US antisemitism strategy helps opponents target IHRA definition as UN takes aim at Israel and its supporters. Commencement speakers attacking Israel provoke controversy as US resumes exclusion of Israeli institutions in the ‘West Bank’ from research funding.

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The Biden Administration’s new US antisemitism strategy has helped a growing effort to undermine the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition, including from the United Nations and the US Congress. The strategy’s positive citation of the rival Nexus definition, in which demonization and double standards regarding Israel are not regarded as antisemitic, has empowered left wing, Islamist, and other critics of IHRA. The United Nation’s “Commission of Inquiry” into Israel’s human rights situation expanded the critique of IHRA by singling out US states that use the definition. Coupled with the Administration’s decision to end scientific and technical funding of Israeli institutions in the ‘West Bank,’ the policy appears designed to pressure Israel with delegitimization.


The most important BDS development in June was the continued fallout from the Biden Administration’s new US National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism. Most of the strategy consists of directives to the US Government to expand ongoing educational and policy initiatives to include antisemitism, only in the context of combatting ‘all forms of hatred’ including Islamophobia.

Two area attracted criticism, the first being the resources used to understand antisemitism, specifically the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition:

There are several definitions of antisemitism, which serve as valuable tools to raise awareness and increase understanding of antisemitism. The most prominent is the non-legally binding “working definition” of antisemitism adopted in 2016 by the 31-member states of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), which the United States has embraced. In addition, the Administration welcomes and appreciates the Nexus Document and notes other such efforts.

The phrase “welcomes and appreciates the Nexus Document,” which does not explicitly state that demonization and double standards regarding Israel constitute antisemitism, was immediately taken as evidence the administration was seeking to dilute the far more widely accepted IHRA definition.

This exclusion was explicitly stated by ‘Squad’ member Rep. Jan Schakowsky who, along with 21 other members of Congress, applauded “the administration’s decision not to codify the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism in this strategy and to instead look so several definitions of antisemitism.” The Congressional letter also called on the administration to extend this approach to the United Nations.

Another of the controversial aspects of the strategy was the administration’s decision to include the Islamist pro-BDS group Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) as a “partner” as part of the initiative “to educate religious communities about steps they can take to protect their houses of worship from hate incidents.” When questioned, Deborah Lipstadt, United States Special Envoy for Monitoring and Combating Antisemitism, claimed that the involvement of CAIR “had nothing to do with the document itself, nothing to do with the formulation of the policy,” and that the White House Office of Community Engagement had “reached out to all kinds of organizations.”

She went on to claim that “I think the plan makes it very clear: It says America embraces the IHRA definition, by quoting what Secretary [of State Antony] Blinken said in January 2022, in the name of the Biden-Harris administration” but added “There wasn’t a triumph to cloud the picture; it wasn’t an effort to diminish IHRA in any way, it was an effort to say ‘things [in the Nexus] could be useful.” White House representatives have otherwise declined to discuss the IHRA question or the position of Israel in the national antisemitism strategy as a whole.

Given the unlikelihood of CAIR actually opposing antisemitism as a policy, it is reasonable to believe that their inclusion was a function of coalition politics within the Democratic Party which has designated the group as the official representative of American Muslims in the same manner it has chosen J Street to represent American Jews.

The US State Department also quietly reversed a Trump Administration policy and will cut off support for Israeli academic institutions and for technical/scientific projects located over the ‘Green Line,’ notably Ariel University. A State Department spokesman stated “The State Department recently circulated foreign policy guidance to relevant agencies in the United States government, advising that engaging in bilateral scientific and technological cooperation with Israel in geographic areas which came under the administration of Israel after 1967 and which remain subject to final-status negotiations is inconsistent with U.S. foreign policy.”

The State Department later clarified that the decision did not mean the US would again regard ‘settlements’ as ‘illegal.’ The move was widely condemned with former US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman stating “Make no mistake. The United States, by this action, is embracing the BDS movement, violating a binding bilateral agreement with Israel, and creating a lose/lose dynamic whereby the people of the region—Israelis and Palestinians—will lose the most.”

Another report noted that outgoing US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides approved a large grant to ‘human rights’ organizations to document Israeli ‘abuses’ in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza Strip. The timing of the funding cut-off coupled with the Biden Administration’s weak support for IHRA, and continued refusal to invite Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to the White House suggests that political support is being manipulated to pressure Israel on issues such as Iran and to mollify far left factions within the Democratic Party.

The administration’s antisemitism strategy has also empowered the growing international campaign to undermine and expunge the IHRA definition, including in a new report from the United Nation’s “Commission of Inquiry” (COI) which permanently targets Israel. Among other things the report complains that “Legitimate criticism of Israeli policies and actions is increasingly reframed as antisemitism, relying on the controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance working definition of antisemitism adopted in 2016” and criticizes US states that have adopted anti-BDS legislation.

The report also accuses Israel of “delegitimizing and silencing civil society” by proscribing ‘human rights organizations,’ most of which are associated with terrorist groups such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The report was touted by Amnesty International and widely condemned by Israeli officials and observers, who pointed again to the long history of antisemitic statements expressed by the COI’s members, as well as by 27 countries, led by the US.

BDS supporters have taken to characterizing the use of IHRA as a “human rights violation” while academics even have used the dispute over IHRA as the opportunity to promote a ‘one state solution’ in which Israel is eradicated in favor of an improbable ‘binational’ state desired by neither Israelis nor Palestinians. In contrast, a report from 56 British universities noted the IHRA definition had created no impediments to free expression or academic research. The report noted, however, that the antisemitic climate at British universities is forcing Jewish faculty and students to hide their identities for fear of harassment.

On campus the fallout over City University of New York (CUNY) Law School commencement, in which a BDS supporter gave a talk vilifying Israel, expanded. Fatima Mohammed’s speech included condemnations of “capitalism, racism, imperialism and Zionism around the world,” the New York City Police Department, CUNY itself, and called for “revolution” against “all oppressive institutions.”

Mohammad’s speech was quickly condemned by Jewish groups, who pointed to the case as an early test of the Biden Administration’s new antisemitism strategy. The CUNY Board of Trustees condemned Mohammad’s “hate speech as they were a public expression of hate toward people and communities based on their religion, race or political affiliation.” Several but not all trustees also issued individual statements denouncing Mohammad’s speech. CUNY BDS supporters responded by disrupting a Board of Trustees meeting while BDS supporters cast her as a brave victim of a ‘right wing smear campaign.’

Local media and politicians also belatedly condemned the speech. After an early comment which mildly rebuked “words of negativity and divisiveness,” New York City Mayor Eric Adams, who was jeered at the graduation by CUNY Law students, stated “If I was on that stage, when those comments were made, I would have stood up and denounced them immediately.” For her part, New York Governor Kathy Hochul described Mohammad’s remarks as “heartbreaking” but did not respond to calls to remove the CUNY chancellor or to defund or otherwise discipline CUNY.

In response to criticism, Mohammad and CAIR claimed that her speech had been approved by CUNY. They also claimed Mohammad had been “relentlessly harassed by far-right media, Mayor Eric Adams, and multiple members of Congress and City Council. As an institution of higher education, CUNY has a responsibility to protect its students, even in the face of disagreement or discomfort.” The university then denied that it had approved the speech.

Predictably, the CUNY faculty union – which has formally endorsed BDS – condemned the trustees’ statement, claiming the “overbroad description of hate speech undermines CUNY’s character as a university where free speech and open dialogue can flourish.” The union later endorsed City Councilman Charles Barron, well known for a variety of antisemitic statements and intense Israel antipathy, for reelection. The union also endorsed another City Council candidate, Wai Yee Chan, who called Mohammad’s speech “a very individual case” of antisemitism while denying that CUNY Law has a broader problem with antisemitism. Both Barron and Chan lost their races.

One unusual reaction to the CUNY Law controversy came in the far left Nation magazine, which critiqued Mohammad’s speech for its “lazy” antisemitism and more interestingly, its opposition to Israel’s existence. The assertion that “The fact that so many anti-Zionists offer nothing in the way of a vision for where the Jews living in Israel should go, including the thousands of mizrahim, reveals the limits of their critique,” was immediately attacked by BDS supporters including in the Nation.

The New York Times coverage more predictably dismissed complaints against Mohammad and cast her as the victim. Reports later indicated that the 2022 and 2023 commencement speakers, Nerdeen Kiswani and Fatima Mohammed, were also leaders of a 2022 New York City march at which a Jewish individual was assaulted.

The incident served to further sully academia’s reputation in the US Congress, where legislation was introduced “to rescind federal funding for colleges that promote antisemitism on their campuses.” Responding to the CUNY Law faculty’s unanimous support of a BDS resolution, several Jewish groups also called on the Internal Revenue Service to rescind CUNY’s tax exempt status.

In a parallel case another commencement speaker, Jana Abulaban, at El Camino College excoriated Israel, stating “I gift my graduation to all Palestinians who have lost their life and those who continue to lose their lives every day due to the oppressive apartheid state of Israel killing and torturing Palestinians as we speak.”

Responding to criticism, the school’s superintendent claimed the speaker was “not authorized to speak other than to introduce another speaker” and that she “took it upon herself to make an anti-Israel statement. Abulaban, however, claimed that her advisor had approved her speech. The local CAIR branch also condemned the school, saying it was “immoral for an institution of higher learning to misrepresent her position and join the bandwagon of unfair attacks against her.”

In another development that reflects the diminishing status of the IHRA definition, the Department of Education issued a “Dear Colleague” letter on discrimination against Jewish students in which neither IHRA nor Israel were mentioned. The Department of Education did, however, open an investigation of SUNY New Paltz regarding an incident last year where pro-Israel Jewish students were forced to leave a student sexual assault survivor group. The students alleged that the university had not offered support when they were bullied and then expelled from the group for being ‘Zionists.’

In the philanthropy sphere, the most significant development was the news that George Soros would turn control of the Soros Fund Management and chair of the Open Society Foundation to his son, Alexander Soros. The Soros family was an early funder of J Street and more recently its super PAC, and the elder Soros made a $100 million gift to the leading BDS group ‘Human Rights Watch.’

The younger Soros founded the progressive Jewish group ‘Bend the Arc;’ which casts far left Democratic policies as Jewish concerns. While praising the Biden Administration’s antisemitism strategy, the younger Soros also expressed opposition to the IHRA definition, stating it had been “hijacked” by some pro-Israeli groups to shield the government from accountability for its human rights policies.” This suggests that the vast Soros resources will continue to support ‘progressive’ stances on Israel and antisemitism including the denial that anti-Zionism is antisemitism.

In the international sphere, British officials introduced legislation that would make it illegal for local councils to engage in Israel boycotts. Several dozen ‘civil society’ organizations protested the moving stating “If passed, this law will stifle a wide range of campaigns concerned with the arms trade, climate justice, human rights, international law, and international solidarity with oppressed peoples struggling for justice.”

At the same time the British government’s newly confirmed “free speech tsar,” Cambridge philosophy professor Arif Ahmed, stated “The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition is an important tool for understanding how antisemitism manifests itself in the 21st century. Adopting it sends a strong signal to students and staff facing antisemitism.” but added “it must not restrict legitimate political speech and protest.” Ahmed’s appointment had been strongly opposed by Jewish and far left critics.

The proposed legislation and Ahmed’s appointment come in the context of rising antisemitism and continued BDS efforts by various British trade union groups. These include Unison, Britain’s largest public service union, whose annual meeting adopted a resolution in support of “Amnesty International’s call on the International Criminal Court to consider the crime of apartheid” and a BDS resolution calling for “for local government pension funds to engage with the companies they invest in and to demand they end their involvement in the occupied Palestinian territory and in the violation of Palestinian human rights.”

The continued role of trade unions promoting BDS and antisemitism, as well as Holocaust revisionism and anti-Americanism, was highlighted in late May as the University and College Union voted in favor of another BDS resolution which framed Israel boycotts within the “honourable tradition” of Nazi boycotts. Other resolutions blamed Israel, along with other countries, for the crisis in Sudan and accused Ukrainian President Zelenskyy of wanting that country to become an “armed, illiberal outpost of US imperialism.”

Responding to criticism of its stances the union stated “The University and College Union is a proudly inclusive union with a long history of fighting antisemitism and is a welcoming place for Jewish members.” For their part the leaders of British Jewish student groups expressed opposition to the government’s bill.

Elsewhere, the National Assembly of Kosovo adopted the IHRA definition, as did the Supreme Court of Buenos Aires and the Latin American Parliament.

US antisemitism strategy helps opponents target IHRA definition as UN takes aim at Israel and its supporters. Commencement speakers attacking Israel provoke controversy as US resumes exclusion of Israeli institutions in the ‘West Bank’ from research funding.

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Alex Joffe

Editor SPME / BDS Monitor

Alexander H. Joffe is an archaeologist and historian specializing in the Middle East and contemporary international affairs. He received a B.A. in History from Cornell University in 1981 and Ph.D. in Near Eastern Studies from the University of Arizona in 1991. From 1980 to 2003 he participated in and directed archaeological research in Israel, Jordan, Greece and the United States. Joffe taught at the Pennsylvania State University and Purchase College, and has been Director of Research for Global Policy Exchange, Ltd., and The David Project, Center for Jewish Leadership.

Joffe's work is uniquely broad. Since 1991 he has published dozens of studies on the archaeology of the Eastern Mediterranean and is a leading figure in contentious debates over the relationship between archaeology and politics in the Middle East. He has also authored numerous works on contemporary issues, including Middle Eastern environmental security threats from pollution and weapons of mass destruction. His work on the problem of dismantling intelligence agencies is widely cited by experts and democratic reformers alike.

In the past decade Joffe has written and spoken on topics as varied as the future of American Jews, the Palestinian refugee problem, and nationalism. During that time as well he has been deeply involved with combating the problems of campus antisemitism, the ‘boycott, divestment and sanctions' movement against Israel, and in educating Jews and others about threats to Israel and the West. His current projects include a biography of a British World War II general and several novels. He and his family reside near New York City.

Read all stories by Alex Joffe