Codifying IHRA’s definition of antisemitism as law is harmful - opinion

The issue came up in the aftermath of the US elections following a decision by former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to define pro-BDS organizations as antisemitic.

US SECRETARY OF State Mike Pompeo in Doha, Qatar (photo credit: PATRICK SEMANSKY/POOL VIA REUTERS)
US SECRETARY OF State Mike Pompeo in Doha, Qatar
Antisemitism is a sick, persistent evil – one that we all must fight against comprehensively and diligently. At the same time, many Jewish voices in the United States and beyond are now raising concerns about a potentially harmful effort to enshrine a specific definition into national laws, in a way that could suppress legitimate free speech and debate, and undermine the broader fight against antisemitism.
The issue came up in the aftermath of the US elections following a decision by former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to define pro-BDS organizations as antisemitic and consider subjecting them to penalties under American law. Their decision is now unlikely to be implemented by the Biden administration, which is strongly opposed to the BDS movement but also rightly wary of violating free speech and of treating all pro-Palestinian activism as automatically antisemitic.  
In addition, there are initiatives to effectively codify or adopt the IHRA’s (International Task Force on the Remembrance of the Holocaust) definition of antisemitism into a law, as suggested by a recent letter to the Biden administration from the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. On the other hand, 10 progressive Jewish organizations cautioned against any governmental codification of this definition, who warned that parts of the definition are overly broad and that it could be used for political ends, doing more harm than good. These concerns were echoed by other groups like the Reform movement (the largest religious movement in American Jewry). Much of the media coverage in Israel distorts the position of these organizations.
Their position is not an objection to the definition itself (although it specifies examples that I think are indeed problematic, and I will describe them later), but the possibility that making it a law will result in a violation of freedom of expression. It is important to note that the drafters of the definition did not intend that it will become a binding tool or turned into law. Prof. Dina Porat and attorney Kenneth Stern spoke out publicly against making the definition binding by law. Stern even publicly opposed the tendency of right-wing organizations to use the definition of antisemitism as a weapon against legitimate criticism of Israel.
The shallowness of the discourse on this issue is reminiscent of other issues in which media coverage ignores the complexity of positions and twists them. Thus, for example, those who think that diplomacy is the most effective way to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons are presented as supporters of the ayatollah's regime. Similarly, those who support democratization in the Arab world are presented as supporters of the “Muslim Brotherhood” and those who think that the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are anti-Israeli.
In all these cases the opposite is true, as is the debate over making the definition of antisemitism a law. Opposition to making the definition law does not legitimize antisemitism nor does it stem only from reasons of moral purity.
If this overly broad and vague definition of antisemitism becomes law, it will be difficult to persuade liberal and progressive circles to join in opposition to antisemitism, as for them deprivation of freedom of expression violates the most basic values of liberal democracy, and therefore they will instinctively take the opposite position.
Studies show that the main lurking danger in public opinion for the State of Israel is the liberal public’s distancing from us, due to the anti-liberal positions of recent Israeli governments. In the wake of the Trump years, we risk becoming alarmingly alienated from a significant part of the Democratic Party, which has now returned to being the ruling party in the United States, and of American Jewry, who indeed should be treated like an extended family. The use of accusations of antisemitism against those who legitimately oppose the occupation or even Zionism itself will further alienate many of these American friends, without providing any real benefit to Israel.
If opposition to or criticism of Zionism is antisemitic, then a significant part of the Jewish people in the past was antisemitic, including organizations that today are supporters of the State of Israel and fighters against antisemitism. The two ends of the spectrum in the Jewish religious movements – the ultra-Orthodox on the one hand and the Reform movement on the other – also opposed Zionism, and it would be ridiculous to say that they were antisemitic.
There are also many who oppose nationalism of any kind, including Zionism. There are many Jews in the BDS movement, and falsely portraying them as antisemitic or “self-hating Jews” harms both the fight against antisemitism and the fight against BDS, which should be based in legitimate, substantive critique and not on exaggerated smears. Accusing critics of Israel and Zionism of antisemitism pushes many who resent the manipulative use of Jewish victimhood to avoid a principled debate on their claims into the arms of BDS.
ALTHOUGH MY main argument is against making the IHRA definition a law, there are indeed problematic sections in the IHRA’s examples of antisemitism. The example – “accusing Jewish citizens who do not live in Israel of being more loyal to the State of Israel and the Jewish people than to the countries in which they live” is one of them. It is difficult to make such a claim when most Jews in Israel accuse Israeli Arabs of considering themselves Palestinians and loyal first and foremost to the Palestinian people. One can argue with such an accusation, and rightly so, but it is entirely legitimate.
Another problematic example is “applying double standards to Israel by requiring it to act in a way that is not required of other countries.” After all, we see ourselves as the “chosen people” and so do our evangelical supporters, and if so, it is probably legitimate to demand more from the chosen people. As a secularist, I do not identify with the claim that we are a chosen people by a divine entity, but certainly expect us to take on the responsibility of being a chosen people in terms of our moral values and our treatment of minorities and foreigners, precisely because of what we went through in exile. In addition, the day that Israel is judged by the standards of non-democratic countries will be a very sad day. The “double standard” is actually a compliment, as expecting more from Israel expresses that we are seen as a member of the club of liberal democracies who should set an example – and that we are viewed as a close partner by the United States and the EU.
In conclusion, antisemitism is a sick evil, but attempts to misrepresent all of Israel’s critics or political opponents as antisemitic – or to ignore the ways that antisemitism is closely linked to forms of xenophobia and racism that also impact other minority communities – is not helpful or wise. Ultimately, we should feel comfortable using the IHRA definition of antisemitism as a tool where appropriate, but not push for it to be codified into foreign governmental laws in a way that will harm our commitment to liberal democracy, or undermine our efforts to form strong partnerships that benefit Israel and the Jewish people.
The writer is executive director of J Street in Israel, was a political adviser to President Shimon Peres, served at the embassy in Washington and as head of the Israeli delegation to the New England countries at the consulate in Boston. Tamir is on the board of the “Mitvim” think tank, and a member of the board of directors of the “Geneva Initiative.”