What is Anti-Semitism?; Defining the IHRA Definition of Anti-Semitism

Just because anti-Semitism is referred to as “the oldest hatred” doesn’t mean there’s ever been a consensus on what, exactly, constitutes anti-Semitism. As times change, the definition of anti-Semitism has come to change as well; in the 1370’s, anti-Semitism may have meant blaming the Jewish people for the Black Death. Now, however, the lines that form that hatred are unclear – and one group is working to change that. 

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) is “the only intragovernmental organization mandated to focus solely on Holocaust-related issues,” and works to keep alive the memory and lessons of Holocaust across the world. It was founded by the Swedish prime minister in 1998, and survivors such as Elie Wiesel have served on its board. Due to the nature of their work, the IHRA sees anti-Semitism on a daily basis. As such, in response to rising anti-Semitic hate crimes around the world, the group decided to formalize and draft a definition of what constitutes modern anti-Semitism. 

The 38-word definition, first drafted in 2004, has risen to prominence recently over calls from some Jewish college students for their American universities to adopt it. The actual text reads, “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.” Additionally, there are also 11 examples included of what constitutes anti-Semitism – seven of which relate to criticism of Israel. 

“To combat antisemitism, those in positions of authority – whether in the classroom, or in law enforcement, or in a sports club – must be able to identify it… The IHRA Working Definition performs that function precisely,” Jacob Isaacson, Chief Policy and Political Affairs Officer for the American Jewish Committee (AJC), said in a speech addressed to the United Nations on March 15, 2021. Along with the AJC, groups such as the AIPAC and Hillel International have also adopted and urged some American institutions to adopt it as “a non-legally binding reference point, or tool, that can provide guidance for educational and assessment purposes.” 

Despite the many prominent Jewish groups calling for the adoption of the IHRA working definition as a tool for fighting anti-Semitism, there has also been significant criticism of the definition. More liberal groups such as J Street, Americans for Peace Now and Jewish Voice for Peace have opposed the definition, claiming that it limits free speech surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. 

“The effort to combat antisemitism is being misused and exploited to instead suppress legitimate free speech, criticism of Israeli government actions, and advocacy for Palestinian rights,” according to a Jan. 12, 2021 statement by the Progressive Israel Network, a coalition of liberal Jewish groups. “In particular, the effort to enshrine in domestic law and institutional policy the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of Antisemitism, with its accompanying ‘contemporary examples,’ risks wrongly equating what may be legitimate activities with antisemitism.” 

The definition explicitly states that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.” It has been denounced for some of the examples of anti-Semitism it features, including “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,” and “applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.” 

Even Kenneth Stern, the former American Jewish Committee executive who was the lead drafter of the “working definition of antisemitism,” says it was “created primarily so that European data collectors could know what to include and exclude. That way antisemitism could be monitored better over time and across borders. It was never intended to be a campus hate speech code….”

Currently, it is unclear whether or not the IHRA working definition of anti-Semitism will gain more support, especially across American college campuses. Syracuse University’s Student Assembly tabled a resolution regarding the definition over concerns with adopting it; some schools, however, such as Pace University’s Student Government, have approved the definition. Presently, nine universities across the US and Canada and 29 countries have endorsed the definition.

While the IHRA definition has its shortcomings and could be improved with input from various Jewish organizations across the political spectrum, it is definitely a start towards extinguishing anti-Semitism in America and abroad. With responsible modifications to its contents and examples, the IHRA could finally begin the process of determining and defining what really constitutes the “world’s oldest hatred.”

Samantha Rigante is a senior at Golda Och Academy in New Jersey. ​She is a Staff Writer for Fresh Ink for Teens.

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