Richard L. Cravatts, Ph.D., a Freedom Center Journalism Fellow in Academic Free Speech and President Emeritus of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, is the author of Dispatches From the Campus War Against Israel and Jews.
As the 2016 Internal Holocaust Remembrance Association’s (IHRA) working definition of anti-Semitism continues to be adopted by organizations and universities who find it useful as a way of identifying instances of anti-Semitism—and especially the “new anti-Semitism” which couches itself as criticism of Israel—predictably, though unsurprisingly, groups that wish to continue to slander and libel the Jewish state have come out in opposition to it. What bothers these indignant individuals? Possibly the section of the IHRA definition that suggests that “Applying double standards by requiring of [Israel] a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation” is anti-Semitic.
While two of the academic groups that published extensive denunciations of the IRHA definition, the Nexus Task Force and The Jerusalem Declaration on Anti-Semitism, assured us that they are concerned with anti-Semitism that emanates from the far right and white supremacists (the Left’s favorite boogey man since the election of Donald Trump), their concern for bigotry against Jews apparently ends when Israel is involved in the conversation.
A group calling itself the Nexus Task Force, for example, from the Knight Program in Media and Religion USC Annenberg School of Communication & Journalism, created to confront what it calls a “disturbing trend to politicize and exploit antisemitism and Israel is growing in conservative and right-wing political circles,” came up with its own definition, “designed as a guide for policymakers and community leaders as they grapple with the complexities at the intersection of Israel and antisemitism.” The Nexus definition suggests that, contrary to IHRA definition, “criticism of Zionism and Israel, opposition to Israel’s policies, or nonviolent political action directed at the State of Israel and/or its policies should not, as such, be deemed antisemitic,” that “[e]ven contentious, strident, or harsh criticism of Israel for its policies and actions, including those that led to the creation of Israel, is not per se illegitimate or antisemitic,” and that “[p]aying disproportionate attention to Israel and treating Israel differently than other countries is not prima facie proof of antisemitism.”
Soon after, another group of liberal scholars from the fields of Jewish and Israel studies and the Holocaust, released something called The Jerusalem Declaration on Anti-Semitism, which attempts to eliminate the part of the IHRA definition pertaining to the virulent BDS movement which, in reality, seeks the destruction of the Jewish state. “Boycott, divestment, and sanctions are commonplace, non-violent forms of political protest against states,” the Declaration reads. “In the Israeli case, they are not, in and of themselves, anti-Semitic.”
Two professors who are endorsers of the Jerusalem Declaration, Dov Waxman from UCLA and Joshua Shanes from the College of Charleston, explained their motives for creating an alternate definition and it reveals what it actually going on here. “[T]he IHRA definition—specifically some of its examples pertaining to Israel,” they wrote, “has been misused to target pro-Palestinian advocacy, especially on college campuses. Scholars, students, activists, and even artists have been branded anti-Semites (even when they are Jewish) for opposing Zionism, advocating for a Palestinian right of return, or promoting the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign against Israel.”
More specifically, and contradicting the IHRA’s purpose of linking anti-Zionism and calls for the destruction of Israel as being inherently ant-Semitic, these professors object to such accusations, suggesting that “supporting the Palestinian demand for justice and equality, advocating a one-state or binational solution to the conflict, criticizing or opposing Zionism as a form of nationalism, or any ‘evidence-based criticism’ of Israel—including comparisons to cases of colonialism or apartheid—are not ‘on the face of it’ anti-Semitic. The same is true of supporting boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel . . . .”
It may be comforting for virtue-signaling professors to show their overriding concern for the “Palestinian demand for justice and equality,” but on American campuses, this demand regularly, and relentlessly, manifests itself in toxic, anti-Israel, anti-Zionist, often anti-Semitic activism in which the Jewish state and the Jews who support it are vilified as racists, colonialists, occupiers, and militaristic reincarnations of the Third Reich who brutally trample and oppress the indigenous Palestinians and subjugate them in a system of apartheid.
The IHRA definition was created exactly to confront these mendacious and toxic accusations, not to suppress so-called “criticism of Israel” or to muffle Palestinian solidarity, but to reveal when this expression and behavior constitutes actual anti-Semitism, as much as critics of the definition wish to parse the words and their meaning. Thus, when the Jerusalem Declaration states that “It is not antisemitic to support arrangements that accord full equality to all inhabitants ‘between the river and the sea,’ whether in two states, a binational state, unitary democratic state, federal state, or in whatever form,” what it is actually suggesting is that the call for the destruction of Israel, the extirpation of the Jewish sovereignty and its replacement with a new Arab state or some sort of suicidal bi-national state is not anti-Semitic at all, merely part and parcel of normal and acceptable “dialogue” about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Why does the Declaration suggest this? Because it is its very authors who are responsible for much of the anti-Israel agitation that leads to these pronouncements and slanders.
Student Israel-haters, such as members of the toxic group Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), have also joined in the chorus of those not wishing their activism to be called out for what it is—anti-Semitism—at those times when their expression and behavior, based on the IHRA definition, can be judged as such. At its 2018 national conference at UCLA, for example, SJP reiterated its understanding of Zionism, stating that it not only was a destructive political ideology, but that it could, and should, be destroyed. “We know that Zionism is ethnic cleansing, destruction, mass expulsion, apartheid, and death, but it is also something very tangible,” the group announced. “The reason we can have hope is that Zionism is a human ideology and a set of laws that have been challenged and can be destroyed.”
The campus enemies of Israel promiscuously repeat this notion that attacking Zionism is not an attack on Judaism, but, as Alyza Lewin, president and general counsel of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, has pointed out, when Jewish students are asked to disavow their Zionism to embrace progressive causes on campuses, they are being asked to deny part of their Jewishness. “To be a Zionist means to support this right of Jewish self-determination in the ancestral homeland of the Jews,” Lewin wrote. “If I celebrate the fact that Jews have returned once again to the Land of Israel, if I celebrate that the Jewish State of Israel exists, then I am a Zionist. Those who oppose Zionism deny Jews this right.”
Efforts to define anti-Semitism in a way that incorporates its current appearance in relation to defamation of the Jewish state has been with us for some years now, even before the IHRA definition started gaining traction. And as is happening now, anti-Israel activists and liberal professors and groups were similarly adamant in resisting any attempt to define their expression and behavior as fundamentally anti-Semitic.
In 2016, for instance, a bipartisan Congressional bill, H.R. 6421/S. 10, the “Antisemitism Awareness Act,” took on a long-overdue task, namely, increasing “understanding of the parameters of contemporary anti-Jewish conduct and will assist the Department of Education in determining whether an investigation of anti-Semitism under title VI is warranted.”
The Department of Education had been alerted before to the distressing situation of resurgent anti-Semitism on university campuses, but previous evaluations of Title VI violations were imprecise and “did not provide guidance on current manifestation of anti-Semitism, including discriminatory anti-Semitic conduct that is couched as anti-Israel or anti-Zionist.”
This was all too much for critics, including the morally tendentious, malignant group Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), who immediately condemned the intent of the bill, attaching to a press release two letters with signatures from 60 Jewish Studies “scholars” and some 300 “concerned” Jewish student activists, respectively.
Clearly oblivious to the current scourge of anti-Israel, anti-Semitic campus activism (in which they had, not coincidentally, been active and complicit), JVP and these faculty and students derided the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act as misguided and dangerous, not because it provided a tool for finally being able to identify instances where anti-Semitic speech and behavior has infected campus communities, but because they believed, seemingly irrationally, that Jewish students were actual and potential victims, not of Leftist and Muslim student groups (as they clearly and demonstrably are), but of Right-wing extremist groups, emboldened, they contend, by the election of Donald Trump.
These perpetrators of anti-Israel agitation had been leading a virulent campaign to demonize and delegitimize Israel for years now, and it was astonishing that JVP and these meretricious scholars and students ignored all the factual and shameful chronology (of which they have been central fomenters and cheerleaders in the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign), and instead were trying to perpetuate the fantasy that the true threat to Jewish students and other Israel supporters is from the Left’s perennial boogeymen, the lunatic fringe of white power extremists who these willfully-blind activists believe, and want others to believe, were the chief perpetrators of anti-Jewish bigotry.
Similarly, in 2014, 40 professors of Jewish studies published a denunciation of a study that named professors who have been identified as expressing “anti-Israel bias, or possibly even antisemitic rhetoric.”
While the 40 academic “heavyweights” claimed they, of course, rejected anti-Semitism totally as part of teaching, they were equally repelled by the tactics and possible effects of the AMCHA Initiative report, a comprehensive review of the attitudes about Israel of some 200 professors who signed an online petition during the 2014 Gaza incursion that called for an academic boycott against Israeli scholars—academics the petitioners claimed were complicit in the “latest humanitarian catastrophe caused by Israel’s new military assault on the Gaza Strip.”
“We believe the professors who have signed this petition may be so biased against the Jewish state that they are unable to teach accurately or fairly about Israel or the Arab-Israel conflict, and may even inject antisemitic tropes into their lectures or class discussion,” wrote Tammi Rossman-Benjamin and Leila Beckwith, co-founders of the AMCHA Initiative, an organization that tracks incidents of campus anti-Semitism, and authors of the report.
Calling “the actions of AMCHA deplorable,” the indignant professors were insulted by the organization’s “technique of monitoring lectures, symposia and conferences,” something which, they believe, “strains the basic principle of academic freedom on which the American university is built.” That is a rather breathtaking assertion by academics; namely, that it is contrary to the core mission of higher education that ideas and instruction being publicly expressed by professors cannot be examined and judged, and that by even applying some standards of objectivity on a body of teaching by a particular professor “AMCHA’s approach closes off all but the most narrow intellectual directions and,” as academics who do not want the content of their output to actually be examined for the quality of its scholarship are always fond of saying, “has a chilling effect on research and teaching.”
Can anyone believe that had the AMCHA Initiative or other organization issued a report that revealed the existence of endemic racism, or homophobia, or sexism, or Islamophobia in university coursework, and had warned students who might be negatively impacted to steer clear of courses taught by those offending professors, that these same 40 feckless professors would have denounced such reports as potentially having a negative effect on teaching and learning?
No one is telling these toxic Israel-haters to remain silent—or even to not utter anti-Semitic speech. What working definitions such as the IHRA definition and anti-Semitism awareness bills do hope to achieve is to allow those who are pretending only to be anti-Israel but are actually anti-Semitic to be identified as such. The measures are not designed to criminalize or suppress speech, even what we would consider “hate” speech, although going forward Israel-haters may not be able to disguise their anti-Jewish bigotry as successfully as they have when they pretended to care only for the rights of Palestinians and assailed the policies of the Jewish state.
It may be inconvenient and even embarrassing for these Israel-haters to finally be named for they are—radical, misguided activists whose unrelenting campaign of vitriol against the Jewish state and its supporters has regularly morphed into pure anti-Semitism—but their efforts to assign the blame to others for the miasma of dark bigotry on campuses they themselves have helped to create shows how crucial such tools as the IHRA definition are, and why its acceptance and use are important to help eliminate, finally, “the oldest hatred” from institutions of higher education.