Getting at the root of anti-Semitism


I am sorry to see that the Jewish Alliance and the Bornstein Holocaust Education Center have adopted the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) definition of antisemitism (Jewish Rhode Island, Feb. 5). This problematic definition of antisemitism focuses excessively on stigmatizing criticism of Israel. In every context in which it has been adopted or applied, it has faced sharp criticism. Scholars of Jewish and Holocaust studies have played a prominent role in exposing its shortcomings. Even Kenneth Stern, the original author of the definition when he worked for the American Jewish Committee in 2004, has opposed efforts to codify it into law.  He has criticized its misuse to restrict criticism of Israel, especially on college campuses, and to wield it against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.  In a letter published in 2011 he wrote, "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 [about Israel]."

The definition mistakenly equates anti-Zionism with antisemitism. No one can be required to be a Zionist, just as no law can require someone to be a Serbian, Polish or Quebecois nationalist. Furthermore, boycotts are protected political activity, as a US appeals court in Arkansas recently reaffirmed. On Friday, Feb. 12, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Arkansas’ anti-BDS law is unconstitutional. This law required state contractors to pledge not to boycott Israel. The court said that the restriction “violates the First Amendment.” 

The next time students at Brown University advocate for Palestinian rights or university divestment from Israel, what will guarantee that the Jewish Alliance will not wave its definition to criticize these legitimate free speech activities as antisemitic? Providing evidence that much of the motivation behind the adoption of the IHRA definition is about silencing criticism of Israel, the Bornstein Center proudly touts “The New Antisemites,” a book written by right-of-center Jewish groups with the goal of refocusing antisemitism campaigns on Israel-Palestine politics.

This trivializes real antisemitism. While there are undoubtedly some antisemites among the BDS activists, most actual antisemitism in this country is perpetuated by white supremacy extremists. The Alliance should set aside the IHRA definition and focus instead on actual antisemitism – verbal and physical attacks on Jews and damage to Jewish property including schools, synagogues and cemeteries.

Nina Tannenwald teaches international relations at Brown University.