On Friday, October 26, 2018, residents of Pittsburgh went to sleep not knowing that the deadliest antisemitic in US history would occur, in our city, the next morning. It was parents’ weekend at the University of Pittsburgh where I go to school, so my friends and I were excited about bringing our parents to tailgate and go to the football game the next day. Instead, I woke up Saturday morning to a flood of notifications on my phone about a shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue, less than two miles away. My dorm was next door to the emergency department at UPMC Presbyterian Hospital. I sat in the ground floor lounge, unable to leave the building, watching ambulances, police officers, and news vans going by. The shooter was a right-wing extremist who believed that “all Jews must die,” something he shouted as he murdered eleven innocent people at Shabbat services.
This terrorist attack sparked conversations amongst students about antisemitism and gun violence. However, many Jewish students felt these discussions did not focus enough on the pervasive antisemitism that exists globally, especially on college campuses. For example, I heard many of my peers using the Tree of Life attack as an example of why we need stricter gun control laws. While I agree that gun control is a serious issue in the United States, the fact that many of these conversations ignored antisemitism was frightening.
One student told me that during a discussion in one of their classes, someone said Jews were responsible for the Tree of Life attack. Why? Because of Jewish political power and Jews electing Trump in 2016, along with other candidates who were supported by the NRA. Scapegoating Jewish Americans in this way is not only wrong; it’s antisemitic. Doing it to blame Jews for the deadliest antisemitic attack in American history is even worse.
The massacre also led to conversations between students about antisemitism, Israel, and the conflict. While this dialogue was healthy at times, it also exposed more ignorance. I had a conversation with a friend who is a practicing Muslim and first-generation American, his parents emigrated to the United States from Egypt. He told me in our conversation that he was pro-Palestine. I asked him if he believed that Israel had a right to exist and self-determination, which he did. I explained that I am pro-Israel. I believe that Israel should exist and that Jewish people have the right to self-determination too. I also believe in Palestinian rights and the Oslo Accords which gives Palestinians autonomy in the territories. In a conversation with another friend, they asked me why Jews needed Israel.
I came to realize that, although there are many Jews on my campus, a large portion of students have never met a Jewish person before going away to college. Even more students, whether they know Jewish people or not, understand very little about antisemitism. Furthermore, colleges and universities often fail to recognize and call out antisemitic rhetoric. That is why I believe a comprehensive definition of antisemitism is a crucial educational resource and tool to fight this hatred on and off-campus.
The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of Antisemitism was created and adopted by Jewish communities around the world for that exact purpose. Over thirty countries, including the United States, have endorsed the IHRA definition: “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”.
This definition is followed by examples of rhetoric that may be antisemitic, depending on the context. Those examples include, “the myth about a world Jewish conspiracy or of Jews controlling the media, economy, government or other societal institutions” — the classic antisemitism my friend experienced in class. They also include guidance about when criticism of Israel may cross the line into antisemitism. Recently, this recognition that statements about Israel can sometimes be antisemitic has become a source of controversy.
In an article published in The Times of Israel on February 11, 2021, Moriah Richman criticizes the, “misuse of this definition on our campuses intended to silence criticism of Israel’s government”. Richman articulates valid concerns about the suppression of speech on campuses. As the president of Pitt’s pro-Israel club, Panthers for Israel, a StandWithUs Emerson Fellow, and a critic of the Israeli government, I strongly oppose attempts to limit free speech. At the same time, I strongly support the IHRA Definition, which explicitly states that criticism of Israeli policy is not antisemitic.
IHRA identifies accusing Jews of dual loyalty, blaming Jews for the actions of the Israeli government, comparing Israel to Nazi Germany, and calling Israel’s existence a racist endeavor as examples of common antisemitic rhetoric. In a study conducted by Brandeis University in 2016, they found that the most antisemitic college campuses were those that were most hostile towards Israel. Although some campuses have more “traditional” antisemitism (i.e., antisemitic stereotypes, blood libel tropes, etc.), the strongest predictor of antisemitism was the presence of an active SJP (Students for Justice in Palestine) chapter.
While I strongly encourage students to have civil and respectful conversations about the conflict, SJP’s goal is not to foster these conversations. Rather, SJP promotes hateful narratives about Jewish people and Israel far too often. Free speech means people generally have a right to promote such hateful narratives. However, leaders and institutions also have a right and responsibility to recognize those narratives as antisemitic.
The IHRA Definition should serve as a guide for universities to identify, educate about, and address all forms of antisemitism that students like me experience today, from the far left to the far right. That is how we can encourage discussions about delicate subjects, such as antisemitism versus legitimate criticism of Israel, in a way that is respectful to all participants involved.
Richman, Moriah “The IHRA Definition of Anti-Semitism Derails Our Fight against It on Campus.” Moriah Richman | The Blogs, Times of Israel, 11 Feb. 2021, blogs.timesofisrael.com/the-ihra-definition-impedes-our-fight-against-campus-anti-semitism/.
Saxe, Leonard, et al. “Hotspots of Antisemitism and Anti-Israel Hostility on US Campuses.” Hotspots of Antisemitism and Anti-Israel Hostility on US Campuses | Publications | Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies | Brandeis University, Brandeis University, Oct. 2016, www.brandeis.edu/cmjs/noteworthy/ssri/hotspots-antisemitism.html.
“Working Definition of Antisemitism.” Edited by International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, IHRA, 2015, www.holocaustremembrance.com/resources/working-definitions-charters/working-definition-antisemitism.