Distorted Definition: Redefining Antisemitism to Silence Advocacy for Palestinian Rights

One of the primary tactics opponents of the movement for Palestinian freedom have used to silence political debate is the branding of all support for Palestinian rights as anti-Jewish. Roughly half of the incidents of suppression Palestine Legal responds to each year include false accusations of antisemitism, totaling 895 incidents from 2014 to 2020.   

In an effort to add legitimacy to this tactic, Israel lobby groups have employed distorted definition of antisemitism that encompasses virtually all criticism of Israel and have attempted to entrench this definition through policy changes and legislation. 

This page tracks the evolution of the cynical ways Israel lobby groups have abused the definition and the definition’s impact on advocates for Palestinian rights.

We invite you to explore the following components:

TimelineHuman ImpactResources

 
2004 – 2008

Origins of a Politicized Redefinition

After decades of attempting to smear Palestine advocacy with false antisemitism accusations, Israel lobby groups develop a new Israel-centered definition of antisemitism. It is adopted by an EU body, and the U.S. State Department cites it in a report.

  • The European Union Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) begins working with the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and other Jewish and Israel advocacy groups to expand the definition of antisemitism. The AJC encourages inclusion of criticism of Israel in this redefinition.

    At the same time, Israeli politician Natan Sharansky creates the “3Ds Test” which defines “delegitimizing,” “demonizing” or “applying double standards” to Israel as examples of antisemitism.

  • The EUMC publishes a “Working Definition of Antisemitism,” which includes criticism of Israel and the “3Ds Test.” The body posts the definition to its website as a “practical guide for identifying incidents,” but never formally adopts it. After the EUMC, now renamed the Fundamental Rights Agency, quietly drops the definition from the agency website in 2013, a spokesperson explains that the agency never viewed the document as a valid definition.

  • The U.S. State Department uses the EUMC redefinition in a report, but states that some international approaches to defining antisemitism would violate the First Amendment if used in the United States. The report states that the State Department “does not endorse any such measures that prohibit conduct that would be protected under the U.S. Constitution.”


2008 – 2014

Pro-Israel Groups Unsuccessfully Target Students in the U.S.

Lawyers affiliated with pro-Israel groups attempt multiple times to abuse U.S. civil rights law to claim that campus advocacy for Palestine is antisemitic, filing federal complaints against three University of California campuses and Rutgers University.

The complaints use similar language attempting to redefine antisemitism including the “3Ds Test.”

All of the complaints are dismissed.

  • The Department of Education opens an investigation into the
    University of California, Irvine following a complaint by the right-wing Zionist Organization of America that advocacy for Palestinian rights created an antisemitic climate. The complaint alleges among other claims that the university failed to discipline students for “distribut[ing] flyers attributing, allegedly falsely, an anti-Israel statement to Nelson Mandela” and for wearing t-shirts that say “UC Intifada: How You Can Help Palestine.”

  • Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, head of another right-wing Israel advocacy group AMCHA Initiative, files a complaint alleging that the screening of the documentary “Occupation 101” and a teach-in called “Understanding Gaza” created a hostile environment for Jewish students at the University of California, Santa Cruz. The Department of Education opens an investigation into the complaint in 2011.

  • This lawsuit argues that the University of California, Berkeley failed to stop speech and activity for Palestinian rights on campus, such as theatrical mock checkpoints and events critical of Israel’s policies, creating a hostile climate for Jewish students. After the case is dismissed by the court because it targeted First Amendment protected activities, the lawyers file the claims in a complaint to the Department of Education.

  • The Zionist Organization of America files a complaint against Rutgers University alleging that advocacy for Palestinian rights created an antisemitic climate. The complaint focuses primarily on an event sponsored by student groups that featured stories of Holocaust and Nakba survivors.

  • The Department of Education dismisses three complaints against Palestine advocacy at the University of California’s Berkeley, Irvine, and Santa Cruz campuses, emphasizing that this political activity is protected by the First Amendment.

  • The Department of Education dismisses a complaint by the Zionist Organization of America against Rutgers University, finding that the political activity complained of is protected by the First Amendment and that there is no evidence to support the allegations made in the complaint.

  • Despite continued efforts by the Zionist Organization of America and the AMCHA Initiative to push their theory that criticism of Israel is antisemitic, the Department of Education definitively denies two appeals challenging the dismissals of civil rights complaints filed against University of California campuses at Berkeley and Santa Cruz.


2015 – 2018

Efforts to Adopt Distorted Definition Fail in U.S., Gain Steam in Europe

After the Department of Education dismisses complaints against universities, pro-Israel groups seek official endorsement of the redefinition of antisemitism.

These efforts gain little traction with Congress, state governments, and universities.

Student governments, including at Indiana University, San Diego State, and the University of Wisconsin, Madison adopt the redefinition following lobbying by Israel groups.


2018 – 2021

Trump Administration Weaponizes Definition

Trump appoints a key player in efforts to use the redefinition to silence Palestine advocacy as head of civil rights at the Department of Education.

States begin to adopt the redefinition, but efforts in Congress remain stalled.

Trump eventually imposes the definition on federal agencies in a controversial executive order, leading to a rapid uptick in federal complaints and investigations against campus Palestine advocacy.

Following the exit of the Trump administration, advocates for Palestinian freedom and pro-Israel groups face uncertainty as to whether the Biden administration will extend Trump’s adoption of IHRA as a censorship tool.

Various state and local governments adopt the distorted definition, including Texas, Nassau and Suffolk counties in Long Island, and Sharon, Massachusetts.

An Israeli government official tries to pressure a public university to cancel a course on Israel/Palestine using the definition.

A right-wing group seeks to punish Ben & Jerry’s after they announce they will no longer sell their ice cream in settlements, claiming that respecting international law is discriminatory under IHRA.

Student governments, including at CUNY City College, Florida State
University, and Stanford adopt the redefinition following lobbying by Israel groups.

  • Despite opposition from civil rights groups and after months of delay, the Senate approves redefinition lobbyist Kenneth Marcus as head of the Department of Education’s
    Office for Civil Rights
    .

    Within weeks, Marcus reopens a seven-year-old complaint against Palestine advocacy at Rutgers University. In a letter announcing the reopening, Marcus states that the
    redefinition is in use
    by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

  • A provision tacked onto the state’s
    budget bill requires South Carolina public colleges and universities to consider the redefinition when investigating allegations of discrimination. Lawmakers in Tennessee also propose a bill to adopt the redefinition.

  • Florida adopts the redefinition for use in the state’s public schools. Under the new law, applying a “double standard” by, for example, “focusing peace or human rights investigations only on Israel” constitutes antisemitism. Lawmakers in
    Tennessee and New
    Jersey
    also propose bills to adopt the redefinition, but these bills fail to pass.

  • Trump signs an executive order that directs government agencies, including the Department of Education, to consider the distorted definition of antisemitism when investigating civil rights complaints. The order attracts widespread criticism.

  • In the weeks after Trump’s executive order, three federal complaints are filed against Palestine advocacy on campus, all citing the order.

    The Lawfare Project files a federal complaint against Columbia University for allowing Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) to hold events, art installations and engage in other speech activity advocating for Palestinian freedom. A second complaint is also filed against Columbia within a week.

    A third complaint is filed against Georgia Tech by the right-wing, Christian evangelical American Center for Law and Justice after a student group successfully appealed a punishment they faced for refusing to allow a Hillel employee to disrupt their event on Palestine.

    In January 2021, the Hillel employee agrees to drop the case in exchange for Georgia Tech recognizing that under Trump’s executive order, the Department of Education considers the IHRA definition of antisemitism when evaluating intent in cases of discriminatory harassment.

  • Bills incorporating the distorted definition are introduced in Arizona, Illinois, and several other states. All of these bills fail to become law. The bills call for adopting the distorted definition, including the examples encompassing criticism of Israel, for use in hate crimes reporting and sentencing (Arizona), by state entities investigating acts of discrimination (Iowa), or by public schools and universities (Illinois, Tennessee, South Carolina). Some of these bills describe investigating Israel’s human rights abuses as an example of antisemitism.

  • Republican members of Congress cite Trump’s executive order when urging the Department of Education to investigate and potentially cut funding to Middle Eastern studies departments at the University of Arizona, University of California, Berkeley, and Yale because students and faculty at these universities support boycotts for Palestinian rights. Another Republican congressman had made a similar demand for investigation of Middle Eastern studies at Georgetown University in late 2019.

  • The student government at Florida State University adopts the IHRA definition following a state-wide
    political witch-hunt
    against FSU Student Senate President Ahmad Daraldik over social media posts Ahmad, a Palestinian-American, made as a child criticizing Israel’s military occupation of Palestine. The IHRA resolution comes after a failed attempt to remove Ahmad from office through a vote of no confidence.

    Following the IHRA resolution, pro-Israel students seek to remove Ahmad from office yet again, claiming his past posts constitute antisemitism under IHRA.

    Another student government leader is accused
    of antisemitism
    after arguing against the adoption of IHRA and explaining that Palestinians talking about their oppression is not antisemitism.

    FSU president John Thrasher later announces that the university would “recognize” the IHRA definition, including its contemporary examples.

  • Over 120 pro-Israel groups lobby Facebook to label criticism of Israel as hate speech under the IHRA definition. The Zachor Legal Institute, a pro-Israel group that engages in legal bullying, also lobbies Twitter and YouTube to use the IHRA definition and remove content critical of Israel.

  • The Department of Education closes an investigation at New York University (NYU) that was launched after the NYU chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) received a school award for their on-campus organizing and coalition building. As part of a resolution agreement, NYU commits to prohibiting antisemitism in its policies and anti-discrimination trainings. The agreement refers to the IHRA definition in Trump’s 2019 executive order but excludes the IHRA contemporary examples, including those regarding Israel.

  • The Zionist Organization of America and StopAntisemitism.org file a federal civil rights complaint against CUNY after the latter organization targeted a Palestinian law student and activist with a cyberbullying campaign based on misinformation and false accusations.

    The student was subject to attacks by Zionist groups after she posted an old video of herself waving a lighter as a joke while criticizing a friend for wearing a T-shirt promoting the Israeli military.

    Act.il, an app with deep ties to Israeli intelligence and military, falsely claimed that the video depicted a violent threat against a fellow student on the basis of apparent nationality and provided a script for hundreds of people to call for CUNY to discipline the student.

    The student’s friend was neither Jewish, Israeli, nor a CUNY student and was filmed years before the student enrolled in law school. There was no violent threat involved.

    StopAntisemitism.org later named the student its ‘antisemite of the year’ based on these false and distorted accusations.

  • A spate of IHRA resolutions pass in local governments, including at least five across Florida and at least three in Long Island outside of New York City between 2020 and 2021. The New York measures and some of the Florida measures are driven by the American Jewish Committee, which helped craft the Israel-centric definition in 2004.

  • The State Department reportedly plans to designate three prominent advocacy groups as antisemitic due to their criticism of Israel’s violations of international law, claiming that the human rights activities of Amnesty
    International
    , Human Rights Watch, and Oxfam International meet the IHRA definition of antisemitism. The plan does not materialize before the Trump administration leaves office.

  • Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo releases graphics on social media stating that “anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism” and announces plans to identify and target organizations that support BDS. The department does not announce a list prior to the end of the administration.

  • Following Donald Trump’s electoral defeat, pro-Israel groups lobby the Biden administration to continue Trump’s policy of using the IHRA definition. Progressive and liberal Jewish organizations come out against Biden maintaining the policy.

  • Having failed to pass a similar bill in 2020, Illinois lawmakers
    reintroduce a bill to amend the state’s Human Rights Act to adopt the IHRA definition for use in investigating acts of discrimination in public schools and universities. This bill describes investigating Israel’s human rights abuse as an example of antisemitism.

  • Student governments, including at Brooklyn College, Syracuse University, the University of Georgia, and the University of Texas, Austin adopt the IHRA definition.

  • In June, Texas joins Florida and South Carolina in adopting the distorted definition. Texas is the first state to explicitly say it is adopting IHRA, compared to FL and SC which used text similar to IHRA.

    Meanwhile in Arizona, lawmakers actually removed the IHRA definition from a bill on Holocaust education in the state’s public schools, recognizing that it’s possible to educate people on antisemitism without it.

  • Liberal and progressive democrats urge the Biden administration not to use the IHRA definition, including a coalition letter led by Representative Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) to Secretary of State Blinken encouraging use of alternative definitions.

    Responding to the Schakowsky letter in June, a Biden admin rep calls IHRA a “gold standard” and indicates the State Department will continue to use IHRA.

  • Member of Congress Lee Zeldin (R-NY) urges the New York City Department of Education to enforce Trump’s IHRA executive order for the purpose of suppressing growing support for Palestinian rights and freedom following Israel’s May 2021 attacks on the Gaza Strip.

  • An Israeli consul pressures the University of North Carolina to remove a graduate student lecturer from teaching a history course on Israel/Palestine after claiming the instructor’s criticism of Israel was antisemitic under the IHRA definition.

  • Critically acclaimed Irish author Sally Rooney faces false accusations using the distorted definition of antisemitism after she declines to sell translation rights to a publishing house with ties to the Israeli government and announces that she is open to partnering with a Hebrew translator that is compliant with the institutional boycott principles established by Palestinian civil society.

  • Rightwing pro-Israel group StandWithUs accuses Ben & Jerry’s and its parent company Unilever of “corporate antisemitism” under the IHRA definition after the ice cream company announced it will no longer sell its products in Israel’s illegal West Bank settlements starting in 2023.

  • Pro-Israel groups launch a campaign to push state governors to adopt and promote the distorted IHRA definition as part of Hanukkah celebrations.

    Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine writes a letter to the state’s 111 college and university presidents urging them to create a culture…that does not tolerate “anti-Israel sentiments.”



2019 – 2021

The Movement Pushes Back Against the Definition

Advocates from North America, Europe and Palestine/Israel begin more coordinated work to pushback against the redefinition as a censorship tool targeting Palestinian freedom.

The definition faces pushback on campuses and defeat by student governments across the country due to the definition’s use as a tool of political suppression.

At Butler University, the IHRA definition is defeated after the only two Palestinians in student government were initially excluded from participating in discussions about the measure.

Fifty thousand people join a global campaign demanding that Facebook stop labeling Palestine advocacy as hate speech.

An explosive Oxford University report reveals that the leadership of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance knowingly misled and neglected to correct the public perception about the scope of the IHRA definition’s adoption in the EU.

  • Independent Jewish Voices in Canada launches a transnational NoIHRA Campaign in 2019 and publishes a report on IHRA’s impact on colleges and universities in 2020.

  • Hundreds of academics in Canada sign an open letter opposing the redefinition.

    Over 150 Jewish Candian scholars issue an additional statement opposed to IHRA.

  • Students at Santa Monica College successfully push to remove Israel-related content from an antisemitism resolution proposed in student government.

  • Dozens of scholars urge Facebook not to adopt the IHRA definition, after the social media company is lobbied by pro-Israel groups.

  • Students at Butler University succeed in defeating a student government measure to adopt the definition as a way of silencing Palestinians and their allies on campus.

    During the initial debate, members of student government exclude the only two Palestinians in student government from participating in discussions.

    The student leaders, both Palestinian women, are unable to share the direct impact the resolutions would have on Palestinians and Palestine activism on campus.

    Butler student groups, Indianapolis community organizers, and Palestine Legal push back against the campaign to vilify and silence student activism.

    After hearing from students and community advocates about the harmful impact these anti-Palestinian measures would have, the student sponsors withdraw the resolution.

  • A coalition of organizers hold an educational panel titled “Israel as a Racist Endeavour: Unpacking IHRA” to directly challenge the redefinition.

  • Over one hundred Palestinian and Arab scholars and intellectuals issue an open letter challenging the legitimacy of the definition.

  • Hundreds of British students sign an open letter opposing efforts by UK Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson to force UK universities to adopt the definition.

  • The academic board at the University College London
    rejects the IHRA definition adopted by UCL in 2019, calling on the university to “retract and replace [the] IHRA working definition with a more precise definition of antisemitism.”

  • A coalition of civil and human rights groups launches a
    campaign against Facebook labeling Palestine advocacy as hate speech. The tech giant is considering a policy that would treat criticism of “Zionists” as attacks against Jewish people, and therefore subject to censorship under their hate speech policies. The campaign’s petition amasses over 50,000 signatures.

  • Several alternatives to IHRA are proposed within the span of one month, further undermining claims that IHRA represents a consensus definition.

    The Jerusalem Declaration rebuts IHRA’s conflation of antisemitism and anti-Zionism, but reinforces the structural problem of policing what Palestinians can say about their oppression.

  • Multiple student governments reject the IHRA definition in the span of a few weeks, including Michigan State University, Foothill College and Santa Clara University in the San Francisco Bay Area.

    At the City University of New York (CUNY), the Student Senate voted down IHRA following a vocal campaign from Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and the Jewish Law Students Association (JSLA).

    The CUNY JSLA is the first explicitly anti-Zionist Jewish law students group in the country and issued an open letter calling IHRA “useless,” “overbroad,” “imprecise,” and “an attempt to silence Palestine-solidarity efforts by equating anti-Zionism with antisemitism.”

  • An explosive Oxford University report reveals that the leadership of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance knowingly misled and neglected to correct the public perception about the scope of the IHRA definition’s adoption in the EU.

    At a May 2016 plenary, IHRA’s decision-making body adopted a two-sentence working definition of antisemitism while excluding contemporary examples of antisemitism, including seven which focused on criticism of Israel, because multiple member states objected to the examples.

    The report finds that “Senior IHRA officials and pro-Israel groups have misrepresented the IHRA Plenary’s decision in order to smuggle into the Working Definition examples that can be used to protect Israel from criticism.”

    Israel and its allies, including US politicians, used the presumed adoption of IHRA’s Israel examples in Europe to promote their usage in the United States.

  • The Canadian Association of University Teachers votes against adopting the IHRA definition.

    The association, which represents 72,000 members, recognizes the “need to safeguard the rights of scholars to critique all states, including Israel.”

 


Posted

in

by

Comments

Leave a Reply