Antisemitism is a complex, shape-shifting phenomenon. There are no easy solutions, no silver bullets that can counter all of today’s manifestations of antisemitism. However, the International Holocaust Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism is one critical tool that should be employed against some types of this persistent evil.
Certain forms of Jew-hatred have existed for thousands of years. But in the aftermath of the Holocaust it became more problematic to directly voice hatred toward “Jews” and “Judaism.” Thus, the virus that is antisemitism has mutated into a particular form where antisemitism is employed in discourse around Israel, targeting Israel as an alternative for Jews or by employing classic antisemitic tropes and substituting the word “Israel” for the word “Jew.” The need to recognize this mutation becomes obvious when a German court rules that firebombing a synagogue is not antisemitic but merely a protest against Israel.
However, one of the main difficulties in fighting this Israel-centric antisemitism is how to distinguish legitimate criticism of Israel – criticism of the type that is employed against other countries – from the bigotry that is disguised as mere objective analysis. The IHRA definition, if not distorted by ideological lenses, is an effective means to educate governments and civil society of the significant problem of Israel-related Jew-hatred and as a resource to educate about the differences between antisemitic hate speech and sincere criticism of the State of Israel, whether you agree with it or not.
The IHRA working definition of antisemitism was formally adopted by the IHRA in 2016 as a means of identifying all forms of antisemitism. The IHRA is an intergovernmental organization founded in 1998 and today it includes 34 nations, including the United States and most of its democratic allies.
The working definition consists of just two sentences: “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.”
Most importantly, accompanying the definition are 11 examples that the IHRA asserts may serve as illustrations of antisemitism. They include denying the Holocaust, accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, applying a double standard toward Israel, and drawing comparisons of Israeli policy to that of the Nazis. It is these examples that are central to the IHRA working definition’s efficacy, as well as drawing undeserved criticism.
The IHRA definition along with its examples is a nuanced document. It makes clear that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded by itself as antisemitism.” Moreover, it states that its examples “could, taking into account the overall context,” be antisemitic. It strengthens one of civil society’s most powerful weapons against bigotry: the ability to call out and shame individuals who are engaging in hate speech or acts of hate.
THE WORKING definition is not a legally binding definition. It does not criminalize any behavior that is not already illegal. It does not support government censorship. It does not say that all criticism of Israel is antisemitic. It does not draw exact bright lines between what can be called out and what is honest criticism.
Unfortunately, in a polarized society, the IHRA definition has been misread and misinterpreted. Some on the political Left claim the working definition defines all criticism of Israel as antisemitic, ignoring IHRA’s explicit disclaimer to the contrary. There are those who complain that it is just a means for governments to annul First Amendment rights and censor speech of Palestinian activists, despite IHRA’s declaration that it is not legally binding.
On the political Right there are voices that claim to support the IHRA definition when by all appearances they have not even read the document. They use the 11 examples but fail to acknowledge that in any given incident, context must be considered before leveling charges of antisemitism. They make claims for the scope of the document that are not supportable by the text.
In the face of rising antisemitism, the European Parliament and the European Council have recommended EU states adopt the IHRA definition. Nearly 30 countries, primarily European democracies, have adopted the working definition as one means to counter rising antisemitism. German and Austrian prosecutors use it for education and training purposes. Others use it to help classify and collect hate crime/incident data.
The US State Department was a leader in employing the IHRA tool in identifying antisemitism overseas. It is time for us to catch up with our European allies by advocating that Congress, state legislatures and local governments, including judicial and law enforcement institutions, also adopt the IHRA working definition as a domestic, educational tool. Judicious use of the IHRA working definition of antisemitism is an essential means for pushing back against one form of today’s virulent, antisemitism
The writer is the former US special envoy for monitoring and combating antisemitism. He is currently the visiting professor of contemporary antisemitism at Georgetown University and senior fellow at Georgetown’s Center for Jewish Civilization. He also serves as senior adviser for combating antisemitism at Human Rights First and as a senior fellow at the Moment Institute.