WASHINGTON – Several of the leading organizations in the American-Jewish establishment have begun to fight back against efforts to incorporate new definitions in the U.S. government’s fight against antisemitism, appealing directly to the Democratic lawmakers pushing the move as the Biden administration prepares to appoint a special envoy on antisemitism.
The Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee have each engaged with Rep. Jan Schakowsky – one of several House Democrats behind a recent letter to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
While the lawmakers do not explicitly reject the current definition based on the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance working definition, which was adopted by the Trump administration in September 2018, they call on Blinken to “use all the tools at your disposal, including these two new definitions.”
Those two definitions are the Nexus Document and the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism, which were released in March in response to the IHRA definition, which the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations endorsed last year. Both new definitions include references to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and allowing for free speech to discuss Israeli policies and actions.
Rabbi Andrew Baker, the American Jewish Committee’s director of international Jewish affairs, told Haaretz that the IHRA working definition has proven to be a useful and effective tool for identifying antisemitism. It offers a set of brief, clearly written examples that the other documents highlighted by the Schakowsky letter do not, he said.
Baker said the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism, which the Schakowsky letter describes as “a tool to identify, confront and raise awareness about antisemitism as it manifests in countries around the world today,” largely serves to shield any anti-Zionist expression from being labeled as antisemitic. He said its goal seemed to be to undermine and thwart the use of the IHRA definition.
“It purports to be an alternative to the IHRA working definition, yet it’s more concerned with trying to define what antisemitism is not rather than what it is,” he said.
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He added that “it either minimizes or dismisses altogether those aspects of antisemitism that make it a unique phenomenon, preferring instead to define it as a mere subset of intolerance or racism.”
He was less critical of the Nexus Document, which the Schakowsky letter called a “guide for policymakers and community leaders as they grapple with the complexities at the intersection of Israel and antisemitism.”
Baker said that if its intention was “to serve as study material for an academic seminar on the subject of antisemitism, it is not objectionable but certainly unhelpful with regard to encouraging the use and adoption of the IHRA definition.”
The ADL’s website describes the IHRA working definition as “one tool, albeit an important one, to use to identify and combat antisemitism. However, it is not a substitute for more nuanced expertise on antisemitism, nor does its use preclude consulting other definitions.”
ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt has publicly rejected the two other definitions, though, telling Jewish Insider’s Limited Liability Podcast he had personally told Schakowsky her letter was misguided.
“I wish Congresswoman Schakowsky – who I like very much, she’s an excellent legislator – and all of these other individuals would take their energy and channel it toward actually addressing antisemitism itself, because that’s where we really need help,” Greenblatt said.
Describing the debate over the definitions as a “tempest in a teapot,” and efforts to create new definitions as a “real waste of time,” Greenblatt described the IHRA definition as an "intellectually honest and objective and scholarly effort to develop a consensus definition.”
He clarified that the IHRA definition is not intended to be used as a piece of policy in itself, but to “inform a process, not be a process.”
Schakowsky did not respond to request for comment on her conversations with Greenblatt over the letter. The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations did not respond to a request for comment for this story, either.
Two of the Conference’s member organizations – Americans for Peace Now and Ameinu, who were the only ones to reject the move to adopt the IHRA definition – have lent their support to the Schakowsky letter. So have J Street, T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights and IfNotNow, which has dedicated a significant amount of energy in recent months advocating for an envoy who doesn’t conflate criticism of Israeli policy with antisemitism.
The debate over the letter comes as the Biden administration enters the final stretches of considering who to appoint as special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism – the highest-ranking public official in the country tasked with combating anti-Jewish prejudice.
The role was elevated to an ambassadorial-level position last December, adding weight to its mission of combating antisemitism at a global level. The prospective envoy will have to be confirmed by the Senate prior to assuming the position.
Sources familiar with the process have told Haaretz that an appointment should come within the next several weeks, though the intra-Jewish debate has gotten ugly as the appointment approaches.
Several progressive organizations have rallied behind Nancy Kaufman for the role. The former executive director of the National Council for Jewish Women and the Boston JCRC told The Forward that she is running in the belief that she can bridge the gap between the left and the Jewish establishment. She has previously praised the IHRA definition as an interesting tool and described the Jewish Declaration on Antisemitism as “fascinating and interesting.”
Democratic Majority for Israel, the pro-Israel organization led by Mark Mellman that seeks to increase and ensure support for Israel within the Democratic Party, has long been dismissive of critics of the IHRA definition.
However, in a tweet Monday, it explicitly criticized Kaufman, calling her someone who has “too often enabled, rather than battled, antisemitism.” That tweet was roundly and swiftly condemned, with many highlighting Kaufman’s unimpeachable record of leadership within the U.S. Jewish community.
Several people argued that the accusation was based on her previous cooperation and praise of Women’s March organizers Linda Sarsour and Tamika Mallory, who have infuriated mainstream Jewish organizations for their statements on Israel or links with known antisemites such as Louis Farrakhan.
Democratic Majority for Israel deleted the offending tweet, instead describing Kaufman as a “forceful advocate for the Jewish people.” It acknowledged that it was “wrong to suggest she supports antisemitism,” while noting it would oppose her nomination.
Beyond Kaufman, other names believed to be in contention include the Biden campaign’s Jewish outreach director, Aaron Keyak; National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry CEO Mark Levin; Holocaust historian Prof. Deborah Lipstadt; ADL Senior Vice President for International Affairs Sharon Nazarian; and Simon Wiesenthal Center Director of Government Affairs Mark Weitzman.