To define or not to define antisemitism? That’s a good question.

A 2016 definition has lent itself to a range of uses — some positive, others not so much. 

A large billboard in Times Square displays a message from JewBelong against antisemitism, July 12, 2021, in New York City. RNS photo by Renée Roden

(RNS) — In the American Jewish community these days communal organizations, including synagogues, are being pushed to sign on to a definition of antisemitism. That’s understandable, given the reemergence of antisemitic white supremacism on the right alongside a persistent association of hostility to Israel with hostility to Jews on the left. 

It is open to question, however, whether the definition in question serves a useful purpose. It goes 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.

Following this vague pronouncement are 11 examples of things that “may serve as illustrations” of antisemitism. These range from “Calling for, aiding, or justifying the killing or harming of Jews in the name of a radical ideology or an extremist view of religion” to “Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.”

Indeed, seven of the 11 examples relate to Israel in one way or another, including the charge that Jews in the Diaspora are more loyal to Israel than to “the interests of their own nations” and the assertion that Israel itself is “a racist endeavor.” This emphasis reflects the fact that the definition originated in the early 2000s, in response to an increase in attacks on Jews in Europe after the Second Intifada. At the time, there was a sense that Europeans did not understand how anti-Jewish sentiment had evolved since the Nazi era.

Fast forward to 2016, when the definition was officially adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, an intergovernmental agency charged with advancing and promoting Holocaust education, research and remembrance around the world. The agency made clear that the definition was not legally binding and that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country” was not antisemitic. A significant number of countries, along with the leading American Jewish agencies, signed on.

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Despite the disclaimers, there was considerable pushback — not only from Palestinian groups but also from progressive Jews, who felt that what was now called “the IHRA definition” went too far in branding criticism of Israel as antisemitic. Kenneth S. Stern, a lawyer and former executive at the American Jewish Committee who helped draft the original definition, publicly expressed concern about its being used to suppress free speech on college campuses.

Last March, a group of Jewish scholars working under the auspices of the Knight Program in Media and Religion at USC proposed an alternative definition titled the Nexus Document. The same month saw publication of the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism, a similar effort that was signed by some 200 Jewish academics from around the world.

Both documents criticize the IHRA definition for lack of clarity — their own formulations are certainly clearer — and give examples of what they do not as well as what they do consider antisemitic with respect to Israel. For example, both deny that opposition to Zionism as a form of nationalism is per se antisemitic. (The IHRA document does not mention Zionism one way or another.) 

The Nexus Document contends that “(p)aying disproportionate attention to Israel and treating Israel differently than other countries is not prima facie proof of antisemitism.” The Jerusalem Declaration asserts that “(b)oycott, divestment and sanctions are commonplace, non-violent forms of political protest against states. In the Israeli case they are not, in and of themselves, antisemitic.”

Effectively, then, the issue of defining antisemitism has turned into an internal Jewish debate over what are and are not legitimate grounds for criticizing Israel. And as the alternative definitions imply, the IHRA definition has lent itself to a range of uses — some positive, others not so much. 

Last summer, the European Commission published a handbook that used the IHRA definition as the basis for identifying a number of actual statements and behaviors as examples of antisemitism. The handbook shows that the definition may provide a useful template for understanding what antisemitism is.

On the other hand, last month the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center — named for a renowned Nazi hunter — published its annual list of the “Global Anti-Semitism Top Ten.” The entire country of Germany earned the No. 7 spot for allegedly failing to do enough to combat antisemitism on the right, on the left and among Islamists.

The center singled out Michael Blume, the commissioner against antisemitism for the German state of Baden-Württemberg, for “anti-Semitic and anti-Israel activities on social media” because he allegedly “liked” a 2019 Facebook post from a “friend” that read: “Zionists, Nazis and radicals should quickly say goodbye to my friends list.” State officials were criticized for letting Blume “engage in these anti-Semitic and anti-Israel activities on social media.” 

Blume replied that he might have “liked” a post that was later edited and that in any event he believes that anti-Zionism equals antisemitism. Katharina von Schnurbein, the European Union’s coordinator for fighting antisemitism, tweeted that the criticisms of Blume “not only blur #antisemitism & harm the fight against it, they also discredit the invaluable legacy of #SimonWiesenthal.

“(Y)ou cannot fight ‘anti-Semitism’ without opposing all those who attack Zionists and demonize Zionism,” Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the center’s associate director, wrote in an email to the Jewish Telegraphic Society. “This fact is embedded in the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism.”

As I said, the usefulness of the IHRA definition is open to question.

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