Progressive Jewish groups oppose codification of IHRA antisemitism definition

Network of left-wing Jewish organizations argues that legal adoption of IHRA definition could stifle free speech and suppress debate on Israel. Foreign Ministry laments opposition to further adoption

A J Street panel meeting (photo credit: FACEBOOK)
A J Street panel meeting
(photo credit: FACEBOOK)
A group of left-wing organizations have publicly opposed the codification into law of the Working Definition of Antisemitism authored by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), saying that doing so would stifle free speech and criticism of Israel.
The Progressive Israel Network which issued the statement include Ameinu, Americans for Peace Now, Habonim Dror North America, Hashomer Hatzair World Movement, Jewish Labor Committee, J Street, New Israel Fund, Partners for Progressive Israel, Reconstructing Judaism and T’ruah.
The organizations said they were committed to fighting antisemitism but that legal adoption of the IHRA definition could suppress the free expression of political opinion, including critiquing “the legitimacy of Israel’s founding” and its laws and government, discussion of which, it said, should not be “banished by anti-democratic laws or penalties.”
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in response that the IHRA definition of antisemitism is an important tool for fighting hatred of Jews around the world, and lamented the opposition of the left-wing Jewish groups to its legal adoption.
The IHRA working definition of antisemitism has been adopted by 28 countries as well as the European Union and the Secretary General of the UN, and the organization itself has 34 member countries.
A version of what would become the IHRA antisemitism definition was originally drafted in 2004 by several antisemitism experts and scholars, including Dina Porat, Yehudah Bauer, and Kenneth Stern, and a version of that definition was adopted by IHRA in 2016 to help combat the renewed rise of antisemitism.
Alongside a central definition of antisemitism, the IHRA document also provides 11 contemporary examples of antisemitism to illustrate its different forms, including “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor,” applying double standards to Israel, and various other forms of prejudice and rhetorical attack on the Jewish state.
The IHRA definition explicitly states, however, that manifestations of antisemitism “might include” targeting of the state of Israel, and that criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country “cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”
The Progressive Israel Network said in its statement on Wednesday that while being “deeply committed to the struggle against antisemitism,” they were concerned that efforts to combat the phenomenon are being “misused and exploited to instead suppress legitimate free speech, criticism of Israeli government actions, and advocacy for Palestinian rights.”
In December 2019, US President Donald Trump issued an executive order that antisemitism in the US should be legally prohibited under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and that executive departments and agencies enforcing these prohibitions “shall consider” the IHRA definition and its examples, although described the document as “non legally binding.”
Legislation against antisemitism utilizing the IHRA definition has been advanced in Tennessee, South Carolina and Maine, and several investigations by the US Department of Education against potentially antisemitic incidents based on the IHRA definition of antisemitism have been initiated since Trump’s executive order.
In November, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a statement saying that “anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism” and that the US was therefore “committed to countering the Global BDS Campaign as a manifestation of anti-Semitism.”
He added that any the State Department would identify organizations participating in the BDS campaign to boycott Israel both in the US and abroad and ensure that they do not receive State Department funds.
The Progressive Israel Network said specifically that “the effort to enshrine in domestic law and institutional policy the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of Antisemitism, with its accompanying “contemporary examples,” risks wrongly equating what may be legitimate activities with antisemitism.”
The Progressive Israel Network said it fears the adoption of the IHRA definition “in law or policy at the state, federal and university level and in corporate governance” could “undermine core freedoms,”
The organizations said that Pompeo’s comments about anti-Zionism and BDS constituted “harmful overreach” primarily aimed at “shielding the present Israeli government and its occupation from all criticism” and “made possible by the use of the [IHRA’s] Working Definition’s ‘contemporary examples’.”
Said the Progressive Israel Network: “We insist that activists, academics and all citizens must have the right to express a wide range of political opinions without fear of being suppressed or smeared by the government.
“This includes critiques of the legitimacy of Israel’s founding or the nature of its laws and system of government, even when we may disagree – sometimes passionately – with those opinions.”
The network’s statement also noted that Stern himself has said that the IHRA definition as a “hate speech code” and in an op-ed for The Guardian in December 2019 called Trump’s executive order “an attack on academic freedom and free speech.”
The Foreign Ministry said it regretted the opposition of these organizations to further adoption of the IHRA antisemitism definition.
“It’s unfortunate to see these Jewish organizations opposing the adoption of the definition throughout the world,” the Foreign Ministry spokesman said, arguing that they are providing support for “antisemitic movements that are fighting for their right to continue spreading hate speech and racism towards Jews.”
He said that the progressive groups’ statement “is an opening for the legitimization of kinds of antisemitism.”
Mark Weitzman, the chair of IHRA’s Museums and Memorials Working Group and the senior expert member of the US IHRA delegation, rejected the stance taken by the Progressive Israel Network and insisted that the organization’s antisemitism definition was simply an evaluation and measuring tool for identifying antisemitism.
He noted that the definition explicitly says legitimate criticism of Israel is not antisemitic and that the language of the definition deliberately uses conditional language about possible manifestations of antisemitism relating to Israel.
“We always said you have to take into account the overall context of any particular incident,” said Weitzman, who played a central role in IHRA’s adoption of the definition.
“If people are using the definition then they must use the totality of the definition. Taking out parts of it which fit a political agenda is not an honest use of the definition,” he continued,
He also noted that it is only national governments which determine what acts fall under its criminal code, and that many countries have such laws in place.
Weitzman asserted that adopting the definition does not impinge on freedom of expression and simply helps governments identify when an antisemitic hate crime has been committed.
Lahav Harkov contributed to this report.