DOES DEFINING ANTISEMITISM EVEN MATTER?
Yes. Obviously this slide is my (informed) opinion.
Recently I’ve seen some people claim that arguing over which antisemitism definition is most accurate or appropriate is actually a “distraction” from combatting antisemitism. For example: the fringe group Jewish Voice for Peace claimed in a recent post that “it is necessary to implement measures to actively combat” antisemitism. That is certainly true. But how on earth can we implement measures if we don’t have a basic framework to work with? How can we implement measures if we don’t even know what antisemitism is or isn’t? Nearly every antisemite does not believe that they are indeed antisemitic. How can we appropriately respond to antisemitism if we can’t even explain how or why something is antisemitic in the first place?
You might have noticed that I start nearly all of my posts with basic definitions. Why? Because in order to communicate my points, whatever those may be, we need to be sure that we are on the same page to begin with. If I say “Zionism” meaning one thing but you read it as “Zionism” meaning another thing, we are not even having the same conversation. You are talking about one thing and I’m talking about another. We will not get anywhere this way.
Scholars who have dedicated their entire lives to studying how propaganda works have noticed one thing: propagandists keep terms loose or undefined; in other words, vagueness is a telltale sign of propaganda. When concepts are vague or loosely defined, they are essentially rendered meaningless.
If antisemitism is not defined, the accusation of “antisemitism” means very little or nothing at all.
WHAT IS THE IHRA DEFINITION?
The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance is an inter-governmental organization with over 30 member countries. IHRA unites governments with Holocaust experts to strengthen and advance Holocaust education, research, and remembrance.
In 2016, IHRA adopted what is known as the “Working Definition of Antisemitism.” The definition is non-legally binding and is the result of a 15-year-long democratic process. It has since been adopted by over 1000 countries and organizations.
Contrary to what some groups claim, such as Jewish Voice for Peace, the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism was not coined to silence Palestinians. Instead, it was drafted in response to a 2002 European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia report on modern antisemitism in Europe.
WHY DOES IHRA FOCUS ON ISRAEL SO MUCH?
For a simple reason: it was drafted to address modern antisemitism, not the antisemitism of hundreds of years ago. Antisemitism evolves, as the definition recognizes, and most of the “new” antisemitic conspiracies concern Israel in one way or another (e.g. the Deadly Exchange conspiracy). Additionally, it’s very easy to catch antisemitism that is out in the open; it’s a lot harder to identify antisemitism shrouded in euphemisms, which is what IHRA does.
"Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities."
The above is the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism. I think one of the most important aspects of this definition is that it describes antisemitism as a “certain perception.” I haven’t seen many people discuss this part — most of the debate surrounding IHRA is directed at the examples cited later on — but I think that’s a mistake.
Antisemitism is a hatred and a bigotry, sure, but it’s also a bias. As I stated earlier, most people don’t think that they are antisemitic, even though almost everyone in the world has at least some level of antisemitic bias, according to the ADL Global Index on Antisemitism. You might have the best opinion of Jews in the world, but if you still perceive Jews through the lens of antisemitic tropes, stereotypes, and/or conspiracies, that is still antisemitism, which ultimately harms Jews. It’s important to remember this because bias is generally unconscious.
Contrast this to the two other “opposing” definitions of antisemitism, neither of which describe antisemitism as a perception or bias.
"Antisemitism is discrimination, prejudice, hostility or violence against Jews as Jews (or Jewish institutions as Jewish)." — Jerusalem Declaration
"Antisemitism consists of anti-Jewish beliefs, attitudes, actions or systemic conditions. It includes negative beliefs and feelings about Jews, hostile behavior directed against Jews (because they are Jews), and conditions that discriminate against Jews and significantly impede their ability to participate as equals in political, religious, cultural, economic, or social life." — Nexus Document
- Calling for, aiding, or justifying the killing or harming of Jews in the name of a radical ideology or an extremist view of religion.
- Making mendacious, dehumanizing, demonizing, or stereotypical allegations about Jews as such or the power of Jews as collective — such as, especially but not exclusively, the myth about a world Jewish conspiracy or of Jews controlling the media, economy, government or other societal institutions.
- Accusing Jews as a people of being responsible for real or imagined wrongdoing committed by a single Jewish person or group, or even for acts committed by non-Jews.
- Denying the fact, scope, mechanisms (e.g. gas chambers) or intentionality of the genocide of the Jewish people at the hands of National Socialist Germany and its supporters and accomplices during World War II (the Holocaust).
The above examples are classic manifestations of antisemitism, dating back 2000 years. No one should have a problem with this part of the definition; it’s obviously well-documented by now that these tropes, stereotypes, and conspiracies are harmful to Jews and have been so for thousands of years.
Holocaust denial is antisemitic because it ultimately is (1) a denial of well-recorded Jewish history, and denying any historically marginalized people their history is bigoted, (2) it is an attempt to exonerate or partially exonerate the perpetrators of the genocide, and (3) it ultimately relies on the antisemitic conspiracy that Jews control the world: according to denialists, distortionists, and revisionists, Jews have manipulated the narrative of the Holocaust in the media and public discourse for our own gain. That’s classic antisemitism.
- Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.
- Accusing the Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust.
The above are two examples of Holocaust inversion. Holocaust inversion is the act of depicting Jews and/or Israelis as Nazis, crypto-Nazis, or “worse than Nazis.”
Holocaust inversion is a form of Holocaust distortion, which, again, is a form of Holocaust denial. Why is it a form of Holocaust distortion? Because Holocaust inversion is incompatible with basic historical facts about the Holocaust.
Holocaust inversion is revisionist because (1) Jews inherently cannot be Nazis or morally equivalent to Nazis, because Nazis considered all Jews, regardless of their political views, to be the inferior race; (2) Holocaust inversion inherently minimizes the methods employed in and the scope of the Holocaust; (3) the vast majority of Holocaust survivors have been supportive of Jewish self-determination (i.e. Zionism), and equating Holocaust survivors with their oppressors is repugnant and antisemitic; (4) the Nazis were ardently anti-Zionist; (5) it was the the Arab leadership in Palestine — not the Zionists — that actively collaborated with the Nazi regime during the Holocaust.
None of this, of course, grants Israel a right to act with impunity. Israelis can be fascists, just as anyone can be a fascist. There is also a major difference between observing historical patterns — for example, noticing how quickly a society can descend into fascism — versus accusing Jews of being our greatest historical oppressors. Finally, something that the IHRA definition mentions above its examples is that while these things are generally antisemitic, context should be taken into consideration.
- Applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.
- 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.
The IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism is crystal clear: “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”
The problem arises when we hold Israel to different standards than all other nations. Remember, antisemitism is a bigotry not only directed at Jewish individuals or individuals perceived to be Jewish, but most importantly, a bigotry directed at the Jewish People as a collective. There is nothing more “collective” about the Jewish People than the State of Israel. The State of Israel proclaims itself to be the Jewish state. It uses Jewish symbolism for its national symbols. And nearly half of the world’s Jewish population lives there.
Treating Israel as this uniquely, supremely evil entity, culpable for just about everything and anything — a claim that is incompatible with the actual facts on the ground — is just a projection of ancient antisemitic tropes onto the greatest manifestation of the Jewish collective.
Many people also seem to confuse “whataboutism” with double standards. Whataboutism is “the technique or practice of responding to an accusation or difficult question by making a counteraccusation or raising a different issue.” For example: say Israel bombs a building. Whataboutism would be responding to that with “well what about Russia bombing a Ukrainian building?”
A double standard is “a rule or principle unfairly applied in different ways or to different groups.” Pointing out how Israel is held to a different standard than other nations is not whataboutism. For example, pointing out how United Nations resolutions empirically disproportionately target Israel is not whataboutism.
Denying Jews a right that is considered a basic tenet of international law for everyone else — self-determination — and instead calling such a right “racist” is a blatant double standard.
- Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.
- Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.
So if Israel is the greatest manifestation of the Jewish collective, then why is it that holding Jews collectively responsible for Israeli policies is antisemitic?
Because Antisemitism homogenizes Jews, depicting us as an antisemitic stereotype. In this case, the perception is that the Jewish People are a nefarious group manipulating everything for our own benefit. In the antisemite’s mind, whatever Israel does or doesn’t do is part of this supposed collective Jewish master plan. And because antisemites see Jews as a singular unit, they hold each and every one of us responsible for every move Israel makes.
And while it’s true that Jews are a community — a people — this community is comprised of about 15 million individuals, with an enormous range of different political views and relationships to Israel. Whatever the antisemite thinks, Jews are actually not supernatural beings; like everyone else, we can only control our own actions. And anyway: most of us cannot vote in Israel.
The antisemitic conspiracy of dual loyalty — that Jews are only truly loyal to each other — has cost millions of Jewish lives, long before the establishment of the State of Israel.
And yes, most Jews have a relationship or connection to Israel. It’s only natural to feel attached to the land that birthed your people and is inextricably embedded into your entire culture. Just as many second and third generation immigrants feel attached to their home countries, most Jews feel attached to Israel. That doesn’t mean that we are capable of controlling what the people in the Israeli government choose to do. Like you, we are only human.
WHAT ABOUT WHAT KENNETH STERN SAID?
In 2019, the self-identified primary drafter of the IHRA definition, Kenneth Stern, wrote an opinion piece to the Guardian, expressing his concern that right wing groups are weaponizing the IHRA definition to silence free speech. As usual, propagandists are twisting Stern’s words, claiming that he has backtracked his support for the definition.
That’s literally not true. Stern has never disavowed the definition; he simply warns against weaponizing what it says to silence students who might call themselves anti-Zionist for whatever reason. It’s worth noting that the IHRA examples never once use the word Zionism or anti-Zionism or classify Palestinian symbols as “antisemitic.” This is because regardless of the actual definition of Zionism, many people who identify as anti-Zionists do so because they define Zionism differently (this is why specific definitions are so important!).
IS IHRA REALLY THE COMMUNAL CONSENSUS?
Yes. The fact that 350 scholars signed the opposing Jerusalem Declaration doesn’t mean anything. Not all of those scholars are Jewish. Many teach irrelevant subjects, such as architecture or Italian. Of the Jewish scholars, a very small number actually specialize in antisemitism or the Holocaust, though there’s a lot of “Jewish studies,” which could mean anything from Talmudic studies to Jewish immigration to America. In other words, not exactly relevant. Out of tens of thousands of Jewish scholars and researchers in the world, 350 is a very small number. Fringe opinions will always exist.
The fact of the matter is that every single reputable institution dedicated to the research and documentation of antisemitism and/or the Holocaust supports IHRA. This includes institutions such as Yad Vashem, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the Shoah Foundation, among others.
For a full bibliography of my sources, please head over to my Patreon.