Anti-Semitism must be confronted, but silencing legitimate political criticism goes too far

Anti-Semitism dictionary definition
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By Rabbi Daniel G. Zemel

Special to WJW

I am a passionate Zionist. I was once quoted in these pages saying exactly that, and my passion, I can assure you, has not diminished in the intervening years. My Zionism beats within me always, guiding and informing my relationship with the Jewish state and the Jewish people.

My concern for the future and well-being of both runs deep and I am, unsurprisingly, equally concerned about the rising tide of anti-Semitism in the United States and around the world. The Jewish people’s long history demonstrates with excruciating clarity the danger of underestimating or misunderstanding violent, hate-filled threats against us. Our safety in this moment and the future of our community depends on us getting it right.
The Biden administration’s recent announcement that it “embraces and champions” a working definition of anti-Semitism produced by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), is not, however, getting it right.

The core of the IHRA working definition is a solid and illustrative tool that can be useful as part of a larger, ongoing conversation about the nature of anti-Semitism, but its accompanying “contemporary examples,” many of which involve speech concerning the State of Israel, risk wrongly equating what may be legitimate activities with murderous bigotry.

We saw the potential for abuse and politicization that the IHRA’s definition creates when it was initially adopted by the Trump administration and then used as a mechanism for filing lawsuits against major American universities for alleged anti-Israel discrimination in the classroom and by campus organizations. Such misuse fundamentally undermines the moral clarity so necessary to the work of dismantling anti-Semitism, and works to the detriment of both Jews and the United States itself.

Ultimately, the adoption in law or policy of the IHRA definition, whether by universities, in corporate governance or by state or federal authorities, threatens the liberties promised by American democracy. Neither the Jewish people nor the State of Israel are made safer by the suppression of criticism of Israeli government actions, advocacy for Palestinian rights or any other legitimate free speech. What we need instead is a robust response to the ideologies that have in recent years led to massacres at synagogues, politicians who ascribe to the most virulent and ancient of anti-Jewish tropes and alarming increases in anti-Semitic attacks of all kinds.

I am painfully aware that some self-styled anti-Zionists and Israel critics cross the line into genuine Jew hatred. When they do so, I have been and will remain at the forefront of efforts to decry and denounce their anti-Semitism. Yet the last administration’s use of the IHRA definition as the foundation of its unambiguous declarations that “anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism” and that “the Global BDS Campaign [is] a manifestation of anti-Semitism” represents dangerous overreach, aimed not at protecting the Jewish people but at shielding the current Israeli government and its military occupation of Palestinian lands from any and all criticism.

Activists, academics and everyone living in a democracy must have the right to freely express their political opinions, no matter how much we might disagree, and they must be free to do so without fear of government reprisal. This includes — no matter how unsavory you or I might find it — critique of the legitimacy of Israel’s founding or the nature of its laws and government. Such debates belong in the realm of public discourse and must not be suppressed by policies and legislation that seek to turn our people’s history into a cudgel with which to silence critique.

Furthermore, my Jewish values — the values that animate my rabbinate, my Zionism and every day of my life — require me to advocate for a future of equality, dignity and safety not just for the Jewish people, in Israel or anywhere else, but for all people, including the Palestinians. The notion that the State Department might blacklist non-violent activists and human rights organizations, simply because they document Israeli abuses or oppose the occupation of Palestinian territories, is anathema to those values, as well as to my bedrock understanding of American democracy itself.

For all these reasons, a coalition of progressive Jewish organizations, including the rabbinic human rights organization T’ruah, for which I serve as a board member, has announced its opposition to the Biden administration’s embrace of the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism. The author of the original definition on which the IHRA based its work, Kenneth Stern, has said publicly that he never intended his definition of anti-Semitism to be used as a sweeping hate speech code, and that its use by the Trump administration and right-wing Jewish groups “is an attack on academic freedom and free speech.” We could not agree more.

The American Jewish community should take to heart that President Joe Biden has made clear his intention to fight the alarming rise in anti-Semitism, within our borders and beyond. I call on the new administration and new Congress to step back from the mistakes of their predecessors and reject facile, oversimplified doctrines that can far too easily be abused, committing instead to protecting free speech and legitimate activism, and working to identify and forcefully confront instances of genuine anti-Semitism.

Daniel Zemel serves as senior rabbi at Temple Micah in Washington; is a board member of T’ruah, a rabbinic human rights organization; and serves on the international council of the New Israel Fund.

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  1. The IHRA definition correctly labels those who want to discriminate against Jews in a way that they would never think of treating anyone else—as is true of all anti-Zionists—as anti-Semites.

    That the United States and many other governments have officially adopted it is an encouraging sign that a coalition of decent people of all faiths will stand up against this hate.

  2. Methinks Rabbi Zemel doth protest too much. It is hypocritical to fault the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism as having a “potential for abuse and politicization” when it was specifically formulated to minimize any potential for abuse. Even more so when one considers that the Trump administration’s use of the definition to successfully confront anti Semitic and anti Zionist- based activities (not merely speech) in classrooms and on college campuses nationwide was welcomed by the vast majority of Jewish college students and other Jewish Americans except for the few in Rabbi Zemel’s progressive circle.


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