In 1990, First Amendment attorney Richard Godwin proposed what has come to be known as Godwin’s Law. The law essentially posits that comparing someone to Hitler as a way to score points in an argument is glib, lazy and usually ends the discussion. And by overuse, repeated reference to Hitler becomes mere noise.
We are concerned that the same thing can happen with the charge of anti-Semitism. Last week, it was reported that the U.S. State Department is finalizing a report that would declare three nonprofit human rights groups “anti-Semitic,” and would urge other governments not to support them.
The three groups are Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Oxfam. We are not fans of any of them. None of them are funded by the United States. And none of them is particularly friendly to the State of Israel. Yet, unfriendliness to Israel does not equate with anti-Semitism, and that’s where we see a problem.
According to reports, the State Department charge stems from reports from other organizations (including some pro-Israel groups) that the three organizations back the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel. Each group denies the pro-BDS charge.
Both the United States and Israel subscribe to the Working Definition of Antisemitism developed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. That definition is pretty universally viewed as reasonable. Under the Working Definition, it isn’t at all clear that any of the three targeted groups deserves to be labeled “anti-Semitic.” Sure, they are critical of Israel — and particularly its settlement policies — but many organizations share that view, even some that are demonstrably “pro-Israel.” The simple truth is that being critical of Israeli policies, or even hostile toward them, is not the same as being anti-Semitic.
According to the Working Definition, one of the signs of anti-Semitism is the use of a double standard — blaming only Israel for violations, and ignoring the same or similar injustices elsewhere. That cannot be said of Human Rights Watch which, for example, has asserted that “Canada continues to struggle to address longstanding human rights challenges, including wide-ranging abuses against Indigenous peoples, the continued confinement of immigration detainees in jails, and a prison law that does not rule out prolonged solitary confinement.” And HRW is not wholly one sided when it comes to Israel vs. Palestine, saying: “The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza both sharply restrict dissent, arbitrarily arresting critics and torturing those in their custody.”
We agree with the ADL that undifferentiated accusations of anti-Semitism are not helpful and often distract from the real problem. According to the ADL, while all three of the organizations’ approaches to Israel are “often excessive and unfair, to suggest that these groups are somehow constitutionally anti-Jewish is plain wrong. It would be shortsighted and counterproductive for the State Department to blacklist them in this way.”
We urge the State Department to rethink this issue, and to keep the Working Definition — and Godwin’s Law — in mind.