The Battle Over Jewish Students and the IHRA Definition of Antisemitism

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On January 12, 2021, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations published a letter to President-elect Joe Biden, imploring his incoming administration to “maintain and build upon” the precedent of honoring the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA)’s working definition of antisemitism.

J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami addressing the 2019 J Street National Conference. Photo: J Street via Flickr.

The IHRA’s definition specifies classical tropes as antisemitic, such as accusations of dual loyalty; marking Jews as cheap or greedy; or insisting Jews control global institutions. It also notes that the demonization and delegitimization of Israel, such as suggesting the state has “no right to exist,” should be considered intolerant towards Jews.

The IHRA’s definition of antisemitism is so overwhelmingly benign and agreed upon in mainstream Jewish circles that this letter would not have been cause for concern if not for the shameful behavior of a variety of Jewish organizations and their activists.

The controversy in question centers around Jewish college students, who are routinely harassed, bullied, and shunned by their peers and professors for the egregious offense of objecting to anti-Zionism. In their letter, the Conference of Presidents simply asked the incoming Biden administration to extend support for Jewish students facing discrimination in the classroom, citing the IHRA’s clear roadmap for when anti-Zionism trespasses into antisemitic territory.

But to “The Progressive Israel Network,” a hodgepodge of organizations including J Street and T’ruahthis was intolerable. These organizations insisted that the IHRA definition of antisemitism “silences criticism of Israel” on college campuses, and is therefore inappropriate.

That is false. The definition specifically states“Criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”

When we discuss adopting IHRA on campus, we are not promoting a McCarthyist program that cracks down on anybody who speaks ill of Israel. We are promoting a resource for student organizations and faculty to help them understand that forcing a Jewish student to resign from student government because of her or his Zionism, or holding a BDS resolution vote in which pro-Israel students are called Nazis and racists, are acts of antisemitism.

We are talking about vilification and discrimination, not criticism. The objectors know this to be true. They are aware that Jewish students are not crying foul because a professor said that the occupation of the West Bank is immoral. So why mischaracterize the IHRA definition and condescend to Jewish students?

Sadly, this was just the latest development in the Jewish left’s campaign to frame antisemitism as only a right-wing issue. In this struggle, trivializing the experiences of Jewish students is essential. Despite a British Labour Party so embroiled in antisemitic incidents that, in one poll, 40 percent of British Jews said they would consider leaving the country should the party see 10 Downing Street, and despite acts of hatred in the United States motivated by both antisemitism and “anti-Zionism,” such as the stabbing of a rabbi in Monsey, New York (though the attacker appeared to have no political affiliation), or the defacing of an Israeli restaurant in Portland this week, the Jewish left is insistent that the “antisemitism” in their camp is only advocacy for Palestinian human rights.

This stems from a childish compulsion to deny that anything could be wrong with one’s own political movement. The fact of the matter is that antisemitism exists everywhere, across the political spectrum, in every community, and in every country. To deny its existence somewhere in order to draw greater attention to it elsewhere makes all American Jews less safe.

It’s important to note that nearly every American Jewish organization, including those who signed on to the letter, realizes that antisemitism comes from both the right and the left, and that every instance of antisemitism is connected. When a Jewish person feels threatened, regardless of if they’re on a college campus or under rocket fire in Tel Aviv or subject to an army of white nationalists on the Internet, their first thought is not to investigate the politics of the antisemite; their first thought is to recognize that they are experiencing hatred on account of their Judaism.

We have a new president now, and a new Congress. We must recognize that antisemitism is a parasite that infects any viable host and does not discriminate based on partisan ideology. To insist otherwise is to facilitate the ominous rise of this age-old hatred.

Blake Flayton is a senior at George Washington University, with bylines in the New York Times, Tablet Magazine, and Haaretz.

The Battle Over Jewish Students and the IHRA Definition of Antisemitism

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