U.S. Jewish Groups Want to Fight Antisemitism, but Struggle to Agree What It Is

Will it be possible to achieve unity over the working definition of antisemitism when Israel is the sticking point? Yes, says the Conference of Presidents leadership; no, say progressive groups

Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri
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A demonstration in New York denouncing antisemitism and anti-Zionism.
A demonstration in New York denouncing antisemitism and anti-Zionism. Credit: Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri

As Jewish organizations fight to stem the rising number of antisemitic incidents in the United States, the Jewish community itself is engaged in a struggle about the very definition of antisemitism and whether criticism of Israel should be regarded as an antisemitic act.

Following an internal resolution at the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations last November, 51 of the Jewish umbrella group’s 53 members voted to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism last month. 

This defines the word as “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

But the IHRA definition also includes several examples related to Israel. These state that “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor” or requiring behavior from Israel “not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation” are instances of antisemitic behavior. Using antisemitic symbols and images to characterize Israel, or drawing comparisons between Israeli policy to that of the Nazis, is also considered antisemitism, along with “holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the State of Israel.”

According to Conference of Presidents CEO William Daroff, the IHRA definition expresses the idea that anti-Israel activity is “often a proxy” for antisemitism.

“It speaks to the new antisemitism, which is one where it seems to be more acceptable in some circles to criticize Israel than it is to criticize the Jews. And so, oftentimes what antisemites will do is they will substitute their criticism of Israel to replace their criticism of Jews,” Daroff says. “Instead of talking about ugly dirty Jews, they talk about ugly dirty Zionists.”

The two Jewish organizations that opposed the move were the Workers Circle and Americans for Peace Now. They and at least nine members of the liberal umbrella group Progressive Israel Network have expressed concerns about the Israel-related examples.

The Workers Circle, a 121-year-old social justice group, said it “vehemently” rejected the idea “that if you express legitimate opposition to Israeli government policies, you are an antisemite.”

“We strongly believe that this definition unnecessarily inhibits expression as it relates to Israel,” the organization wrote in a statement last month. 

Although the group said it recognized “there are occasions when opposition to Israeli policies and Zionism crosses the line into antisemitism,” it believed “broad resistance to the growth of inequality and oppression in Israel is now needed. This form of opposition is an overwhelmingly healthy development.”

It concluded that by not adopting the IHRA definition, it was “illustrating that our organization will always continue to be a place for open and honest conversations.”

In a letter to the Conference of Presidents leadership last December, Americans for Peace Now also said it believed the definition was “the wrong vehicle” for confronting antisemitism. 

The group wrote that some of the Israel-related examples that the IHRA considers antisemitic “cross the line into the realm of politics and are already being used to score political points in the United States, and to quash legitimate criticism of deplorable Israeli government policies.”

A protester who claims to be a member of the Proud Boys outside the U.S. Capitol last month.Credit: ALEX EDELMAN - AFP

The group, which defined itself as “a pro-Israel organization through and through,” added that it criticized Israeli government policies “vociferously,” out of “deep concern for Israel’s future.”

It stated that it couldn’t accept the definition “because we are witnessing how it is already being abused, indeed weaponized, to quash legitimate criticism and activism directed at Israeli government policies by tarnishing individuals and organizations as antisemitic. 

“We wish that when discussing delicate matters such as labeling people and entities as antisemitic, the Conference of Presidents would use a scalpel rather than a bulldozer,” the statement added. 

Logan Bayroff, director of communications at the progressive organization J Street, says his group has no issue with the definition being seen as “one reference point, a tool in a broader conversation.” However, what it objects to is “the idea of this definition being codified into law or formally into policy at the federal, state or local level in the United States, or even at the university level.”

If the IHRA wording becomes a “speech code” that results in criminal or other penalties if violated, Bayroff believes that would be dangerous. 

“It’s too broad, it’s too vague, it’s too general to be used in that fashion,” he says. It could get turned into an excuse to crack down on critics of Israel or Palestinian rights activists, he says. 

“However much you might disagree with them, it does not mean they are automatically antisemitic, and it doesn’t mean that the major threat of antisemitism in the world today comes from critics of Israel or Palestinian rights activists,” Bayroff notes. “The greatest threat that we face comes right now in these times from the violent extremists on the far right: they’re the ones who have attacked us and in fact murdered American Jews.” 

Leading Holocaust scholar Prof. Deborah Lipstadt agrees that if you look at the IHRA definition, “you won’t find right-wing antisemitism there: you won’t find Pittsburgh there; you won’t find Poway there; you won’t find Halle, Germany, there; you won’t find what we saw from some of the groups on January 6 at the Capitol there.”

But for her, she told Haaretz in a Zoom interview last week, the big question is about how the definition is applied. “If I call someone an antisemite, it should have the sting of a thousand cuts,” she said. “It should never be used lightly, it should never be used frivolously.”

Consensus or false unity?

Although organizations “absolutely have the right” to reject the definition, Daroff said he believes there is still “a consensus” about the matter, as illustrated in his umbrella group. “I think around any Shabbat table you’ll find disagreement and not unanimity,” he said. “I have no doubt that the organizations that have decided not to adopt the definition also are looking to combat antisemitism in their own way, and that’s fine.”

Daroff added he believes that “in order to be able to combat antisemitism, you need to know what it is. And by having a common definition, it helps to ensure there’s a common foundation of understanding about it.”

He maintained that “despite the noise on the margins about problems that some organizations have, this definition is one that is right down the center of the plate, right in the middle of the consensus of the American-Jewish community.” 

But according to J Street’s Bayroff, this sense of unity is an illusion and unrealistic. 

“There are too many different voices and opinions, and approaches in our community, to make it the standard that we all have to exactly agree on an issue as complicated as antisemitism,” he said. 

While he said it was good to try to agree and to work together, “if the standard is that we have to have unity, then what might happen is that some groups, like the Conference of Presidents, might come forward and claim to speak on behalf of the Jewish community. And they don’t.

“They’re not expressing their concerns or disagreements about this definition,” Bayroff said. “Sometimes, having a false sense of unity that doesn’t really speak for everybody can be just as harmful as having division.”

Prof. Deborah Lipstadt.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

For Lipstadt, the disagreement over the definition’s Israel-related examples is weaponizing the fight against antisemitism. “What should be getting our attention is antisemitism coming from different places on the political spectrum,” she said. “What should be getting our attention is the antisemitism we’re seeing in QAnon and other populist groups – not to say that it’s only coming from there, but right now that’s where the major thrust is.”

The Jewish community, she noted, is “not famous for agreeing.” However, arguing over a definition is “not the best expenditure of our energy.” 

Daroff echoed Lipstadt’s point. “We spend way too much time as a community attacking each other and tearing each other down.”

One of his goals in heading a Jewish umbrella organization, he said, is “to push through that and focus on the fact – which is that we agree on 85 or 90 percent of the issues.”

‘It takes a village’

The long list of U.S Jewish organizations in the Conference of Presidents are not alone in adopting the IHRA definition: some 30 countries, including the United States and members of the European Union, as well as the United Nations secretary-general and other governmental bodies, sports leagues, universities and NGOs around the world have already done so. Daroff said he believes it’s “essential that the Jews are not the only people out there fighting antisemitism.” The community, he added, has a “critical need” for allies on the outside. 

“It cannot just be the Jews alone who are standing up for us, similarly as it should not just be African Americans who are standing up for African Americans, or Ethiopian Jews who are the only ones standing up for Ethiopian Jews,” he said. “It really takes a village to combat hate.”

Having non-Jewish organizations adopt the IHRA definition, Daroff observed, “moves the ball a little bit further.” For him, a unified Jewish community on the matter sends “a signal out to the world, to governments, to other NGOs, that this is an issue that is important to us.” 

He continued: “As we look to talk to the Biden administration, as we look to talk to other organizations about adopting the definition, the fact that we can point to 51 out of 53 organizations shows that despite the noise that’s out there, this is the consensus position of the American-Jewish community.”

This shows that the definition is “not that controversial at the end of the day,” Daroff said. 

Bayroff, meanwhile, countered that as far as governments and non-Jewish bodies are concerned, “What’s good for them is to listen to a wide range of voices, understand where there’s a lot of agreement, and then also understand where there’s some disagreement and take that into account.” 

If the spectrum of voices is represented, he added, “hopefully we can as best as possible be pushing a pretty clear message that, first and foremost, what needs to happen is a crackdown on the people that actually endanger us.”

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