The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, in 2016, adopted a so-called Working Definition of Antisemitism. Given the complexity and pervasiveness of this ancient bigotry, the statement itself is remarkably succinct at a mere 38 words.
It reads: “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.”
It is innocuous and hardly debatable. Where controversy has arisen is in the accompanying 11 examples, seven of which make reference to Israel. Examples provided of antisemitic manifestations include: accusing Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust; accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations; applying double standards by requiring of Israel a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation; drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis; and holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.
Opponents of the definition, including a majority of Vancouver’s city council, which voted against adopting the definition in 2019, claim it could stifle free expression in the form of criticism of Israel – this despite the fact that the definition self-defines as “non-legally binding.” In a world where any individual with access to a computer has more power than even the most powerful figures in history to disseminate their views to a global audience, it is notable that “Zionists” are imagined to have the power to control what others think, do and say. The criticism is perhaps, ironically, a manifestation of the problem itself.
To their credit, the new U.S. administration has said it “embraces and champions” the definition. The previous administration also endorsed the definition. (Canada and 28 other countries, as well as scores of cities and other jurisdictions and organizations have similarly endorsed it.) But the Trump administration’s support was a component of a broader politicization of ostensible support for the Jewish community. By allowing Israel’s right to exist in peace to become a partisan tool, we risk polarizing politicians and the public, driving supporters to their corners on a topic where less polarization should be encouraged.
If there are problems inherent in the terminology, it is perhaps in the chutzpah of attempting to define it at all. It is almost universally acknowledged that antisemitism is uniquely capable of metastasizing as required by the perpetrator. It is, above all, a pathology of the antisemite, with more to do with the eye of the beholder than with Jewish people themselves. Antisemitism is very often (if not always) a projection of someone’s (or some society’s) own problems directed toward an empty vessel in the form of “Jews.” Note that antisemitism is most rampant in the places where Jews are fewest – or nonexistent.
Antisemitism differs from other prejudices and bigotries as well in the typical responses it engenders. We have unlearned a tendency to deflect blame for misogyny back onto its victims; we do not accept that violence against women is in anyway justified by, say, what a victim was wearing. We recognize racism as a flaw of it perpetrators and we do not accept that racism against people of colour is based on the behaviour or innate characteristics of the victims. Homophobia is a pathology of the homophobe; it is not nurtured or provoked by LGBTQ+ people. Yet how many times do we see people respond to antisemitic violence or words with a variation on the question: What did the Jews do to deserve it?
Last week, that formulation was hinted at by a Democratic member of the U.S. Congress, Rep. Andy Levin, of Michigan. “Injustice anywhere is an injustice everywhere,” Levin said during a webinar. “Unless Palestinian human rights are respected, we cannot fight antisemitism.”
This false equivalency and conflation – coming from a Jewish elected official, no less – is a picture-perfect illustration of why the IHRA was created.
As the new administration in Washington begins repairing the unprecedented social and economic damage done to the country over the past four years, it is encouraging to see one of its first acts being an explicit and enthusiastic commitment to the battle against antisemitism.