As the Israel lobby pushes to erase pro-Palestine activism on college campuses, it not only risks endangering free speech but allowing far-right hatred to spread unchecked.
Jerusalem —Not even a week after violent, anti-Semitic rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol building, a collective of Jewish groups urged then President-elect Joe Biden to target activism critical of Israel.
The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations (CoP) sent Biden a letter on January 12, urging the incoming administration to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of anti-Semitism across “all federal departments and agencies.”
As the nation was reeling from a historic insurrection swarming with Camp Auschwitz attire and Confederate flags, CoP decided to instead focus their efforts on pro-Palestine activity in universities.
“[A]ntisemitism on college campuses is a serious problem,” the Jewish leaders wrote, emphasizing that previous administrations understood “some anti-Israel activity is simply a modern form of antisemitism.”
Two days after CoP sent their letter, the Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI) joined the call and urged Biden to adopt the IHRA definition in a press release.
“[T]his is no time to give cover to antisemites who attempt to disguise their Jew hatred as mere criticism of Israel,” the DMFI statement read. The pro-Israel organization then countered any objections to the IHRA definition by determining countries who adopted this definition have not “become hotbeds of anti-free speech activity.”
CoP and DMFI did not respond to requests for comment.
How IHRA can suppress free speech
Donald Trump’s presidency was marred with anti-Semitic rhetoric from the very beginning. The disgraced president defended white nationalists shouting “Jews will not replace us” and ended his term sending a racist riot to Congress’ doorstep. Yet somehow the Israel lobby turns a blind eye to his flagrant bigotry because of Trump’s 2019 executive order adopting the IHRA definition.
On Dec. 11, 2019, Trump signed an executive order requesting federal departments and agencies tasked with enforcing Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 look to the IHRA definition.
Free speech advocates slammed the executive order as an attempt to quell legitimate criticism of Israeli policy. And shortly after the executive order was issued, that’s exactly what happened.
“It was never intended to be a campus hate speech code, but that’s what Donald Trump’s executive order accomplished,” Kenneth Stern, one of the original drafters of the IHRA definition, wrote in a Guardian op-ed following Trump’s order.
Weeks after the executive order was enacted, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights opened two investigations into Palestine advocacy at UCLA—the National Students for Justice in Palestine conference and a professor’s lecture on Islamophobia that discussed Zionism.
As Stern rightly pointed out in his editorial, conservative Jewish groups are not using the IHRA definition to combat growing anti-Semitism. Rather, it’s become a tool to suppress conversations surrounding the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in academia.
Now, as influential Jewish groups press Biden to adopt the IHRA definition, critics worry free speech and academic freedom will be increasingly targeted.
American Jewry’s debate over IHRA
The members of CoP include 53 Jewish organizations. Yet only six (including the heads of CoP) signed the letter. The signatories included the Jewish Federations of North America, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, Hadassah, The Women’s Zionist Organization of America, and the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center.
CoP member Americans for Peace Now (APN) came out against adopting the IHRA definition.
“The part that is problematic to us is the efforts to use this and use the call of anti-Semitism as a weapon to squash criticism of Israeli government policy, which is not anti-Semitism,” Hadar Susskind, president and CEO of Americans for Peace Now, told MintPress News.
The IHRA definition 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.”
Susskind explained APN doesn’t take issue with this basic definition. Instead, it’s the definition’s accompanying examples that are concerning.
“It comes very intentionally with a list of examples. And we’ve seen already across the U.S. and in other parts of the world, the way in which this is used to declare that anybody criticizing the [Israeli] occupation, anybody criticizing various elements of the Israeli government policy is deemed anti-Zionist. And by definition, then, anti-Zionist is deemed anti-Semitic.”
Susskind emphasized that anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are not one in the same. Anti-Semitism is the hatred of Jews. Anti-Zionism, however, is a political ideology opposing Zionism, a settler-colonialist movement advocating for a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The two terms, however, are often confused given Israel and the Israel lobby conflates them together.
“If someone is an anti-Zionist and they don’t believe there should be a state of Israel, I would disagree with them, but that’s not by definition anti-Semitic,” Susskind said. “And it’s damaging, frankly, to the very important fight against anti-Semitism to sprinkle that term so widely.” For Susskind, anti-Zionism and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement are legitimate free speech and should be treated as such.
Since CoP and DMFI’s statements, several Jewish groups have denounced these attempts to codify the IHRA definition into law.
The Progressive Israel Network—made up of APN, Ameinu, Habonim Dror North America, Hashomer Hatzair World Movement, Jewish Labor Committee, J Street, New Israel Fund, Partners for Progressive Israel, Reconstructing Judaism, and T’ruah—released a counterstatement.
In it, they warned the IHRA definition’s examples “[risk] wrongly equating what may be legitimate activities with antisemitism.”
The Progressive Israel Network called on the Biden administration to “refrain from legislating bans on constitutionally-protected speech and legitimate activism, which often wrongfully target those who harbor no hatred towards Jews, and which make it more difficult to identify and confront genuine instances of antisemitism.”
And Jewish activist groups, Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) and IfNotNow (INN) published petitions telling Biden to reject any potential misuse of the IHRA definition in silencing Palestinian rights activists.
This week, on the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, CoP and 51 member organizations announced they adopted the IHRA definition in their work.
The Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) was one of the member organizations to endorse using the definition, but it also released a statement advising against its codification into law.
Like JVP and INN, the organization warns a more pressing anti-Semitic threat stems from right-wing, white nationalists—like those who breached the Capitol on Jan. 6.
“[W]e fully recognize that antisemitism today emanates from the left and the right and the threats from all sources must be addressed,” URJ said. “The [IHRA’s] examples’ focus on Israel must not divert attention from the more frequent manifestations of antisemitism, too often violent, emanating from new streams in the hate movements that have threatened synagogues and other Jewish and non-Jewish community institutions in the U.S. today – streams primarily associated with the far right.”
And APN’s Susskind supports distinguishing how anti-Semitism on the right and the left materializes.
“They’re not the same, and they’re not an equivalent problem or equivalent threat,” Susskind said. “And what we see in the political discourse too often is people making these false equivalencies, such as ‘I heard about a college student on campus who said they were Zionist and somebody said something mean to them’ versus somebody has gone in and shot and killed people in the synagogue.”
So, as the Israel lobby pushes to erase pro-Palestine activism on college campuses, it not only risks endangering free speech but allowing far-right hatred to spread unchecked.
Feature photo | Israeli activists hold a banner during a protest on Israel Gaza border, Oct. 5, 2018. Writing in Hebrew reads “Free Gaza ghetto.” Ariel Schalit | AP
Jessica Buxbaum is a Jerusalem-based journalist covering Palestine, Israel and Syria. Her work has been featured in Middle East Eye, The New Arab, and Gulf News.