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Antisemitism rests on intent not motive. It’s clear from the IHRA Definition

The text we wrote avoids psychoanalyzing perpetrators and simply asks whether victims were selected because of their race, religion or other such category
In this Tuesday, March 30, 2021 file photo, members of the Orthodox Jewish community walk past shipping containers in the South Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
In this Tuesday, March 30, 2021 file photo, members of the Orthodox Jewish community walk past shipping containers in the South Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

Many in the Jewish community were appalled by what appeared to be a discounting of antisemitism. An FBI official said that Malik Faisal Akram, who took hostages at the Colleyville synagogue, was “singularly focused on one issue, and it was not specifically related to the Jewish community.” The official presumably meant that Malik Faisal Akram’s motive was to secure the release of Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani woman nicknamed “Lady al-Qaeda,” who was imprisoned nearby.

“Yes, it was a complete and total coincidence that the gunman ended up in a synagogue holding Jews captive,” tweeted Jaime Kirzner-Roberts of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

The FBI, presumably responding to criticism, put out a clarifying statement, calling the hostage-taking a “terrorism-related matter, in which the Jewish community was targeted.”

In the days following this terror attack on a synagogue, evidence of Akram’s likely antisemitic views came to light. Rabbi Cytron-Walker, one of the hostages, said “This was somebody who literally thought that Jews control the world.” Others pointed out that the woman he sought to free had asked that no Jews be allowed on her jury, even asking that potential jurors be subject to DNA tests.

How do we gauge whether a crime is antisemitic?

You may recall other debates about this issue, such as the kidnapping, torture, and murder of Ilan Halimi in France in 2006, by criminals who chose him because they believed all Jews were rich. This was, some pointed out, a positive stereotype. Antisemitism was hatred of Jews. Was this an antisemitic crime or not, people debated.

When the “EUMC working definition of antisemitism,” now called the “IHRA working definition of antisemitism,” was crafted, the language about antisemitic hate crime was precise. It was intended to stop the confusion created by the inevitable psychoanalyzing of perpetrators (some of whom might never be apprehended) when governments and others categorized antisemitic hate crimes. The important thing was to focus on the intent, not motive. In other words, what someone thought about Jews, or why they had those thoughts (questions about motive) weren’t determinative; that someone made a specific decision to target Jews, because they were Jews, was (this is intent).

The US Supreme Court case of Wisconsin v. Mitchell was the model for the language in the working definition. The important question was whether the victim of a hate crime was selected because of their racial, religious, or other such characteristic, not whether the criminal actually hated someone. The point is that when someone or some group is chosen to be a victim of a crime based on who they are, the damage done is to the fabric of society and to other group members who, understandably, have a greater level of fear. Thus if Jewish homes are targeted for burglary because Jews are seen as rich (even by a Jewish burglar), or if burglars – including Black burglars – target homes in Harlem because they think police will be less likely to investigate than if they went after Park Avenue apartments, that’s a hate crime.

The working definition says, simply and clearly, “Criminal acts are antisemitic when the targets of attacks, whether they are people or property – such as buildings, schools, places of worship and cemeteries – are selected because they are, or are perceived to be, Jewish or linked to Jews.”

Intent, not motive, matters.

Oddly, few pointed to this clear language, which would have underscored the likelihood that this was BOTH a terrorist attack, as the FBI said, AND a crime that should be counted as an act of antisemitism.

One opinion piece, in the Dallas Morning News, claimed that “If we can’t define antisemitism, we can’t stop it,” suggesting that the answer was more official adoption of the IHRA definition. But then, remarkably, the author not only didn’t reference the hate crime language in the definition, but stated “Any attack on a synagogue is an expression of antisemitism.” Really? Is every attack on a Black church an example of racism? There have been cases, albeit rare ones, when disgruntled employees have attacked their places of employment – houses of worship. While most attacks on synagogues are likely hate crimes it is the intent, not the nature of the building itself, and not the motive (positive stereotypes about Jews, negative stereotypes about Jews, hatred of Israel, etc.) that tells us this is a hate crime.

The irony is that the push for IHRA has become so much of a symbol that even its promoters don’t pay attention to the clear hate crime language in it at all. Mostly, they focus on the Israel-related examples in the definition to try and stifle pro-Palestinian speech, as reflected in efforts to oppose BDS or the holding of “Israel Apartheid Week” events on college campuses.

The abuse of the definition, its weaponization against much pro-Palestinian speech, has lamentably made it more difficult to use the definition for the limited purposes for which it was created, including giving clarity on how to classify, count, and think about antisemitic hate crimes.

About the Author
Kenneth S. Stern is the director of the Bard Center for the Study of Hate, and the author most recently of The Conflict over The Conflict: The Israel/Palestine Campus Debate. For 25 years, he was the American Jewish Committee's expert on antisemitism, and he was also the lead drafter of the “Working Definition of Antisemitism."
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