Fighting antisemitism starts with defining it

Taylor Levy
September 1, 2022

In order to understand how antisemitism manifests itself in the modern day, it must be defined. Without a clear definition, antisemitism can go unnoticed and unresolved as there are countless ways antisemitism masks itself. While definitions don’t provide any legal action, they enable authorities to better recognize when action must be taken and thus help ensure the protection of Jewish people.

Adopted in 2016, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism assists governing bodies and organizations by providing a parameter for what constitutes antisemitism.

The IHRA definition provides examples that include targeting the state of Israel as a collective Jewish identity as well as providing historical examples of antisemitism. The international community has welcomed the adoption of the definition. As of March 2022, 865 entities have adopted the definition, including 37 nations.

Prior to the IHRA definition, there was no widely-accepted definition of antisemitism. What one entity may have deemed to be antisemitic may have gone unnoticed by another. The framework IHRA provides allows entities to gain a universal understanding of antisemitism and therefore will be more equipped to combat it.

Adopting the IHRA definition is especially important on college campuses, where rising antisemitism manifests in a plethora of ways. In the 2021 data report, Jewish on Campus reported demonization of Israel was the second-largest manifestation of antisemitism, following historical antisemitism.

In the United States, 30 student governments adopted the definition by the end of May 2021. In the 2021-2022 school year, several other student governments have adopted the definition. The University of Pittsburgh was among the more recent universities to adopt the definition after Jewish students on campus reported a guest professor for comparing mask mandates to Auschwitz.

Although there have been successes on campuses across North America, several student groups and student governments have campaigned to detract the IHRA definition from being adopted on campus.

At Michigan State University, Jewish students proposed a resolution for their student government to adopt the IHRA definition. When the bill was approved by 81 percent of the student government and about to be passed, some student government representatives began to complain that they had not read it. Then began a campaign claiming IHRA was pushed by Jewish students and organizations to silence Palestinian voices. The student called for a re-vote over Zoom, during which Jewish students were faced with harassment and intimidation. The proposed resolution was subsequently rescinded.

Similar misinformation campaigns have materialized at other universities. At CUNY Law School, the IHRA definition was rejected after a campaign was created that called it a “racist” definition that “does little to protect Jewish people.” The University of Iowa passed the definition, but only after removing an example that considered calling Israel a racist endeavor to be antisemitic.

Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) asserts the IHRA definition is “deliberately used to silence and punish Palestinian activists” and hinders free speech. However, the definition does no such thing. It works to uphold free speech by providing a framework of when speech can turn hateful and antisemitic. The definition is non-legally binding; parties which have adopted the definition are not legally obligated to abide by the terms. The definition is a guideline, rather than a punishment.

When Jews are understood correctly as a people or a nation, the antisemitism that is in question often becomes more apparent. However, bodies that claim IHRA hinders free speech often dilute the Jewish people down to a religion. This negates their right to their indigenous land, while also discriminating against atheist Jews.

Fringe Jewish groups have followed suit. Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) stated that IHRA does nothing to provide Jews with safety, but instead has violated international law and diminished Palestinian human rights for decades. JVP does not acknowledge that IHRA is the only intergovernmental resource to provide policymakers and governing bodies with resources to further combat antisemitism.

In Canada, Independent Jewish Voices (IJV), has similarly opposed IHRA. The group has repeatedly accused Jews and allies, including Jewish organizations such as B’nai Brith Canada, of using antisemitism as an excuse to silence criticism of Israeli policies. In launching their campaign “No IHRA,” IJV has further held to their belief that antisemitism is not an “exceptional form of bigotry,” and predominantly is manifested through white supremacy.

As antisemitism continues to grow on college campuses, it is of the utmost importance that universities take tangible steps to combat this hatred. With IHRA, universities can recognize when criticism of Israel has crossed the line into being antisemitic and endangering Jewish students. When campuses are given the opportunity to combat antisemitism, they must take it.

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