The Right and Wrong Ways for US Officials to Approach the Fight Against Antisemitism

Dylan J. Williams, J Street Senior Vice President for Policy and Strategy
on May 18, 2023

The Biden Administration is soon expected to release its national strategy for combating antisemitism. It’s a welcome and sadly necessary initiative, with recent polling finding that 97 percent of Jewish voters are concerned about antisemitism in the United States.

Importantly, 76 percent of Jewish voters say former President Donald Trump and his political allies bear responsibility for the rise in antisemitism. 74 percent of Jewish voters say Trump and the MAGA movement are a threat to Jews in America.

Yet dozens of states, cities and private institutions have responded to growing antisemitism not by taking concrete steps against this rising tide of largely right-wing hatred, but by clamping down on criticism of Israel. Specifically, legislatures and other governing bodies across the country have formally adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s Working Definition of Antisemitism and its “contemporary examples” — seven out of eleven of which deal with Israel, five of them exclusively.

Kenneth S. Stern, Director of the Bard Center for the Study of Hate and the primary drafter of the text which became the IHRA definition, has repeatedly testified in opposition to such efforts. He has made clear that the definition was devised as a reference to help European bureaucrats identify what kinds of incidents to consider while compiling reports on antisemitism. “The purpose was to take a temperature, not to create a blunt instrument to label anyone an antisemite,” says Stern. Criticizing the Trump Administration’s adoption of the IHRA definition in an executive order related to civil rights law enforcement at educational institutions, Stern made clear that, “This order is an attack on academic freedom and free speech, and will harm not only pro-Palestinian advocates, but also Jewish students and faculty, and the academy itself.”

Stern is clear and unambiguous in his view of the IHRA definition being given the force of law: “To establish that as a principle of law is, to me, abhorrent.”

The IHRA definition is also far from the only — or even the preferred — definition of antisemitism within the Jewish community. There are a host of definitions recently put forward including the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism endorsed by more than 350 scholars of antisemitism, Jewish history and law specifically in response to the IHRA definition’s controversial conflation of much criticism of Israel with antisemitism.

So what explains the singular focus of officials on the IHRA definition? The answer is that influential pro-Israel organizations and the Israeli government have worked ceaselessly to lobby for adoption of the IHRA definition and its examples into law. In fact, a letter from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations to Joe Biden just days before his inauguration as president specified only one action item for his incoming administration on the topic of rising antisemitism — “implementation” of the IHRA definition.

Focusing efforts to combat surging antisemitism on parsing criticism of Israel is deeply irresponsible when Jewish Americans need concrete government action to prevent horrific acts that are overwhelmingly obvious manifestations of antisemitism. There is no disclarity that a swastika painted on a Jewish community center is antisemitism. Nor is there doubt about the presence of antisemitism when someone assaults Jews wearing traditional Orthodox attire, excludes Jewish students from campus activities on the purported basis that they are Zionist, or murders worshipers in a synagogue. Adopting the IHRA definition into law and moving on to the next legislative item doesn’t do a thing to help prevent these kinds of attacks or address the ignorance which gives rise to such bigoted hatred.

Yet to hear some proponents of the IHRA definition discuss antisemitism, you’d think the tide of hatred faced by Jewish communities around the world is a secondary priority to deflecting criticism of Israel. The Israeli Minister for Diaspora Affairs and the Struggle Against Antisemitism Amichai Chikli actually said just that, recently telling a group of visiting Jewish Americans that, “Antisemitism today is mainly the demonization, delegitimization, and double standards applied to Israel.”

It is undeniable that critics of Israel can sometimes cross the line into antisemitism and they should be held accountable when they do. But refocusing the fight against antisemitism on defining what is and isn’t appropriate criticism of Israel as a matter of law while surging right-wing antisemitism is literally killing American Jews is profoundly exploitative and dangerous.

Those who genuinely strive to be strong allies in the fight against antisemitism like the Biden Administration should look beyond the deceptively simple solution offered by advocacy groups pushing the IHRA definition. They should give due weight to the concerns of Jewish and pro-Israel Americans who oppose giving the definition the force of law. They should utilize the full array of definitions, educational materials and other tools to combat antisemitism. Most importantly, they should confront and root out the extremism that has given rise to this horrific surge in antisemitism.