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:

 
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.

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California cancels Palestinians

Weaponizing Anti-Semitism
to Silence Criticism of Israel

 

Israeli lobby groups redefine antisemitism to include criticisms of Israel as a means of stifling speech

A baseball cap with the words: Make Israel Palestine Again
Activists warn that the adoption of the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism will stifle speech on Palestine. (Justin L. Stewart, ZUMA Press)

In September, the West Hollywood City Council unanimously passed a resolution adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism.

The council was following a global trend. Institutions around the world are increasingly adopting the IHRA definition which purports to be a tool for identifying and combating anti-Semitism.

In reality, it is merely the latest attempt to criminalize support for Palestinian liberation. Indeed, the West Hollywood City Council’s vote – and the public outcry it generated – provides valuable insight into the growing threat the adoption of this flawed definition poses to political activism and education.

The council’s actions were foreshadowed by the West Hollywood Public Safety Commission which, on 8 August, voted to recommend that the City Council adopt the IHRA definition. During that meeting, Public Safety Commissioner Tony Berger asked fellow commissioner Robert B. Oliver, who brought the proposal, what the purpose of a safety commission making such a recommendation would be.

“It’s not in our purview to do anything like this,” Berger said. “Aren’t we trying just to protect everybody?”

Oliver, who is currently running for West Hollywood City Council, said his proposal was to recommend to the City Council that the city adopt the IHRA definition as a “non-legally binding working definition to inform the different agencies of our city what anti-Semitism is.”

The West Hollywood move came after both Manhattan Beach and Beverly Hills city councils voted to adopt the IHRA definition. Oliver cited the latter as a reason for West Hollywood to follow suit.

During public comment on 19 September – when the West Hollywood City Counci eventually voted to pass the IHRA definition in accordance with the public safety commission’s recommendation – Palestinian West Hollywood resident Rami Kabalawi said he felt the IHRA definition silenced Palestinians and was concerned with prohibiting criticisms of Israel rather than authentically challenging anti-Semitism.

Kabalawi told the council: “If it’s codified, it will position Palestinian freedom of speech as explicitly anti-Jewish and create a situation of divisiveness that is fueled not about ending bigotry, but classifying our right to speak out as a form of it.”

Recycled language

Many fear that Kabalawi is right.

What is the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, and why is its passage by the West Hollywood City Council such a troubling development?

The story behind the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism begins with a working definition of anti-Semitism conceived of by the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenobophia – a European Union agency – in the early noughties.

While the EUMC working definition is uncontroversial, it features several alleged examples of “anti-Semitism” that are simply criticisms of the Israeli state. This working definition was never formally endorsed by the EUMC.

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Department of Education to investigate Berkeley Law School

Complaint from Israeli lawfare group prompts investigation over student group challenging Zionism

MICHAEL ARRIA, MONDOWEISS, DECEMBER 16, 2022

An open letter to UW-Madison regarding anti-Zionist chalking

In keeping with the Jewish practice of tokhehah, which could be translated as “calling-in,” we are asking you to recognize and redress the damage that these responses have caused.

This letter also appeared in The Cap Times on November 29, 2022 as Memo to UW: Antisemitism and anti-Zionism are not the same thing.

Bascom.jpg
Photo by Taylor Wolfram | The Daily Cardinal

Stepha Velednitsky , Ri J. Turner , Joshua Garoon , Tsela Barr and Annie Sommer KaufmanThe Daily Cardinal, November 28, 2022

Dear Chancellor Mnookin, Vice Chancellor Reesor, and Chief Diversity Officer Charleston,

We are writing as Jewish members of the UW-Madison community in response to the recent anti-Zionist chalkings on our campus, and especially to the reactions from your offices, UW-Madison Hillel and other campus organizations, and media on and off campus.

As Jews, we care deeply, both about our own experience of “inclusion and belonging” (as Chancellor Mnookin has put it) in the UW-Madison community, and about the well-being of Palestinians on and off campus. The responses in question — including, but not limited, to the blame Chancellor Mnookin and Vice-Chancellor Reesor inappropriately placed on the UW-Madison chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) — were harmful to both. In keeping with the Jewish practice of tokhehah, which could be translated as “calling-in,” we are asking you to recognize and redress the damage that these responses have caused.

We understand that past experiences may have inclined you to seek those responsible for this incident among UW student groups. In the recent past, Jews on campus have been upset, justifiably, when members of UW-Madison student groups — including leaders of the undergraduate student government — have not acted with respect for Jewish religious practice when it comes to campus actions on Israel and Palestine.

We agree that “education and accountability” are critical in such situations. The statements from your offices, however, provided neither. Instead, they impatiently and inaptly condemned the small and only recently reconstituted UW-Madison chapter of SJP for actions its members deny conducting — contributing to their scapegoating in the media. Those students deserved more from you.

We agree that it is antisemitic to hold all Jews accountable for the acts of the Israeli government, regardless of their connection or lack thereof to Israel. That treats Jews as a monolith and conflates Jewish identity with blanket support for Israel. But here we must ask: who in this situation truly conflated Jewishness with the political ideology of Zionism?

Two of the organizations called out in the chalkings, the UW-Madison chapters of Hillel and Chabad, are indeed Jewish organizations. The primary function of both is to support the religious life of Jewish students on campus. Simply attending the religious services at those two organizations — the only ones that offer them on campus — does not justify attacking Jewish students, and we urge those carrying out pro-Palestinian actions to respect such religious events and spaces.

At the same time, both the Hillel and Chabad chapters have identified themselves as explicitly pro-Israel. This combination of Zionist politics with Jewish religious practice has become the norm for Jews on campus and across the country. Yet many Jews do not consider support for Israel to be essential to their Jewish identity. On the contrary, for some Jewish students, the perception of being “required” to espouse pro-Israel positions as a precondition for participating in Jewish life on campus dissuades them from participating at all. In fact, Hillel has so constrained Jewish student speech and organizing on Israel and Palestine that Jewish students who felt alienated from Jewish life on campus as a result formed an “Open Hillel” movement, and in particular Open Hillel’s Judaism on Our Own Terms initiative, to try to create more space on campus for diverse Jewish viewpoints.

When organizations explicitly prohibit participation of organizations, groups, or speakers — including Jewish ones — on the basis of their political stance, they can no longer claim that they are apolitical, “big tent” Jewish organizations that define themselves primarily around Jewish identity.  To insist that their critics strictly separate the religious and the political, then, is disingenuous and hypocritical.

What’s more, three of the organizations the chalkings criticized (J Street U at Wisconsin, TAMID, and Badgers for Israel) do not self-describe as Jewish organizations. (In fact, the last of the trio explicitly describes itself as “nonreligious.”) Their primary function is to support Israel. And while criticizing such organizations for being Zionist might be controversial, it is not antisemitic. Nor is it antisemitic to claim that Zionist organizations should be held accountable for Zionism’s ills, or that racist and genocidal acts have been committed in the name of Zionism.

So we must reject UW Hillel’s charges that the chalkings were antisemitic because they were “targeting student organizations because of their connection to Israel” and thus constituted “an attack on the identity of Jewish students.” Similarly, we must reject your offices’ claims that the chalkings were antisemitic because they “attribute broad actions or beliefs to Jewish student groups.” In both cases, it was Hillel’s and the university administration’s statements, not the original chalkings, which conflated Jewish identity and practice with support for Zionism within and beyond Jewish communities.

We call on you to apologize to the campus chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine for scapegoating them for this incident without evidence that they were responsible for it.  We call on you to refrain from conflating Zionist viewpoints with Jewish identity — a move that exacerbates the exclusion of non-Zionist Jews from Jewish life on campus, and normalizes the suppression of free speech about Israel and Palestine within campus or campus-adjacent organizations, including Hillel.  We also ask you to educate yourselves about the distinction between antisemitism and anti-Zionism more generally. The Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism, which was signed by about 200 scholars of antisemitism and related studies from around the world, including Israel, is a good place to start.

Finally, we call on Jewish individuals and organizations on and off campus who share our perspective to express support by signing on to this letter. 

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The Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism

 

 


Introduction

We agree with the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism (JDA) of March 25, 2021, “a tool to identify, confront and raise awareness about antisemitism as it manifests in countries around the world today.” The Declaration holds that “while antisemitism has certain distinctive features, the fight against it is inseparable from the overall fight against all forms of racial, ethnic, cultural, religious, and gender discrimination.”

Defining antisemitism as “discrimination, prejudice, hostility or violence against Jews as Jews (or Jewish institutions as Jewish)”, the JDA gives clear examples of what is, and what is not, antisemitism, paying particular attention to why criticism of Israel or Zionism is NOT inherently antisemitic.

We urge you to read the entire Declaration.

 


“Antisemitism is discrimination, prejudice, hostility or violence against Jews as Jews (or Jewish institutions as Jewish).”

People of goodwill seek guidance about the key question:
When does political speech about Israel or Zionism cross the line into antisemitism and when should it be protected?

The Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism is a tool to identify, confront and raise awareness about antisemitism as it manifests in countries around the world today. It includes a preamble, definition, and a set of 15 guidelines that provide detailed guidance for those seeking to recognize antisemitism in order to craft responses.

It was developed by a group of scholars in the fields of Holocaust history, Jewish studies, and Middle East studies to meet what has become a growing challenge: providing clear guidance to identify and fight antisemitism while protecting free expression. It has over 200 signatories.

Preamble | Definition | Guidelines | Signatories | FAQ | About JDA | Videos

Preamble | Definition | Guidelines | Signatories | FAQ | About JDA | Videos

Preamble

We, the undersigned, present the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism, the product of an initiative that originated in Jerusalem. We include in our number international scholars working in Antisemitism Studies and related fields, including Jewish, Holocaust, Israel, Palestine, and Middle East Studies. The text of the Declaration has benefited from consultation with legal scholars and members of civil society.

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