As a Jewish student at Florida State University, I’ve witnessed serious, threatening acts of anti-Semitism that make me feel unsafe on campus.
There was the vendor who sold Nazi flags and paraphernalia on campus just last year; and that time far-right, evangelical Christian Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk, who pushes anti-Semitic dual-loyalty tropes and said that one of the most ironic things he does every year is “go to colleges and tell Jews why they should love Israel,” spoke at an event on my campus entitled “Culture War.”
To be Jewish in America these past four years is to viscerally feel the threat of far-right violence — from Pittsburgh to Poway — as part of the increasing trend of extremist anti-Semitism fueled by the far right.
Now, at this time of heightened anti-Semitic threats — from neo-Nazis storming the Capitol to QAnon supporters in Congress spreading anti-Semitic conspiracy theories — is the moment to create a united front against anti-Semitism. We need to fight acts of hate from a place of unity and solidarity in our communities and with our allies. And that is why codifying a politicized, divisive definition of anti-Semitism into US law would be the wrong move.
The IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, initially created for data collectors to help define and track hate crimes, has legitimate value as a research tool and is widely seen as a useful reference point for important conversations about anti-Semitism. It has also faced a great deal of criticism for including “contemporary examples of anti-Semitism” that are overly broad and treat a broad swathe of legitimate critiques of Israel and Palestinian rights activism as potentially anti-Semitic.
The political right has wasted no time in weaponizing this definition to accuse their political opponents of anti-Semitism, while deflecting charges of anti-Semitism by touting their own support for Israel, just as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (of Jewish space laser fame) has done. As some voices pressure the Biden administration to codify the IHRA definition into US law, students across the US are reminded of the misuse of this definition on our campuses intended to silence criticism of Israel’s government.
The IHRA definition is the same definition that the Trump administration sought to adopt on college campuses through a controversial executive order in 2019. This executive order was followed by an attempt, led by Trump and then-secretary Pompeo, to target prominent human rights organizations for criticizing the Israeli government’s unlawful settlements and indefinite occupation.
Establishment Jewish organizations who have called for the codification of the IHRA may do so in good faith, but it’s vital to understand the twisted political motivations of those on the right and how they intend to misuse the definition and its examples. It has everything to do with protecting their vision of an Israel free from criticism and human rights obligations, and little to do with combatting the very real threat of anti-Semitism. As students, we’ve seen this first-hand on our campuses, and we’re warning our leaders not to make this same mistake.
No less than the lead author of the definition, Kenneth Stern, has warned that right-wingers are weaponizing it not to fight anti-Semitism, but to attack political opponents and legitimate Palestinian peace groups. In an op-ed on the weaponization of the IHRA definition, Stern says that the use of the IHRA definition as a speech code on college campuses “is an attack on academic freedom and free speech, and will harm not only pro-Palestinian advocates, but also Jewish students and faculty, and the academy itself.”
For Jewish students across the USA, the campaign to codify the IHRA and use it to suppress speech on campus comes at a particularly unhelpful moment. In our work to fight anti-Semitism and injustice on campus, our focus is on trying to build bridges with communities across the spectrum of campus life, underscoring our common cause in fighting against anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and systemic racial injustice. If the IHRA definition is codified nationally, we fear that right-wing advocacy groups will do as they have done on our campuses — distract from real anti-Semitism by turning it into a political football, and working to silence all manner of progressive Jewish and Palestinian rights groups to further their political agenda.
The Biden administration should listen to students who experienced first-hand the practical implications of this definition on our campuses and refrain from codifying it into US law. Instead, we encourage the administration to work across racial and religious differences in solidarity and actively engage with the ways in which anti-Semitism is ingrained in white supremacy. Only through a united front against white supremacy and all forms of hate, will we have a chance to eradicate anti-Semitism.