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January 10, 2023 8:27 am

Why the US Government Is Right to Use the IHRA Definition of Antisemitism

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avatar by Roz Rothstein


Sign held at demonstration against antisemitism. Photo Credit: Ms. Magazine.

The adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of Antisemitism is extremely important, but not everyone understands why.

The key reason to adopt this widely accepted definition, in addition to responding to the rising anti-Jewish bigotry we are witnessing across the US and around the world, is that antisemitism changes with each generation. As a result, many well-meaning individuals, leaders, and institutions struggle to identify all modern forms of this hate.

The IHRA Definition covers antisemitism across the political spectrum, with the help of 11 different examples describing how this bigotry may occur today. They include slurs that are many centuries old, along with newer conspiracy theories and hateful narratives. These examples reflect what Jewish people around the world face every single day.

The IHRA definition is not legally binding and cannot stop people who want to express antisemitic ideas. What it does, is clarify the meaning of antisemitism and build understanding of how Jews experience it in real life. Once we agree that we are looking at an example of antisemitism, we can speak out against it with moral clarity. We can educate about it, using a widely accepted definition that has already been adopted by over 850 institutions and over 30 governments worldwide. Additionally, when crimes are committed against Jews, IHRA can help the authorities determine whether or not antisemitism was a factor. Simply put, in order to defeat bigotry against Jews, we must first clearly define it.

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Those who oppose the IHRA Definition, do so primarily because it recognizes that words and actions related to Israel can cross the line into antisemitism.

The reality is that Israel is central to the identity of most Jewish people around the world. Not all, but most. Almost half the world’s Jewish population lives in Israel, and many others have friends and/or relatives there. Israel is the ancestral home of the Jewish people – their history, culture, traditions, religion, and ethnic identity are rooted in that land. Furthermore, after enduring 1,900 years of oppression and violence as a minority across Europe and the Middle East, many Jews see Israel as vital to their safety, survival, and human rights. The rise of antisemitism in recent years only reinforces Israel’s importance to the Jewish people.

The IHRA Definition does not say that criticizing Israeli policy is antisemitic. In fact, it states the exact opposite. However that is not enough for those who seek to avoid being criticized for demonizing the world’s only Jewish state, denying its right to exist, or holding it to a discriminatory double standard that no other country faces.

The promoters of this hate often insist that they are not against Jews, and are merely engaging in political criticism of a state and its supporters. This is a common refrain on college campuses, whenever Jewish or Israeli students raise concerns about cases of antisemitism related to Israel. Anti-Israel groups claim they are supporting justice and anti-racism by chanting, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” – a call for the elimination of Israel, which is located between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean Sea. However, an overwhelming majority of American Jews believe that opposing Israel’s existence is a form of antisemitism. Those who insist that calls to eliminate Israel are not a form of bigotry are silencing the voices of Jews and denying what they actually experience. The answer to such denials is a clear and widely accepted definition of antisemitism: IHRA.

Some also criticize the inclusion of double standards against Israel in IHRA’s examples of antisemitism. But such double standards are all too real. Consider the United Nations (UN), where the UN General Assembly condemned Israel more times than all other states combined in 2022 – as it does every single year. That is systemic discrimination against the world’s only Jewish state, at the highest levels of international politics. Once again, the examples in IHRA reflect how bigotry against Jews plays out in the real world.

In response to rising antisemitism, the Biden Administration has expressed its support for the IHRA Definition and promised to apply it to civil rights investigations. The Department of Education (DOE) initially stated that it would issue new regulations to this end in September of 2020. While the DOE is apparently referencing IHRA in its civil rights investigations already, official regulations to that end have unfortunately been postponed until December 2023 or later. Instead of further delays, this process must be completed urgently. Doing so will bring clarity to educational institutions and help provide badly needed protections for Jewish students, who face rising antisemitism every day across our nation.

Roz Rothstein is the co-Founder and CEO of StandWithUs, an international non-partisan education organization that supports Israel and fights antisemitism.

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