Part I Antisemitism: A Smell or a Cognitive Test

Yesterday, I sent out a blog providing someone else’s introduction to the war of words over the definition of antisemitism. It is a war with serious policy consequences. The centre of the debate concerns incorporating certain forms of hate speech focused on criticism of Israel as antisemitic. An alternative way of looking at the same issue is the task of protecting the right to free speech and the right to criticize Israel without being labeled an antisemite.

Currently, in the US Congress, there is an organized effort of progressive members of the Democratic Party to urge replacing the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition with either the much more recent proposed Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism (JDA) or even last month’s Nexus proposal, insisting that the IHRA definition is too restrictive. The latter two, they claimed, offered more leeway for legitimate criticism. In the letter sent by Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) and signed by Reps. Mark Pocan (D-WI), Andy Levin (D-MI), Jamie Raskin (D-MD) and Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), these US representatives urged Secretary of State Tony Blinken to “consider multiple definitions of antisemitism, including two new definitions that have been formulated and embraced by the Jewish community.”

The problem is that only the IHRA definition has been embraced by the Jewish community. The JDA has been put forth by mostly world-renowned scholars – over 200 – and the Nexus proposal by a group centred at UCLA. Whatever the merits of either, neither can be compared to the very widespread adoption of the IHRA definition not only within the Jewish community but in the larger world political arena.

Further, the Nexus definition is explicitly not proposed as a replacement but as an amendment. And the JDA is ambivalent, sometimes suggesting it is merely an attempt at improving and clarifying the guidelines, but at other times implying that the IHRA definition lacks clarity and is fundamentally flawed. On the one hand, for identification, educational and policy purposes, it puts forth its own definition as merely an improvement helpful for interpreting IHRA while then suggesting their own proposed definition as an alternative and replacement.

“The Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism responds to ‘the IHRA Definition,’ the document that was adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) in 2016. Because the IHRA Definition is unclear in key respects and widely open to different interpretations, it has caused confusion and generated controversy, hence weakening the fight against antisemitism. Noting that it calls itself “a working definition,” we have sought to improve on it by offering (a) a clearer core definition and (b) a coherent set of guidelines. We hope this will be helpful for monitoring and combating antisemitism, as well as for educational purposes. We propose our non-legally binding Declaration as an alternative to the IHRA Definition. Institutions that have already adopted the IHRA Definition can use our text as a tool for interpreting it.”

This series of articles will deal with the current controversies over adopting one definition of antisemitism versus another. Yesterday’s blog used an article from The Jerusalem Post to provide an outline background to the dispute. In this series of blogs, I now intend to probe that dispute to a much greater depth. The general argument for insisting on a definition is that if you want to measure the phenomenon, if you want to educate people about it, if you want to combat it, it is necessary to specify the “it” that you are collecting information about, sharing analyses and mustering support and techniques for preventing or inhibiting its growth and spread.

In the Toronto Police Service annual hate crime report, it identified the Jewish community as the group most victimized by hate crimes. Each year for the past number of years, Federal Bureau of Investigation hate crime statistics also show that Jews, who constitute 1.8% of the American population, were overwhelmingly the top target for anti-religious hate crime is 2018, 2019 and 2020. In Toronto, hate crimes against Jews accounted for almost one-third of reported incidents in 2020, even as attacks on Black and Asian communities, witnessed a dramatic increase. In Toronto, in a year that saw an unprecedented 51% rise in hate crimes, there was a 43% increase in reported hate crimes targeting the Jewish community.

There is one distinctive feature of many hate crimes against Jews. As the marching torchbearers chanted, “Jews will not replace us” in Charlottesville, in their “Replacement Conspiracy Theory.” the threat to whites in the United States emerged from an alleged deliberate plan to import immigrants from countries of colour. That plan was created and is controlled and managed by Jews. Jews play a unique role as controllers, planners and implementers of the conspiracy. It is not that Jews will numerically replace whites. It is simply that Jews are allegedly the masterminds behind the plan to replace whites with minorities. The role of Jews is elevated as the number of attacks against Jews has increased.

Organizations like B’nai Brith and Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center (FSWC), along with government authorities, publish statistics and example cases to educate the professionals and the public about the problem and on the availability of tools to combat hate crime and extremism. One of the major tools are narratives simply depicting an incident of antisemitism. Another is inspirational – recording successful counters to incidents of antisemitism. Last week, for example, Honest Reporting sent out an email reporting that the Concordia Student Union (CSU) had apologized and recognized that their past actions, behaviours and inactions enabled antisemitism and led to the victimization of Jews on campus and, further, that the CSU also formally abandoned its support for the antisemitic BDS movement. The CSU was commended for a courageous commitment to chart a new course by initializing antisemitism training and implementing various protocols to safeguard Jewish students on campus.

The problem is that many liberal Jewish organizations, as much as they disagree and criticize the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, do not regard it as an antisemitic organization by and large even if its genesis may be rooted in antisemitism. This puts the controversy over the definition front and centre. For, according to one definition, the BDS movement against Israel is antisemitic but not according to another since most promoters of boycotts against Israel are not antisemitic. BDS cannot be characterized as antisemitic since every individual, and group of individuals, have the right to boycott any country they wish.

But the issue over antisemitism is not the proposed boycott, but the motivation for initiating BDS and promoting it. The initiators and some of the promoters insist that Jews do not have the right to self-determination. In one definition of antisemitism, that denial is not antisemitic. In another, it is. The dispute is not over what took place historically, but over the character of BDS. And that requires criteria to adjudicate the dispute, a useless exercise when the debate over the definition goes to the heart of the problem on whether BDS should be characterized as antisemitic even if many and perhaps most of its current supporters are not opposed to a Jewish right of self-determination.

Further, the controversy also has to be placed against a background of efforts to pass anti-hate legislation and not just monitor and report on incidents. American national Jewish organizations have urged the government to improve the hate crime reporting process as the number of incidents have risen. By an overwhelming margin, Congress passed the No Hate Act (NHA), spurred not primarily by a rise in antisemitic incidents, but by a rise in anti-Asian hate crimes during the pandemic, including the mass shooting in Atlanta last month that killed eight people, including six Asian women. NHA facilitates reporting, encourages educational programs and supports enforcement.

On the other hand, there are efforts underway, such as the progressive open letter to Secretary of State Tony Blinken advocating Palestinian rights and insisting that such efforts are not antisemitic. But it is one thing to be critical of Israel, a right that all three definitions defend, and it is another to insist that Jews do not have a right to self-determination, a position many experts consider antisemitic. The problem is that when a Palestinian mob in Jerusalem attacked a 27-year-old Eli Rosen in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood, is this a response to the efforts of Israeli authorities and the Jewish right in Israel to Judaize the neighbourhood or is it part of the tit-for-tat fighting or is it part of a larger effort to deny the rights of the Jewish people. In turn, is there an equivalent hate crime when Jews attack Arabs and deny the right of Palestinians to self-determination. Where does the political leave off and antisemitism begin?

The JDA definition was intended to counter the adoption by Western governments, universities and cultural institutions to equate anti-Zionism with antisemitism. However, it is one thing to oppose Zionism as an ideology and recommend it not be adopted by Jews. It is quite another to deny Jews the right to self-determination if they prefer to adopt that as their political preference for the Jewish community – which the vast majority of Jews who openly identify as Jewish do. On the other hand, even the JDA definition has been criticized for focusing in part on Israel and, therefore, still enabling the weaponization of antisemitism in the fight against the Palestinians. The JDA document “still leaves a significant window of opportunity for those who would strategically conflate Palestine advocacy with antisemitism.” The issue is the position of white supremacists and not critics of Israel.

Going even further, organizations like Human Rights Watch accuse Israel of apartheid, an extreme form of racism and denial of rights. For with the singular focus on antisemitism, the definition privileges the Jewish case and denies Palestinian “dispossession and military occupation,” and the denial of Palestinian collective freedom and right of return. Whenever you stretch the concept of antisemitism to include even some forms of anti-Zionist rhetoric, and without contextualizing the dispute within the historical and contemporary experience of Palestinians, the efforts to adopt even the most progressive definition of antisemitism, the JDA one, is viewed as simply part of the propaganda effort to continue denying Palestinians their rights.

Isn’t Israel’s Law of Return guaranteeing the right of any Jew in the world to immigrate to Israel while denying the right of return to Palestinian refugees inherently discriminatory? Even calling the document the “Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism” appears to implicitly support the position that Jerusalem in its entirety is a Jewish city. By referring to Israel without defining its borders is to engage in the same vagueness and ambiguity as the IHRA definition which the JDA critiques. Human Rights Watch accuses Israel of apartheird practices. For the radical critics of all the forms of the definition, the very attempt to stretch the term antisemitism to include even some criticisms of Israel is the problem.

In the meanwhile, antisemitic events continue to take place. An Arab resident in Paris, purportedly high on marihuana, slits the throat of a Jewish woman, Sarah Halimi, while screaming “Allahu akbar.” How can this case be separated from an anti-Israel position that is blatantly antisemitic? A retired Jewish kindergarten teacher was beaten and then thrown from a window as the anti-Israel murderer cried out, “I’ve killed the devil.” Were the actions of such killers simply psychotic episodes resulting from amphetamines or a very heightened intake of marihuana? Were they simply the actions of disturbed minds or, and possibly, the actions of anti-Zionists with a political agenda that targeted Jews simply because they were Jews?

Whether in Canada, the United States or France, the issue is NOT just one of education, guides for social action or instruments for measuring incidents, but legislative issues to define what is what and under what law punishment should be meted out. When the café, Foodbenders, made a number of antisemitic statements in discriminating against potential patrons who were Jewish or Zionist and promoted antisemitic tropes, this might not have been murder, but surely it was a hate crime, an antisemitic hate crime. But it was done in clear and unequivocal opposition to Israel.

In this series of blogs, I want to further clarify and adjudicate the debate on the definition of antisemitism. In the next blog I will distribute a cluster of key documents so that readers will not need to hunt for them. Then I will put the problem within a larger meta-problem of criteria for providing a definition. Then I will return to some of the defensive and critical arguments for and against one or other of the definitions and finally circle back to suggest that the debate is an ideological one rather than one of definition, one where it is possible to align different pro-Israel groups and their ideologies with specific definitions. The war of words becomes, thereby, a proxy war over beliefs with those critical of any of the definitions announcing a “plague on all your houses” because, in different ways, each is allegedly intended to provide a rationale for the exploitation of oppression of Palestinians.


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