Steve Sheffey
Pro-Israel writer and activist

How Not to Define Antisemitism

Studies show that amateurs and professionals rate older, more expensive wines higher than lower-priced wines yet rate wines differently in blind taste tests. They are not lying when they rate higher-priced wines higher–knowing the price makes it genuinely taste better. The same is true of our political beliefs. We often adjust our position on an issue based on the position of our tribe or who is telling us what to think. So let’s try a blind taste test of four definitions of antisemitism:

  1. Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.
  2. Antisemitism is discrimination, prejudice, hostility or violence against Jews as Jews (or Jewish institutions as Jewish).
  3. Antisemitism consists of anti-Jewish beliefs, attitudes, actions or systemic conditions. It includes negative beliefs and feelings about Jews, hostile behavior directed against Jews (because they are Jews), and conditions that discriminate against Jews and significantly impede their ability to participate as equals in political, religious, cultural, economic, or social life.
  4. Antisemitism is hostility, prejudice, hatred, or violence against Jews as Jews.

Which do you like better? Each definition goes on to offer examples, but the value of the examples depends on the coherence of the definition. Otherwise, the examples are just lists. Made your choice?

Definition one is the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s non-legally binding working definition of antisemitism (the IHRA definition). Definition two is the  Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism (the JDA definition). Definition three is the Nexus Document (the Nexus definition). Definition four is the definition found in T’ruah’s Very Brief Guide to Antisemitism (the T’ruah definition).

The IHRA definition of antisemitism, the oldest of the four, was developed to help European data collectors identify possible instances of antisemitism. Ken Stern, the lead drafter of the definition, explained that

bean counters in different European countries preparing reports on antisemitism didn’t have a common idea of what to count. The goal was to give them concrete examples of what to include or exclude, so levels of antisemitism could be compared across time and borders. There were examples about Israel because there was a correlation, as opposed to causation, about certain types of speech about Israel and attacks on Jews. The purpose was to take a temperature, not to create a blunt instrument to label anyone an antisemite.

That’s why, by its own terms, it is legally non-binding–it was never intended to be enshrined in law. That’s why it’s a working definition–it was never intended to be the final word on what is and is not antisemitic. The definition is followed by 11 examples, all of which, according to the IHRA definition, could be antisemitic “taking into account the overall context.” But it contains no examples illustrating how something could be antisemitic in one context but not another. 

The IHRA definition is, as David Schraub wrote, “vague to the point of incoherency, and riddled with so much imprecision and hedging that it could justify labeling anything or nothing anti-Semitic.” According to the IHRA definition, everything depends on context, which means that anyone who can’t identify antisemitism without the IHRA definition will not be able to identify antisemitism with the definition. It cannot stand on its own.

Neve Gordon and Mark Levine point out that under the IHRA definition, Albert Einstein, Hannah Arendt, and Yeshayahu Leibowitz could be considered antisemitic. Nevertheless, for the reasons they outline, this definition appeals to Jewish institutions with certain agendas. Victims of antisemitism object to the IHRA definition because it is vague and inadequate.

The Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, the Progressive Israel Network, Americans for Peace Now, and Ken Stern–the lead drafter of the IHRA definition–oppose government use of the IHRA definition of antisemitism. The American Jewish Congress, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), the National Council of Jewish Women, the Rabbinical Assembly, the Union for Reform Judaism, and the World Jewish Congress have warned that using the IHRA definition to trigger federal or state anti-discrimination laws “could be abused to punish Constitutionally protected, if objectionable, speech.”

For years, the IHRA definition was the only game in town. It wasn’t the gold standard. It was the only standard. That’s part of the reason it gained momentum and why some people support it despite its flaws: because, like Mt. Everest, it is there. The IHRA definition is the VHS or Word of antisemitism definitions. VHS won over Beta, and Word won over Wordperfect, not because VHS and Word were better, but because they gained critical mass early.

Now we have more sophisticated tools designed to help us identify antisemitism, such as the Nexus definition, and we should use them. Jonathan Jacoby, who directs the Nexus group, said that “the big mistake people are making about IHRA is that it’s the final word and there are many words and perspectives. You can think of IHRA as the Mishnah and [the Nexus definition] as the Gemora.”

Indeed, on May 27, 2021, members of Congress wrote to Secretary of State Antony Blinken that “while the IHRA definition can be informative, in order to most effectively combat antisemitism, we should use all of the best tools at our disposal,” citing the Nexus definition and the JDA definition, to which I would add the T’ruah definition and the Nexus one-pager, neither of which existed when these members of Congress wrote their letter. The IHRA definition should not be used for guidance unless these other tools are used.

At its February 2023 Midyear Meeting, the American Bar Association rejected inclusion of the IHRA definition in its resolution opposing antisemitism, in part based on opposition from the ACLU, which noted that “any embrace of the IHRA definition by the ABA would undermine fundamental rights of free speech, freedom of assembly and protest, and academic freedom.” It’s bad policy and bad politics for the Jewish and pro-Israel communities to be on opposite sides of the free-speech communities. 

In his statement opposing ABA adoption of the IHRA definition, Ken Stern, the lead drafter of the IHRA definition, referred to claims that IHRA definition is needed to identify antisemitism as “hyperbole and frankly nonsense…in the last weeks, I don’t recall anyone saying you needed to run Kanye’s statements through IHRA to understand it was antisemitic.”

We must oppose antisemitism in all forms from all sources, and that means understanding what antisemitism is. But the IHRA definition is focused mainly on defining criticism of Israel as antisemitism, not on the real antisemitism too many Jews face in the United States. Seven of the 11 IHRA definition examples are about Israel, but those guards at our synagogues are not there to protect us from people holding Israel to double standards or accusing Israel of racism (nor is it antisemitic to do so).

Rather, those guards are there to protect us from the right-wing extremists shooting up our synagogues; 61% of Jewish voters are more concerned about antisemitism originating from right-wing groups and individuals compared to 24% who are more concerned about antisemitism coming from left-wing groups and individuals. Our goal should be to protect the Jewish community from real antisemitism, not to shield the government of Israel from criticism we might find offensive or inaccurate. The IHRA examples not related to Israel do not contain any precise examples of antisemitic rhetoric.

One does not have to agree with every position taken by Americans for Peace Now and the other co-signers of the ACLU letter to understand that acknowledging the free speech rights of those with whom we disagree does not mean we agree with them. It means that as minorities who know what it means to be oppressed, we understand that the tables can turn at any time and that we are safer under a government that values free speech.

The Department of Education indicated that it is delaying issuing a proposed rule that would include the IHRA definition of antisemitism for a year. Its January 2023 Fact Sheet on protecting students from discrimination, including antisemitism, therefore omits the IHRA definition despite pressure for its inclusion. The fact sheet works without the IHRA definition because current law protects students from antisemitism. Delaying inclusion of the IHRA definition for a year is better than including it now but delaying forever would be better.

Meanwhile, a bill is moving through Georgia, HB 30, that would codify the IHRA definition as the statutory definition of antisemitism. We need to fight antisemitism. But codification of the IHRA definition would at best do nothing and at worst would distract from that fight.

Supporters of the IHRA definition have yet to provide any evidence that antisemitic speech or violence declined anywhere in the U.S. following the adoption of the IHRA definition in any jurisdiction.

If you live in Georgia–or any state where well-intentioned but misguided legislators attempt to codify the IHRA definition as the sole guide to defining antisemitism–let your legislators and your community know where you stand. We must oppose antisemitism in all forms and from all sources; adopting vague and inadequate definitions that could lead to suppression of legitimate (albeit disagreeable) speech that is not antisemitic is counterproductive. If it is necessary to define antisemitism, we have better definitions than the IHRA definition that we can use in addition to or instead of the IHRA definition.

If you like what you’ve just read, you’ll love my free weekly Sunday morning newsletter on pro-Israel politics. You can read about it here and sign up for it here.

About the Author
Steve Sheffey is active in the national Jewish and pro-Israel political communities. His weekly Pro-Israel Political Update is read by thousands of subscribers across the country and around the world. The views he expresses on this blog are solely his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organizations he is or has been associated with.
Related Topics
Related Posts