Tackling antisemitism on social media: Adopt IHRA’s definition - opinion

While there can be no exhaustive definition of antisemitism, there must be some objective standard for what is and is not acceptable.

An example of antisemitic content spread through TikTok. (photo credit: screenshot)
An example of antisemitic content spread through TikTok.
(photo credit: screenshot)

Facebook, TikTok, and YouTube pledged last week to do more in the fight to reduce the spread of online anti-Jewish hate. Their commitment, made at the International Forum on Holocaust Remembrance conference in Sweden, came after new research confirmed that social media is increasing antisemitism globally. The announcement was a nice gesture, but ultimately lacking in substance or specifics.

Actions speak louder than words, and there is but one helpful concrete action that all these social media giants should immediately take: agree to adopt the non-legally binding International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism as part of their policies on hate speech.

While there can be no exhaustive definition of antisemitism, there must be some objective standard for what is and is not acceptable. IHRA’s conduct-based, consensus-driven approach is the only internationally recognized definition of antisemitism that there is, or indeed ever has been. It has proven to be an essential tool used to determine contemporary manifestations of anti-Jewish rhetoric and actions, including illustrative examples of problematic anti-Zionism that can cross the line into demonizing hatred.

The definition is already used by the US Federal Government; the 31 member countries of IHRA; almost all 50 countries that comprise the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe; the European Commission; the European Parliament; Serbia; Bahrain; and Albania. It has been endorsed by a growing number of world leaders including UN Secretary-General António Guterres, and adopted by a growing number of universities. It is utilized by a variety of intergovernmental agencies including the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance, and non-governmental agencies including the Iraq-based Global Imams Council.

More importantly, hundreds of major Jewish organizations across the world, across the political and religious spectrum, and representing people of all ages and backgrounds that are affected by antisemitism, have banded together to adopt the IHRA definition and urge others to adopt it as well, because they all agree that it best reflects their shared living experience and the realities of how antisemitism manifests itself today. IHRA’s use in social media will only increase the awareness and understanding of the parameters of modern anti-Jewish discrimination.

 Social media: Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, TikTok (credit: Courtesy) Social media: Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, TikTok (credit: Courtesy)

The idea that social media platforms should make use of IHRA in their policies is hardly a radical proposal, and I am not the first one to suggest it. In recent years the cultural secretary of the UK, Israel’s minister of strategic affairs, and 145 Jewish organizations from around the world have all appealed in writing to Facebook officials to make this necessary update.

In response, Facebook has politely admitted that IHRA has been useful, even invaluable, in the fight against antisemitism online. But they have yet to fully adopt it, likely because they are afraid of the pushback they have already received from those who falsely claim that adopting IHRA will somehow stifle political speech about Israel.

In light of the timely new research on the dangers of social media antisemitism, and companies’ new willingness to more fully commit to this fight, the time has come to definitively address and set aside this baseless concern so that this solution can be put into effect.

The idea that social media companies adopting IHRA in their policies would somehow harm free speech is wrong for one very simple reason: the First Amendment guarantee of free speech does not apply to posts on social media.

The First Amendment limits the government from restricting free expression, but all of these social media giants are private sector entities, not state actors. As such, they have no obligation whatsoever to protect anyone’s freedom of speech, in the same way that traditional media outlets have no obligation to publish anyone’s particular point of view. That is why social media companies can have hate speech policies in the first place. They all agree that antisemitism has no place on their forums; adopting IHRA is only filling in the blank of what that term means.

Of course, that is a technical answer, but on a broader level, the underlying concern is equally unfounded. The claim that adopting IHRA would shut down criticism of Israel or its leaders is patently, demonstrably false. IHRA isn’t helpful despite discussing problematic anti-Zionism. It is helpful because it contains those very examples, without which antisemites could continue to hide their hatred behind a thin veneer of anti-Israel sentiment. Legitimate criticism of Israel is explicitly fine under the IHRA definition, and if you are merely criticizing Israel, even harshly and regularly, then a social media platform signing on to such a statement should not affect your writing or publishing one iota.

If you are in fact actually demonizing and delegitimizing the Jewish state, or applying a double standard by requiring behaviors not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation, then maybe you should stop and think twice about the antisemitic impression that you are giving with your writing. Or at the very least, responsible social media platforms should use IHRA as a guide to thinking twice about what content they are hosting.

The writer is director of the National Jewish Advocacy Center.