made in combatting this newer form of anti-Semitism. Though the Nexus document and the Jerusalem Declaration critique IHRA, they both accept the premise that there is a type of hostility to Israel that is an expression of anti-Semitic animus. Back in 2005 this acknowledgment was not as widely accepted. As recently as 2014 the fire-bombing of a German synagogue was characterized by German courts as a protest against Israel and not a manifestation of anti-Semitism. Today, given the widespread acceptance of the IHRA definition in Western Europe, such a ruling would be hard to imagine.

There are a number of other reasons why the IHRA definition will remain the recognized mechanism for identifying anti-Semitism. 

Some critics of IHRA complain that it focuses too narrowly on expressions of anti-Israel anti-Semitism of the left and does not pay proper attention to extreme right-wing anti-Semitism. The IHRA Working Definition includes examples related to multiple forms of anti-Semitism. Yet, as previously noted, the problem of defining where anti-Semitism arises is most relevant to the anti-Semitism that is related to hostility towards Israel.

Many of us who have campaigned for the use of the IHRA Definition are astonished by how often opponents misread the IHRA Definition’s text. As an example, the Jerusalem Declaration, in contrasting itself with IHRA, repeatedly emphasizes the critical importance of “context” in evaluating all of its guidelines. This is ironic since the Working Definition clearly states that all 11 of its illustrative examples of possible expressions of anti-Semitism must be evaluated in light of “context.” Furthermore, though the focus of much of the Nexus document as well as the Jerusalem Declaration is on reducing the very real problem of bogus claims of anti-Semitism, IHRA itself states very clearly that criticism of Israel is not inherently anti-Semitic.

Critics also describe the IHRA definition as “unclear” and “widely open to different interpretations.” Yet one of the strengths of the Working Definition is that, because it is open to some degree of interpretation (particularly interpretations based on careful consideration of context), it has been able to garner a wide range of support from Jewish communities and governments as well as a huge range of civil society institutions in Europe and the U.S. 

These two new definitions focus on issues worthy of debate and analysis. But their guidelines represent the views of a smaller constituency. They were largely developed by academics. From a practical perspective, the widespread adoption by dozens of countries, scores of law enforcement organizations and hundreds of governmental, educational and non-profit institutions means we should not relitigate the language of IHRA.

The IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism is here to stay.

2 thoughts on “We Should Not Replace the Working Definition of Anti-Semitism

  1. hag says:

    Listening to all this anti-sem talk… I can’t figure out what it is… anti sem ??? ALL that has been done is CONFUSE the issue..
    and I am old enough to know I would NEVER bee admitted to an ivy school… I went to Brooklyn college… was the company jew in the Army,,, and the company jew in a big corp… even felt sorrier for the company black man
    and you want to know the best part… you DON’T have to like me !

  2. Steve Lieblich says:

    however someone wants to define it, I KNOW it when I see it… NEVER AGAIN

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