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August 27, 2015 8:24 am

Defining Antisemitism: Fact vs. Fiction

avatar by R. Amy Elman /

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 A mock checkpoint erected during "Israeli Apartheid Week," an annual anti-Israel showcase, in May 2010 on the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) campus. Photo: AMCHA Initiative.

A mock checkpoint erected during “Israeli Apartheid Week,” an annual anti-Israel showcase, in May 2010 on the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) campus. Photo: AMCHA Initiative. – As the 10-campus University of California system considers the adoption of the U.S. State Department’s definition of antisemitism, there are critics who seek to discredit the entire definition with three fictions presented as fact. Groups like Palestine Legal and Jewish Voice for Peace, who actively support campus activities the State Department recognizes as anti-Semitic, have launched an all-out campaign that falsely claims first, that the definition conflates criticism of Israel with antisemitism, second, that the definition has been discredited, and third, that its adoption is inimical to free speech.

The actual definition demonstrates unequivocally how misleading these groups are. The State Department cites the working definition of Anti-Semitism of the European Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia, which states, “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 State Department then identifies as antisemitic Israel’s demonization (e.g., “drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis”) and the double standards that extend to the Jewish state (e.g., requiring of Israel “a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation”). Not least, the delegitimization of Israel by “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, and denying Israel the right to exist” is also anti-Semitic. Yet, in addition to “taking into account the over all context,” the State Department concludes that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”

Critics omit this last key point, selectively quote the definition, and then insist it has been discredited.

The State Department’s definition of antisemitism mirrors the one informally adopted by the European Fundamental Rights Agency’s predecessor, the European Monitoring Centre (EUMC). That definition emerged after EUMC’s attempted suppression of a 2003 report on antisemitism which found that violent attacks against Jews often arose from virulent anti-Zionism. Embarrassed by that scandal and exposed for its questionable efforts against a prejudice it did not understand and had never bothered to define, EUMC casually adopted the 2005 “working definition of antisemitism” and then never used it.

The shameful truth is that the EUMC definition was never discredited because its critics helped ensure that it was never actually implemented or ever intended to be. This fact brings us to the last fiction and perhaps a greater irony. For all of their ostensible respect for “free speech,” the State Department definition’s detractors repeatedly suppress and then misrepresent the definition. Far from the ban on speech invoked by its critics, the definition offered the State Department conceptual clarity and provided U.S. diplomats with a tool to engage their counterparts to identify and counter antisemitism. To insist that the definition would hold no similar utility on American college campuses, where antisemitism is rapidly on the rise, is curious.

Let’s hope the University of California system, and other universities and colleges, can see through this charade to do the right thing for Jewish students—adopt our government’s definition of antisemitism.

R. Amy Elman is the Weber Professor of Social Science at Kalamazoo College in Michigan and author of “The European Union, Antisemitism, and the Politics of Denial.”

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  • gitelsura

    The re-definition of anti-Semitism has not only been rejected by the EU. The State Department itself is explicit that the definition is not meant to apply domestically, and is used only in the monitoring of incidents abroad, so it is completely inaccurate to say, as Professor Elman does here, that the State Department recognizes certain campus activities as “anti-Semitic”.

    One of the lead drafters of that definition, Kenneth Stern, has unequivocably held in recent op eds that it is inappropriate for use as an official definition in law or as part of a university code, and that the appropriate response to speech harshly critical of Israel is more speech.

    Tammi Rossman-Benjamin of Amcha Initiative, the leading proponent of the campaign to pressure the University of California to adopt the re-definition, has made clear in an interview with the LA Times that almost all expression critical of Israel would be deemed nti-Semitic if the definition is applied, including BDS, boycott of settlement products, protests against demolition of Palestinian homes, and testimony by former IDF soldiers about the crimes they have witnessed or participated in as part of their military experience.

    And the learned Professor Elman argues that adoption of the definition of the UC would not adversely affect free speech?

  • the muslims are buying there way into he liberal teachers in that school.also they are afraid of the muslims. anytime you speak about them they will attack you,like they tried to do to pam geller.this is your country dont let them take over

  • Dante

    The so-called critics are probable the same as those who do or apprechiate push the borders of “islamophobia” far beyond any sensible limit.

  • JohnWV

    “Zionists: transforming ‘anti-Semitism’ from something horrible into something honorable since 1948,” Professor Steven Salaita, June 14, 2015

    • Dante

      If a proof that being a professor doesn’t mean being wise were necessary, this utterance is that proof.

  • If the Uni of California system sees through the arab obfuscation & accepts the definition, like on their campuses should improve 100%, esp. if the arabs choose to go elsewhere.

  • steven L

    New forms of antisemitism: cyber-antisemitism, robotic antisemitism and technological antisemitism!!!! British Midland Airlines and Air France both blame their technology for the failure to show Israel on their maps!!!!

  • Ephraim

    We have the right to hope.

  • Paul Cerar

    Most members of the Jew-hatred movement are “generic fascists”, persons who are by nature fascist, and given the opportunity would engage in fascism against anyone, on behalf of any cause.

    Extremist causes attract fascists like excrement attracts flies!

    Paul Cerar
    Toronto, Canada

  • Bernie Kessler

    I wonder if these same groups are opposing the Muslim-endorsed proposed legislation in Quebec (Act #59) which
    would legally prohibit all criticism of Muslim thought and practice.
    We must bring these issues and arguments out into public