Even during this pandemic, when many college students are learning remotely and are not on campus, antisemitic harassment is still a serious problem. Much of it continues to be perpetrated by the anti-Israel hate group that calls itself “Students for Justice in Palestine” (SJP). Recently, SJP bullied a Jewish student at Tufts University, threatening him with a disciplinary hearing and removal from his student government position, simply because he challenged SJP’s lies in a student referendum targeting Israel.
Given how dire campus antisemitism continues to be, and how the harassment of Jewish students is so linked to demonizing and delegitimizing Israel, it is disgraceful that a handful of far-left Jewish and allegedly pro-Israel groups are opposing the adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism. They don’t want universities to use it. They don’t want states and cities to adopt it. And they want the federal government to stop considering it.
The IHRA definition includes a core and uncontroversial description of antisemitism as “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews.” Importantly, it also includes contemporary examples of antisemitism, some relating to Israel. The definition has been widely accepted and for good reason: it is an excellent tool for students, educators, administrators, government officials and others to identify and understand antisemitism in all its forms.
Yet a few far-left groups that claim they’re Jewish and pro-Israel have vocally opposed the adoption of the IHRA definition, among them J Street, Americans for Peace Now, New Israel Fund, T’ruah and IfNotNow. They claim that considering the definition threatens constitutionally protected speech.
The claim is false. The State Department has been using a version of the IHRA definition for years, without infringing on free speech. In 2018, triggered by the Zionist Organization of America’s civil rights action against Rutgers University, the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights declared that it also uses the IHRA definition when it considers antisemitism cases filed under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.
Since then, the ZOA’s Title VI actions against the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke University were favorably resolved, as was another Title VI action against NYU. In not one of these cases was the IHRA definition used to stifle free speech or debate about Israel. It can’t be; the definition must be used consistent with the free speech protections guaranteed under the First Amendment.
These opponents of the IHRA definition also claim that its adoption will make it harder to identify and confront genuine instances of antisemitism, and won’t keep our communities safer. These claims don’t make sense. Some antisemitism is easily identified – a swastika defacing a synagogue or a Hillel building, or white supremacists calling for the exclusion of Jews. What’s harder is identifying when anti-Israelism crosses the line into antisemitism.
IN OUR experience, it’s overwhelmingly this form of antisemitism that Jewish college students are enduring, to the detriment of their emotional health and well-being. That’s what makes accepting the IHRA definition so important. It illustrates when criticism of Israel may be masking Jew-hatred, so that the problem can be more effectively addressed.
These radical left-wing groups opposing the definition have unfortunately resorted to politicizing how we confront antisemitism. They claim that the IHRA definition is a tool of the far-right. That’s false.
The definition’s acceptance is wide, growing and diverse. In addition to the US government, approximately 30 other countries have already adopted it. US states are adopting it. Cities around the world have adopted it, too, as have colleges and universities. There’s a national student movement urging the definition’s adoption, and they have already achieved that goal at several US and Canadian schools. The Global Imams Council, comprised of Muslim religious leaders from all denominations, adopted the definition. Even the sports world has begun adopting it. Recently, Secretary of State Antony Blinken confirmed that the Biden administration “enthusiastically embraces” the IHRA definition, including the examples of antisemitism relating to Israel. The notion that the definition is a tool of the far-right is patently false.
It’s obvious why J Street and a handful of other viciously anti-Israel groups would oppose the IHRA definition and are worried about its wide and growing acceptance. As the definition is embraced and more people understand that certain criticism of Israel is actually antisemitic, the truth about radical left-wing groups like J Street will be exposed. The definition will help others see that J Street’s “pro-Israel, pro-peace” mantra is a sham, given this group’s incessant focus on condemning Israel and undermining US support for the Jewish state. These radical left-wing groups will lose credibility and valuable alliances.
Furthermore, far-left groups like J Street partner with anti-Israel and antisemitic groups on campus, like SJP. They must also be worried that as the IHRA definition gains acceptance, students and others will come to see the truth about SJP and reject its false, hateful and divisive messages about Israel.
Fortunately, J Street and its ilk comprise a small minority of opponents to the IHRA definition. Those of us who are genuinely committed to identifying and battling antisemitism in all its forms – including when it is masked as criticism of Israel – should continue to encourage using this important tool, and to call out the false claims of those allegedly Jewish and pro-Israel groups that actually focus on condemning the Jewish state and advocating for its enemies.
Morton A. Klein is national president of the Zionist Organization of America; Susan B. Tuchman, Esq. is director of the Center for Law and Justice.
You can view the original Op-Ed in the Jerusalem Post here.