On July 29, 2014, at the height of a conflict between Hamas terrorists and Israel, while rockets from Gaza were intentionally launched at Israeli civilians, three men of Palestinian descent threw Molotov cocktails at the Bergisch Synagogue in Wuppertal, Germany. The attack occurred at the end of Ramadan as anti-Israel protests flared in Western Europe.
If this inciting incident does not seem eerily familiar, the reader has not been paying enough attention (or their news sources have not deemed the recent surge in antisemitism worthy of coverage).
Over the past few weeks, as Hamas rockets again targeted Israeli civilians and the IDF responded, Jewish communities across the United States reported acts of violence, intimidation, and abuse, both physical and verbal. In Skokie, Illinois, a vandal smashed a synagogue window and left a Palestinian flag at the door. In midtown Manhattan, a roving mob of anti-Israel thugs marched through the heavily Jewish Diamond District, harassing and beating passersby and diners and using fireworks as weapons to cause damage and intimidate Jews. In Brooklyn, men drove around the heavily Jewish neighborhood of Borough Park, harassing and assaulting Jews, and yelling antisemitic slurs and “Free Palestine.” The men also kicked a synagogue’s doors and broke a car mirror. In Los Angeles, Jews eating at a kosher restaurant were beaten, intimidated, and chased by people and cars waving Palestinian flags.
This type of violent reaction toward Jews in response to events in the Middle East used to be limited to Europe. Unfortunately, these events and many more compiled by the Anti-Defamation League demonstrate that the pattern of violent targeting of Jews has crossed the Atlantic.
The most frightening element of the 2014 incident in Germany was not the attack itself, however, but the aftermath. After several years, a German high court ruled that the attack was an expression of anti-Israel protest, and did not qualify as an act of antisemitism. Recently, we have seen the same equivocating in the reporting on this latest spike in antisemitism, while also facing the deafening silence from organizations that usually champion the causes of minorities facing violence.
This structural blind spot to blatant antisemitism in organizations committed to social justice and in media reporting leaves Jews vulnerable. Fortunately, lessons learned after the verdict in Germany are readily applicable in the United States.
Partially in response to Germany’s miscarriage of justice, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, an intergovernmental body made up of 31 nations, came together to jointly adopt the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism. Drawn from earlier work, and crafted with the input of scholars of antisemitism and representatives from around the globe, the definition quickly became the standard for identifying Jew-hatred.
The value of this definition is in its comprehensiveness and circumspection. The drafters synthesized ancient, medieval, and post-Enlightenment forms of antisemitism with “New Antisemitism,” which manifests itself around the existence of the State of Israel while also explicitly noting, “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.” The document lays out 11 crucial examples of what could constitute antisemitism, but cautions that one must “[take] into account the overall context” surrounding words or actions. Recognizing that the Working Definition was written “not … to be a tool for academic researchers, but for those…who would put it to use,” the drafters imbued it with flexibility while also clearly maintaining red lines.
The consensus around this document is enormous, and includes many governments and institutions that are routinely critical of Israel. Just last week, Switzerland became the 36th country to adopt the definition, joining a host of nations worldwide, including Germany, Argentina, Canada, France, and the United Kingdom. International organizations like the European Union, the United Nations, and the Organization of American States endorsed it as well. Since President George W. Bush’s State Department adopted a similar definition in 2005, Republican and Democratic administrations alike have continuously recognized and endorsed it. Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, it has the nearly unanimous support of mainstream Jewish communities and institutions throughout the U.S. and around the world.
In the wake of this latest wave of antisemitic violence across the United States, government, businesses, and civil society must prioritize the adoption and application of the IHRA definition with its helpful and comprehensive examples. Schools and universities should incorporate it into their curricula to help students recognize bias. Social media companies should use it to assess what constitutes hateful speech on their platforms. Law enforcement should apply its guidance to determine whether a hate crime has been committed. The federal government should consult it when considering instances of discrimination against Jews. The European Union already published a Handbook for the Practical Use of the IHRA Working Definition, which provides numerous ways in which the definition could be applied in order to better combat antisemitism.
To be clear, the IHRA definition does not constitute a speech code nor does it set legal penalties for violating its examples. It is simply a tool for defining antisemitism, not a mechanism for prosecuting it. The definition does not label individuals as antisemitic, but rather gives guidance regarding specific acts. Its adoption represents only one step in the fight against antisemitism, but it is crucial to first define it in order to combat it.
After the ADL and the FBI tracked successive years of record highs in antisemitic incidents, and in the wake of the 75% spike over the last several weeks, it is time for America to acknowledge this wave as a serious challenge that ignores party, race, ethnicity, or class. No one group is solely responsible for antisemitism so it is the responsibility of all groups to combat it, and for businesses, universities, and civil society to take antisemitism as seriously as any other form of prejudice and hate.
The American Jewish community is more worried than ever before about the threat of antisemitism. We need reassurance that when Jews are targeted as a group — for any reason — others will stand with us in condemning such pernicious hate. Europe’s adoption of the IHRA definition and its examples provided that assurance years ago. As a similar type of violence has come to our shores, it is America’s turn to do the same.