The IHRA Definition of Anti-Semitism Puts Jews on the Wrong Side of the First Amendment


“Anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism.”

“Anti-Semitism is the dislike of the unlike.”

“Anti-Semitism is hatred of Jews, period.”

“An anti-Semite is someone who hates Jews more than is absolutely necessary.”

Defining anti-Semitism? It’s not entirely objective. Perhaps the best approach — paraphrasing U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in his famous comment about pornography — is the old, clichéd, “I can’t define it, but I know it whe r=n I see it.” This approach, however, poses a problem that makes it difficult to measure Jew-hatred: All too often incidents or expressions are characterized as anti-Semitism when they are not, or ignored when they certainly are. The gut feeling — the “kishka factor” — is important. But gut reactions are not the same as hard data. In 2021, the conversation about anti-Semitism is not about anti-Semitism; it is about how anti-Semitism is processed, how anti-Semitism is defined.    

So what is anti-Semitism?

Not an easy question to answer, these days, an era of BDS, of intersectionality, of campus instability. And, when it comes to anti-Zionism, the diciest question is at what point criticism of Israel becomes anti-Semitism.

That question is at the heart of an ongoing debate around the “working definition” devised by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), a resource group on the Holocaust for educators, museum professionals and policymakers. The IHRA definition, adopted in 2016, defines anti-Semitism as “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

Not great, but so far so good.

The problem began with a set of examples that the IHRA adopted “to guide it in its work.” These examples, which came under the rubric of “targeting the State of Israel,” included some dozen bullet-points, most of which describe legitimate anti-Semitism.

Some, however, would paint an overly broad indictment of anti-Israel rhetoric that critics say could result in the stifling of free speech when it comes to Israel and the Palestinians.

The debate has been heard in academia, in municipal politics, and in diplomatic circles. Most recently it was heard at CUNY, where the Student Senate voted down a resolution to adopt the IHRA definition. Proponents of the resolution, including the campus Hillel, said adopting the definition would make campus Jews safer. Opponents, including a Jewish student law association, said it would “defame” defenders of Palestinian rights.

Does the IHRA definition clarify when Israel criticism becomes anti-Semitic? Or does it aid in the weaponization of anti-Semitism by helping limit freedom of expression on the campus and elsewhere?

An example: When activists characterize certain policies of the State of Israel as racist — is that vile anti-Semitism or protected speech and legitimate debate? My view is that criticism — indeed, even harsh criticism — of the policies of the government of Israel is entirely legitimate. The point at which it becomes anti-Semitism is the point at which the legitimacy of the Zionist enterprise and, by extension, the legitimacy of the State, is questioned, because at that point the legitimacy of Jewish peoplehood is called into question — and this, tautologically, is anti-Semitism. The “Zionism-is-Racism” movement of the 1970s is a good example. And the IHRA definition makes this distinction, saying that “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor” is a contemporary example of anti-Semitism.

The IHRA is less helpful in defining anti-Semitism as “applying double standards by requiring of [Israel] a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.”

Many who want to weaponize anti-Semitism cite this bullet point to label the BDS movement as anti-Semitic. One pro-Israel group, StandWith Us, cites the “application of double standards” in encouraging Facebook to adopt the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism. Critics of the clause, however, say they have every right to pick their targets, and a pro-Palestinian campus group has no obligation to call out China for its treatment of Uighurs or Myanmar for its oppression of the Rohingya.

It is clear that incorporating the IHRA definition into federal and state legislation, as some wish, would be harmful. But there indeed may be IHRA legislation coming down the pike in the Congress, legislation that will be supported by many in the Jewish community. Recent anti-Semitic incidents have created a climate of fear. But such fear may lead people to act rashly, and to support policies with unintended consequences, such as stifling free speech.

Further, politically, when boycotting Israel is defined as anti-Semitism, it is a slippery slope, creating an atmosphere in which calling for a halt in settlement building and blocking funds for their construction — even by the White House — could be seen as anti-Semitic.

At bottom, codifying the IHRA into law or campus speech codes will have a chilling effect on criticism of Israel — especially on the campus — and put the Jewish community on the wrong side of the First Amendment.

More basic, as policy analyst Jonathan Jacoby suggests, is the agenda of those pushing for the adoption the IHRA agenda: “The effort to define anti-Semitism in IHRA is largely a ploy of the pro-Israel Right to fight an anti-Israelism of the Left.”

When boycotting Israel is defined as anti-Semitism, it is a slippery slope.

Additionally, there are objective consequences of fighting anti-Israelism at the expense of other forms of anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism from white supremacist, radical Christian and other right-wing extremist groups has become a mainstay of social media, and has inspired physical attacks on Jews from Pittsburgh to Poway. Thanks in part to Donald Trump, conspiracy mongers like the Proud Boys and QAnon, whose dangerous theories often devolve into or echo vicious anti-Semitic expressions, have become part of segments of the political mainstream.

Yet our new definers of anti-Semitism — including some Holocaust survivors groups and right-wing Israeli advocacy organizations — choose to emphasize anti-Israel expression as a greater danger than real threats from the extreme right.

Political analyst Hank Sheinkopf, in a personal conversation, captured the moment: “The IHRA definition, if codified in law, will set a standard that will allow for only limited discussion, and will, in fact —counterintuitively — permit more extremist action.”

Definitions? I have always liked historian David Berger’s workmanlike definition of anti-Semitism: “Anti-Semitism means either of the following: (1) hostility toward Jews as a group that results from no legitimate cause or greatly exceeds any reasonable, ethical response to genuine provocation; or (2) a pejorative perception of Jewish physical or moral traits that is either utterly groundless or a result of irrational generalization or exaggeration.”

Straightforward. No political or ideological baggage.

Works for me. It ought to work for our community.

Jerome Chanes, a senior fellow at the Center for Jewish Studies of the CUNY Graduate Center, has written extensively on anti-Semitism. He is the author of four books and numerous articles, reviews, and book-chapters on Jewish public affairs, history, and arts and letters. His current project is a book setting a context for 100 years of Israeli theatre.