IHRA definition is useful - antisemitism must be fought on all forms

BDS is, by definition, discriminating against Israelis due to their national origin, and antisemitism is discrimination based on religion.

An anti-Israeli protest inspired by BDS (photo credit: REUTERS)
An anti-Israeli protest inspired by BDS
(photo credit: REUTERS)
"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.”
That is the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism.
To date, 31 countries have adopted the definition, along with academic institutions, local governments and the English Premier League.
The definition allows those countries and institutions to identify antisemitism and to work to eradicate it, whether through the justice system, penalties, or through education.
Yet in the US a coalition of Jewish groups, which claims to be progressive but is exhibiting shockingly regressive behavior, has come out against that definition.
The Progressive Israel Network, which includes left-wing Jewish organizations such as J Street, the New Israel Fund and T’ruah (formerly Rabbis for Human Rights), came out against the adoption of the IHRA definition on Tuesday.
The PIN said it opposes “the effort to enshrine [the definition] in domestic law and institutional policy.” The network of liberal NGOs further specified that it is concerned about the examples the IHRA gave with the definition, such as saying “the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor” and “requiring of [Israel] a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.”
The Jewish groups’ reasoning is a concern that the IHRA definition would be used to “suppress legitimate free speech, criticism of Israeli government actions, and advocacy for Palestinian rights.” They cite as “a harmful overreach” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s declaration that “anti-Zionism is antisemitism” and that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel and Israelis is a form of antisemitism that the State Department will make sure not to support.
The groups also claimed that this use of the IHRA definition is “primarily aimed at shielding the present Israeli government and its occupation from all criticism.”
An examination of the above definition and of the examples provided by IHRA – which are too many to present here, but are accessible online – finds that it in no way calls to limit criticism of Israel’s government or any others.
Unless, that is, these organizations mean to say comparing Israelis to Nazis is legitimate criticism of government policies – comparisons which are a way of denying the abject horrors of the Holocaust; or, in their zeal to advocate for Palestinian self-determination, they’ve decided that Jews are uniquely unworthy of the same rights.
As journalists, we share in these organizations’ vigilance about free speech and believe open debate is important.
Yet, the full IHRA text states that it is not a legally binding document, which means that it is not codifying limits to free expression.
The US Constitution has broad protections for free speech, perhaps the broadest in the world. Hate speech is not illegal in the US, for example. But even in America, one cannot discriminate based on race, color, national origin, religion, gender, disability, age, or citizenship status in hiring practices.
BDS is, by definition, discriminating against Israelis due to their national origin, and antisemitism is discrimination based on religion. For Pompeo to ensure funds do not go to BDS-supporting groups is a reflection of existing protected categories in US law.
No one is taking away these Jewish groups’ or their Palestinian allies’ right to criticize Israel as sharply or as harshly as they wish. What governments around the world have sought to do is to combat antisemitic speech, discrimination and other behaviors by identifying them.
As such, the PIN is throwing the baby out with the bathwater by opposing a widely recognized definition of antisemitism.
The PIN statement is, as the Foreign Ministry said, a “tailwind” for “antisemitic movements that are fighting for their right to continue spreading hate speech and racism towards Jews.” It is providing “an opening for the legitimization of kinds of antisemitism.”
Organizations that rightly call out right-wing extremist antisemitism should realize that such a definition is important and useful, and should get woke to the fact that antisemitism should be fought in all its forms, on both sides of the political map.