President Joe Biden’s heart is in the right place in the fight against antisemitism. He has been forceful in his condemnation of the deep-seated hate that drives antisemitism, he has shown compassion toward its victims and he has made clear his administration’s commitment to structure an “ambitious” and “comprehensive” plan to address antisemitism.
Biden has used all the right words. For example, he has promised that “hate will not win” and referred to the rising tide of antisemitism as “a stain on the soul of America.” He has also delivered on many of his antisemitism-related promises, like increased federal funding to help secure Jewish institutions and the appointment of an ambassador-level special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism.
So why is it that the much-ballyhooed White House national antisemitism strategy is having difficulty defining antisemitism?
The most widely accepted working definition of antisemitism is the one developed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. That definition is simple, straightforward and clear: “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.”
The IHRA definition has been adopted or endorsed by 1,116 global entities, including 42 independent nations, 30 U.S. states, seven Canadian provinces, numerous U.S. cities and counties and a host of national and international organizations. But the Biden administration is facing pressure from some on the left to use a different definition of antisemitism, or none at all, out of fear that the IHRA definition ― which identifies some forms of anti-Zionism as antisemitism ― does not leave sufficient space for critique of Israel and could violate the right of free speech.
Israel is not mentioned in the IHRA definition. But it does figure prominently in the non-binding “illustrations” that accompany the working definition: “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor,” is one example. It points to the fact that anti-Zionism is often used to cloak antisemitism. And that is unquestionably true.
For us, the debate is a distraction. Nothing in the IHRA definition limits or restricts legitimate, civil, non-Jew-baiting criticism of Israel. We have seen that to be the case in vivid color over the past several months. Thus, notwithstanding the uniform adoption of the IHRA definition across the world, there has been no chill in the criticism of the Israeli government and its planned judicial overhaul or other protests against the Netanyahu government. All without a whiff of antisemitism.
Opponents of Israel are free to criticize Israel all they want. They can criticize its leaders. They may criticize its policies. They can criticize its actions. They may even criticize its food and its music. They just can’t do any of that by invoking antisemitic arguments, images, tropes or hate.
If anti-Zionists can’t be critical of Israel without being antisemitic, that’s their problem. But any strategy to fight antisemitism needs a clear definition of exactly what it is fighting. The IHRA working definition is the gold standard. ■