Cultural Trends and Jewish Academics Give New Lifeline to Antisemitism
The recent struggle to remove antisemitic and anti-Israel content from a California ethnic studies curriculum demonstrated the formidable challenge posed by the academic doctrines of Critical Race Theory and “intersectionality.”
To the extent that Israel is depicted as a white colonial occupation project and the pro-Palestinian cause as a proxy for racial equity in the United States, the Jewish state will be stigmatized and Jewish individuals and institutions will suffer.
The fight to overhaul earlier drafts of the California curriculum opened a window into the difficulty of the Jewish predicament.
Jews are frequently portrayed as part of the privileged dominant class, while their status as targeted victims is often ignored Israel is seen as a European, colonial outpost, while the fact that most of its Jewish population is descended from communities that lived for centuries in the Arab and Muslim world before their expulsion from those countries, is hopelessly obscured.
In other words, Jews are losing further control of the public narrative about them. This point is underscored by the incursion of antisemitic violence into racial justice protests in the US and Europe. The death of George Floyd was followed by attacks on synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses in a number of cities, most recently three Israeli restaurants in Portland, Oregon, in January. The frequent appearance of the slogan “Free Palestine” in graffiti on Jewish targets showed the popular tendency to register discontent with the Jewish state by harming Jews in the Diaspora. An anti-racism rally in Place de la Republique, in Paris, featured signs with directives such as “Stop collaboration with Israeli State terrorism” as the crowd chanted “dirty Jews.”
Enter into this demoralizing picture two new proposed definitions of antisemitism, one offered by Jewish academics on behalf of the Nexus Task Force; the second, titled the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism, presented by a group of progressive Jews under the aegis of the Van Leer Institute. Both documents profess to serve the cause of confronting antisemitism by identifying its contemporary manifestations — unless, of course, those manifestations take the form of anti-Israel demagoguery.
Why would Jewish critics of Israel feel the need to offer these re-imagined definitions of antisemitism?
B’nai B’rith has long advocated for broad usage of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism, which is steadily gaining acceptance around the globe. The IHRA definition illustrates how criticism of Israel can (and all too frequently does) cross the line from legitimate policy debate into antisemitic hatred.
Demonizing Israel by calling it a racist or Nazi-like state, or simply denying Israel’s right to exist, would be examples of antisemitism under the IHRA definition, because such language is intended to undermine Jewish self-determination and relegate the Jewish state to pariah status, thereby gravely threatening its national security.
Such limitations, however, cause Israel’s most vociferous critics to bristle.
Those who see a basis for comparing Israel to apartheid South Africa no longer wish to feel inhibited about drawing those analogies by a definition originally adopted in 2016 by the IHRA — an international organization comprised of 34 member countries — and since then, by many individual governments around the world. Instead, they would prefer to say, as the Jerusalem Declaration does, that nearly any criticism of Israel is fair game, and is not per se a form of antisemitism.
Both the Nexus Task Force definition and the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism (JDA) open the door for abuse toward Israel, but the latter does this with a disturbing level of specificity.
What’s acceptable under the expansive JDA definition? “Criticizing or opposing Zionism as a form of nationalism.” In other words, Jews are the only people, one could argue without being accused of antisemitism, who are not entitled to a homeland or national movement of their own.
The JDA further tells us that “it is not anti-Semitic, in and of itself, to compare Israel with other historical cases, including settler-colonialism or apartheid.” Meaning, hurling the most insidious possible allegations against Israel, as its critics frequently do in an attempt to challenge the Jewish state’s basis for existing, is not antisemitic. And so on.
According to the JDA, anti-Israel boycotts “are not, in and of themselves, anti-Semitic,” even though the stated intention of the BDS movement’s founders is to eliminate the Jewish state. Nor is imposing a double standard on Israel an act of antisemitism: “In general, the line between anti-Semitic and non-anti-Semitic speech is different from the line between unreasonable and reasonable speech.” Thus, Israel’s critics need not be “reasonable” to wave their free pass when charges of antisemitism surface.
The timing of these two alternative definitions of antisemitism is highly lamentable. With Jews already losing the rhetorical war around social hatreds, the authors are handing out newly minted permission slips to Israel’s harshest critics, as though anyone whose goal is the demonization or outright elimination of the Jewish state would ever strive to be reasonable.
Grotesque distortion of Israel in school curricula is, by the new logic, not antisemitic. Nor is BDS, or incendiary anti-Israel resolutions at the United Nations and other international fora.
Anti-Israel hatred that finds expression in the public square or on university campuses, whether such venom explicitly holds Jews accountable for Israel’s actions or not, too often is simply hatred of Jews in another guise. This sinister strategy of using Israel or Zionism as a proxy for Jews has just been infused with new vitality by two new antisemitism definitions that may purport to identify and combat antisemitism, but in truth help facilitate it.
Eric Fusfield is the B’nai B’rith International Director of Legislative Affairs and Deputy Director of the B’nai B’rith International Center for Human Rights and Public Policy.