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The working definition of anti-Semitism needs no rewrite

The definition does not curb speech or equate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, it offers guidelines to help understand where speech crosses a line

Since 2005, government and non-profit professionals tasked with combating anti-Semitism have championed the widespread recognition of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of Anti-Semitism. Prior to 2017, the IHRA Working Definition was largely uncontroversial in the United States except among pro-Palestinian activists and a few voices on the extreme left. However, during President Donald Trump’s term in office, the definition became more of a target for criticism. In the last few weeks, two alternative definitions have been proposed that seek to modify or replace IHRA.

Both of these new definition projects — the Nexus Task Force out of the University of Southern California and The Jerusalem Declaration on Anti-Semitism (JDA) — appear to have been motivated by how the Trump administration, as well as far-right organizations and individuals, employed IHRA. On a number of occasions, the Trump administration misrepresented the Working Definition. Jared Kushner, for instance, published an op-ed in the New York Times claiming that the Working Definition makes clear that “anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism.” This is simply not true. Indeed, the document never even uses the word “Zionism.” Secretary of State Pompeo was widely criticized for abusing IHRA by attempting to use it as a justification for designating three human rights organizations that have criticized Israel as anti-Semitic.

However, it is important to recall that the IHRA definition was not a creation of the Trump Administration. The original text of what became the “Working Definition” was drafted back in 2005 for the European Union’s Centre on Racism and Xenophobia. It was designed to respond to an emerging form of anti-Semitism, an anti-Semitism that utilized old anti-Jewish memes but substituted the word “Israel” or “Zionist” for the word “Jew.” (This form of anti-Semitism was notably present at the 2001 Durbin Conference.) Indeed, it was the Obama administration’s State Department that took a leadership role in supporting a modified version — what is now the IHRA definition — in 2010.

Some of today’s critics of the IHRA definition believe that any definition of anti-Semitism should focus on right-wing nationalist anti-Semitism, believing that this is the only consequential form of hatred of Jews. However, such a position misreads the nature of contemporary anti-Semitism. Those who study the problem note that countries can have multiple forms of anti-Semitism that come from different ideological sources, and the predominant form can shift very quickly. The IHRA definition covers examples of anti-Semitism arising out of multiple sources – from the anti-Semitism that emanates from right-wing nationalist movements to that which comes from the extreme left.

Some opponents of IHRA protest that the definition equates criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. Such a claim, however, amounts to a misunderstanding of the document. While the definition lists a number of examples when criticism of Israel may be construed as anti-Semitic in nature, it clearly states that in all cases the context of the activity needs to be carefully considered. The Working Definition was not developed to be a blunt tool to curb criticism of Israel but rather to be a set of guidelines to help understand where speech or actions cross a line and can be construed as anti-Semitic.

Furthermore, IHRA does not endorse the banning of speech, even speech that is critical or hostile to the State of Israel or Zionism. Nor do its main proponents in the United States – such as the major Jewish community organizations – advocate the abridgment of the First Amendment right to free speech, even for anti-Semitic speech.

The JDA describes the IHRA definition as “unclear” and “widely open to different interpretations.” Yet one of the virtues of the Working Definition is that, precisely because it is open to some degree of interpretation (particularly interpretations based on careful consideration of context), it has been able to garner support from Jewish community organizations, governments, as well as a huge range of civil society institutions in Europe and in the United States.

The two new definitions raise issues worthy of consideration. But the guidelines they recommend represent the views of a smaller, mostly academic, constituency. Neither text provides a serious alternative to the IHRA definition, which, among its virtues, is also a succinct 580 words, making it easily digested and utilized as a practical guide by law enforcement and other security officials.

For those who have for years battled the scourge of anti-Semitism, IHRA has proven to be an essential tool. It has already been adopted by nearly thirty countries and hundreds of public and private institutions, such as universities, local governments, and law enforcement agencies, and enjoys a degree of consensus that would be difficult or impossible for another instrument to achieve. There is no doubt that false and reckless charges of anti-Semitism are a hindrance to the battle against anti-Semitism. But rather than campaign for an alternative tool, those involved in the fight should support the continued use of the IHRA Definition according to the manner in which it was originally drafted and adopted.

About the Author
Ira N. Forman served as the State Department’s Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism from 2013-2017. He is a former Executive Director of the National Jewish Democratic Council.
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