(The IHRA Working Definition of Anti-Semitism) Does Not Suppress Free Speech or Palestine


As worded, the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism (which you can find here) does not do what people say it does or want it to do. It does not suppress free speech and the struggle for Palestinian rights, as per the anti-Zionist left, and should not be used to that end by rightwing supporters of Zionism and Israel.

At issue are the examples in the IHRA Working Definition of Anti-Semitism that include anti-Israel discourse. For critics, the primary offending article is

  • Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.

But critics could find fault also with the following:

  • Applying double standards by requiring of [Israel] a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.
  • Using the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism (e.g., claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis.
  • Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.

Critics of the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism contend that the statement determines, falsely in their view, that anti-Zionism, and, by extension, criticism of Israel and Zionism, which they do in fact regard as a “racist endeavor,” and support for Palestinian rights, including the Right of Return, are “anti-Semitic.” Critics contend that the IHRA stifles free speech. For their part, rightwing political actors in Israel and the U.S. use the IHRA Working Definition as a license to do just that, especially on U.S. campuses.

The problem is this. Both anti-Zionist critics who attack the Working Definition rightwing supporters of Israel and Zionism who manipulate the Working Definition fail to note three things.

  • The IHRA Working Definition of Zionism is only that, a working definition, not an iron-clad rule. David Feldman writing here is right to call the IHRA a “general rule of thumb.” 
  • The clause regarding “behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation” opens Israel and Zionism to criticism to the degree that Zionism and Israel arguably violate democratic norms.
  • Even more important, what goes missing is actual attention to the fine print, stated in plain type in the main body of the text. That would be that any determination re: these and other examples of anti-Semitism cannot be made without  “taking into account the overall context” of this or that expression of animus against Jews in general or the State of Israel. It could be that, looked at case by case, calling Zionism and Israel a “racist endeavor” does or does NOT constitute anti-Semitism,

About the original intent of the IHRA Working Definition of Anti-Semitism, the lead author of the definition, Kenneth Stern gives account here in his 2017 written testimony before the U.S. Congress in YEAR of the origins of his work on IHRA in relation to anti-Israel/anti-Jewish hostility in Europe in the 2000s + his own commitment to academic freedom + his rejection of combining the Working Definition with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 cases (which itself actually limits proscribed behaviors to actions if they are “severe” and “pervasive.” Indeed, Stern has consistently and vociferously rejected the coupling of the IHRA Working Definition from Title VI, precisely for the abuse this coupling opens up.

Part of the relevant context behind what eventually became the IHRA Working Definition of Anti-Semitism, the purpose which it was meant to serve, was related by Stern in his written testimony. “In the early 2000’s, there was an uptick of antisemitic hate crimes against Jews in Western Europe. A group charged with analyzing these attacks – the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (now subsumed in the European Union’s Fundamental Rights Agency) – had the task of collecting data from its sources in various countries, but most countries did not have a definition of antisemitism, and those that did had different ones. How could data collectors know what to include and exclude, and how could comparisons be made across borders? It proposed a clunky definition which focused on stereotypes about Jews, but seemed designed to exclude the situation where a Jew was being attacked because an actor was upset with Israelis or Israeli policy. This made no more sense than saying the lynching of a black man in the 1950s or 1960s was an act of racism if the perpetrator thought blacks were shiftless and lazy, but not if he was motivated by anger to a Martin Luther King speech or the passage of civil rights legislation” (p.5).

About the IHRA Working Definition of Anti-Semitism and criticism of Israel is this “Open Letter on Campus Antisemitism” (2011) by Stern and Cary Nelson which you can find here “The ‘working definition,’” they write, “while clearly stating that criticism of Israel in the main is not antisemitic, gives some examples of when antisemitism may be in play, such as holding Jews collectively responsible for acts of the Israeli state, [etc., etc.]” (emphasis added). That critics say the intention of the IHRA was to suppress criticism of Israel and support for Palestine does not make it so, even as it also remains true that it has been put to that use on the right.

Practically, the conclusion to the open letter is especially worth noting, namely that “It is entirely proper for university administrators, scholars and students to reference the ‘working definition’ in identifying definite or possible instances of antisemitism on campus. It is a perversion of the definition to use it, as some are doing, in an attempt to censor what a professor, student, or speaker can say. Because a statement might be “countable” by data collectors under the “working definition” does not therefore mean that Title VI is violated.” Lastly, the Working Definition”’ is described as “a useful tool to identify statements that merit attention on campus, but deciding whether a given remark is antisemitic can require careful attention to rhetoric, context, and even intent. As the AAUP has suggested, even objectionable statements can have content worthy of debate. Most individual remarks, moreover, do not rise to the level of creating hostile environments” (emphases added).

The exact wording of the IHRA Working Definition draws attention to what are arguably complex historical and ongoing points of contact between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. The identification of these connections has drawn the ire of anti-Zionists who deny that there is any connection whatsoever. And it has drawn the attention of rightwing supporters of Israel who seek to manipulate the data that the Working Definition is supposed to identify.  Those caught in the middle between anti-Zionism and rightwing supporters of Zionism should not necessarily throw out a more or less useful model. The better path forward would be to attend to the problem at hand while demanding clarifications pertaining to commitments to democratic norms of free speech on the part of those who would adopt the IHRA Working Definition. With the bad actors of the Trump Administration on their way out of power, the immediate task is to uncouple what is only a rule-of-thumb working definition from the full legal force of Title VI.

Like any critical-analytical framework, the IHRHA Working Definition of Anti-Semitism is a tool. It is only as good as the users who use it. But that then is a political fight. Who and which political actors control the discourse, the working tool? Getting rid of the IHRA Working Definition would do nothing except obscure the problems it seeks to identify. A new working definition would need to replace it in order to show and make sense of anti-Semitic expression in the BDS movement, horrendous acts of anti-Jewish violence in Europe backgrounded by the Israel-Palestine conflict, the political and social exclusion from social justice movements and social places like in universities and social media platforms of American Jews who identify Israel with their Jewishness, all the anti-Semitic dog whistling about Jewish power and petty anti-Jewish micro-aggressions about pushy Jews and Jewish whiteness and privilege.

The IHRA Working Definition is a thing. It enjoys broad political support out in the world. About that there is nothing that any of its critics can really do except rein it in by subjecting it to good faith emendations meant to clarify its scope to those who would reject it or abuse it. In its favor, it does not establish a direct, necessary identity between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, and, on its own, stifles neither free speech about Israel and Zionism nor support for Palestine. Its definition is a working one, based upon democratic norms. It leaves Israel and Zionism open to criticism, and is context dependent in its determination of what constitutes anti-Semitism. Arrayed as they are between two opposing ideological extremes only highlights the fact that arguments about anti-Semitism are inescapably political and fought over, as are the instruments used to identify the phenomenon of anti-Semitism in relation to the politics in America and Europe of Israel and Palestine.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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2 Responses to (The IHRA Working Definition of Anti-Semitism) Does Not Suppress Free Speech or Palestine

  1. Sheldon Ranz says:

    Americans for Peace Now has rejected the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism.

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