Defining Antisemitism and Its Political Uses

On 25 May 2023, the Biden administration released a 60 page plan for combating domestic antisemitism. Generally, antisemitism is but one, albeit an historically significant one, of many violent racial and ethnic biases. In recent decades there has been an outburst of such hate and bias that is doing harm to many groups worldwide. It appears to be part of a resurgent fascism which, in turn, appears to be a backlash against liberal trends. This reactionary process has hit the United States and no one should doubt the seriousness of the problem of ethic hatred here in the “land of the free.” Every minority group in the country suffers from it. Jewish Voice for Peace has correctly contextualized the struggle against antisemitism when it tells us that “at a time when the dangers of white nationalism, including racism, antisemitism and Islamophobia, are all too apparent, the need to build safety for all people has never been greater.” The safety of the Jews is linked to the safety of others.

Nonetheless, antisemitism in the U.S. has earned special attention from the federal government because (1) Jews can muster the horrors of the past along with the hate-filled outbursts of the present, and (2) bring to bear the political clout of a well-honed lobby—hence the recent report that calls for a full-court press against antisemitism at just about every level of society.

It may therefore come as a surprise that the main controversy flowing from the Biden plan is just how to define antisemitism. For instance, though addressing the issue in only one paragraph, the administration report acknowledges that the definition is in dispute. “There are several definitions of antisemitism ….The most prominent is the non-legally binding ‘working definition’ of antisemitism adopted in 2016 by the 31-member states of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), which the United States has embraced. In addition, the Administration welcomes and appreciates the Nexus Document and notes other such efforts.”

To clarify the issue, the IHRA definition of antisemitism reads as follows: “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.” This is standard as far as it goes. Problems start to appear when the Alliance lists examples that it considers antisemitic—specifically, “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.” Not coincidentally, most older, established Jewish organizations with close ties to Israel have latched on to this example and used it as a weapon against those critical of the policies and practices of the Zionist state toward non-Jewish citizens and subjects, particularly Palestinians.

Mentioning the IHRA document on antisemitism, much less calling it “the most prominent” and the one that the U.S. “has embraced” was a mistake on the part of the Biden administration. This is so for several reasons: (1) It immediately shifted attention from the report and its goals to the controversy over definition. (2) It confirmed that the government had taken sides in this controversy. (3) It complicated the fight against antisemitism by publicly announcing that the administration was willing to ignore the prima facie fact that Israel has been documented to in fact be “a racist endeavor.” Every well respected human rights organization in the West such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the United Nations Office of Human Rights, and B’Tselem, among many others, has laid out this indictment in detail.

It is probable that the Biden administration made this mistake with eyes wide-open. And, it is probably President Biden’s own self-confessed Zionism that dictated it doing so. Yet, as a bone thrown to those who own the facts, the administration also mentioned that there exists other definitions of antisemitism that it “welcomes and appreciates” such as the Nexus definition. This definition reads, “Antisemitism consists of anti-Jewish beliefs, attitudes, actions or systemic conditions. It includes negative beliefs and feelings about Jews, hostile behavior directed against Jews (because they are Jews), and conditions that discriminate against Jews and significantly impede their ability to participate as equals in political, religious, cultural, economic, or social life.” The Nexus document recognizes that those who hate Jews “because they are Jews” may well hate Israel too. However, it contains a list of actions which cannot be judged antisemitic. For instance, “criticism of Zionism and Israel, opposition to Israel’s policies, or nonviolent political action directed at the State of Israel and/or its policies should not, as such, be deemed antisemitic.” This approach is nuanced to fit well within U.S. principle of free speech and avoids the problem at the heart of the IHRA statement.

The IHRA’s Category Mistake

The controversy over definition has focused not on traditional sociopathic traits such as hatred of Jews. Everyone agrees that such an outlook and its associated behavior is antisemitic. Rather, the debate focuses on what is, in essence, a political question: whether there can be such a thing as legitimate criticism of Israel’s Zionist project. If you think this might reflect a category mistake, you are right.

Israel is a nationstate (one category) whose leaders have made an arbitrary claim to represent all the Jews worldwide (a qualitatively different category). For instance, the published aims of the Permanent Mission of Israel to the United Nations says it “represents the State of Israel, its citizens and the Jewish people on the global stage.” This claim cannot be substantiated for two reasons (1) there are tens of thousands (the number is growing all the time) of Jews outsider of Israel who do not want to be represented by that state. Many are neutral as regards Israel and many others are appalled by Israel’s Zionist ideology and the racist behavior it has generated, and (2) the claim of representation is called into question by the positions taken by the rabbinical officialdom controlling religious practices in Israel. These are orthodox and ultra-orthodox rabbis who believe that Jews who do not practice the religion as they do—which happens to be most Jews in the U.S. and Europe—are not real Jews. Thus, Israeli leaders are caught in a dilemma. They claim to represent a diaspora community of Jews, many of whom their “official” rabbis say are not really Jews.

Leaving aside the “who is a Jew” problem, Israel implements policies and practices that have produced institutional and legal discrimination against non-Jews. This is perhaps an inevitable result of designing a state for one group in territory awash with many groups. The effort has progressed so far that it is now factually accurate to call Israel an apartheid state. Is criticism of such policies and practices the same as antisemitism? Do those critical of Israel’s official racism hate Jews? Again, part of the problem with the Zionist argument  is that many of the critics are Jews (despite what antiquarian Rabbis might say). In response, the boosters of Israel, the descriptive term here is “political Zionists,” have, once more arbitrarily, invented a class of people they call the self-hating Jew—this is suppose to account for Jewish opposition to Zionist Israel.

The Case of Jonathan Greenblatt

One such political Zionist, who claims that he and his organization had a lot to do with the Biden Plan, is Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). Greenblatt asserts that the administration’s effort draws “heavily from our plans and our recommendations. My team was collaborating actively with the interagency policy committee that staffed and led this.” This might be the case, for there has been no public recognition by the U.S. government of just how radical the ADL and most other traditional Jewish American organizations have become in defense of Israel. Thus, Greenblatt is convinced that the Biden administration is now fully on board with the IHRA definition of antisemitism. “The White House plan elevates and embraces IHRA as the preeminent definition that it is now using to understand antisemitism in all its forms.” He dismisses the Nexus paper as a “supplementary document.”

One should be very suspicious of Greenblatt’s ability to access, much less analyze, the rapidly evolving American culture and politics as regards Zionist Israel. As I noted in an earlier analysis (17 November 2022), he offers a remarkably inaccurate picture of Israel’s official ideology. He tells us “Zionism isn’t just a light for the Jewish people, it’s a liberation movement for all people. We should take strength in it, we should find inspiration in it, and we should share it with the world.” This same skewed argument was used by the Zionists in the mid-1940s— while they promoted a colonial-settler project during a period marked by decolonization. Somehow, Greenblatt has also got it into his head that “Palestinians should embrace Zionism.” As utterly delusional as this sounds, Greenblatt is again reviving an earlier ploy. The New York Times reported in early April of 1921 that Winston Churchill (then Colonial Secretary) had travelled to Jerusalem and met with local Palestinian leaders. He told them that creating a Jewish national home in Palestine would be “good for the Arabs dwelling in Palestine” because they would “share in the benefits and progress of Zionism.” At the time this was known as “the full-belly theory of imperialism.” In 1921, the real impact of Zionism in Palestine was in the future. Today, Greenblatt’s apparent disregard of that history is unforgivable.

Nonetheless, that ignorance, real or fabricated, is necessary if one is to adopt the IHRA statement as the “preeminent definition that is now used to understand antisemitism in all its forms.” What is the dark logic in all of this? The progressive Israeli news site +972 explains, “what the IHRA definition does is provide Israel and the wider hasbara apparatus with a highly effective tool for bashing Palestinians and the Palestinian liberation movement, and grant the global far right an equally effective tool for whitewashing its own antisemitism .… allowing antisemites to propose that the absence of criticism of Israel indicates a lack of animus toward Jews …. lobbying for the universal adoption of a definition of antisemitism based on this inner logic is terribly bad for Jews around the world.”

On 5 June 2023, the European Legal Support Center (ELSC) released a report on the impact of the IHRA definition of antisemitism on the rights of free speech and assembly in the European Union and United Kingdom. It came as no great surprise that this case-based assessment showed that the IHRA definition was quickly weaponized in order to stifle criticism of Zionist Israel. The ELSC report documents 53 such cases. All of them targeted groups or individuals expressing criticism of Israeli policies and practices toward Palestinians.

There can be little doubt that this weaponization of the IHRA definition is what Jonathan Greenblatt and the ADL have in mind. Likewise, it is probably a safe bet that many in the Biden administration, including the president himself, will go along with this distorting practice unless they are confronted both in the streets and the courts to the point that they are publicly embarrassed by their own hypocrisy. It is only by ending this illegitimate misdirection that any real fight against antisemitism can progress. The struggle to do so is already ongoing.

Lawrence Davidson is a retired professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester, PA.