Behind the scenes, a stormy argument is taking place in the Jewish world between two camps that were aptly defined by the late Prof. Yehuda Elkana – the one that, ever since the Holocaust, has been saying “never again,” and the one that has been saying “never again to us.” Recently, this issue has been the focus of the first public battle within the American Jewish community in the run-up to Joe Biden’s inauguration as president.
The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance is an international project that seeks to define what antisemitism is for countries and organizations worldwide in order to help them fight it, legally and educationally. On the face of it, this is a worthy goal. But the definition IHRA adopted in 2016 has become the subject of a fierce political controversy, with the Israeli government orchestrating and intensifying the drama.
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The reason is the definition’s focus on examples of the “new antisemitism” against Israel as a Jewish collective. Or in other words, on whether criticism of Israel that reaches the point of anti-Zionism is necessarily antisemitic.
Thus, for instance, its examples of antisemitism include “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor” and “drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.” An especially deceptive example, however, is “applying double standards by requiring of it [Israel] a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.” After all, the Israeli-Palestinian situation is a very specific one, and so, presumably, is the criticism aimed at it.
These examples have sparked concern among many individuals and groups, including liberal Jewish organizations, that IHRA’s definition infringes on freedom of expression in a way that allows criticism of Israel to be branded antisemitic. And Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has proven in recent years that this concern is justified.
Netanyahu, the Strategic Affairs Ministry under its previous minister, Gilad Erdan, the Foreign Ministry (which has made promoting the IHRA definition a supreme diplomatic goal), and Jewish organizations funded by Israel have all argued repeatedly, citing IHRA, that the BDS movement, for example, is antisemitic. Israel has thereby proven that IHRA’s definition of antisemitism indeed has a political aspect.
In addition, the Netanyahu government has deliberately blurred the Green Line between criticism of Israel and criticism of the settlements, thereby further fanning the controversy. U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration then added fuel to the fire when it announced that it planned to label important human rights organizations like Amnesty International “antisemitic.”
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Since the IHRA definition was drafted, 28 countries and numerous organizations, including universities and sports associations, have adopted it, with encouragement from the Israel lobby. Last week, the European Commission even issued a nonbinding recommendation on the matter. Israel would dearly love for Facebook and Twitter to adopt it as well.
Last week, in a step that flew under the radar of the Israeli discourse, 10 liberal Jewish organizations, including J Street and the New Israel Fund, issued an unusual joint call for the Biden administration not to implement its predecessor’s pledge to enshrine the IHRA definition in law. This was in contrast to establishment Jewish organizations, which have been urging the Biden administration to adopt it.
The inauguration of a Democratic president provides an opportunity for Israel to reconsider, in light of the fact that its involvement is harming the war on antisemitism more than it is helping. The politicization of this issue is clearly an unwise, erroneous step that has also proven counterproductive; it is a battle that has actually served to strengthen the BDS movement.