Why Is There Resistance to A Working Definition of Antisemitism?

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The public controversy about the non-binding Working Definition of Antisemitism by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) is puzzling. Policy makers in different countries have identified antisemitism as a problem and want to monitor and combat it. In order to do so they need a hands-on definition of antisemitism that helps, among others, police officers to decide if a certain incident should be classified as antisemitic or not. They have then developed a definition together with major groups representing Jewish communities. Many governments and organizations, including the United Nations, have since expressed support for this definition as guidance to monitor and combat antisemitism. The European Commission has just published a handbook how that can be used. So why is there now some opposition to this definition?

To understand this debate, we need some background. At the end of the 20th century, most people, including scholars of the subject, believed antisemitism had been so discredited by the Holocaust that it was fading out. They believed antisemitism would become a relic of a more distant past.

Since the turn of the 21st century, however, observers have noticed a rise of antisemitism, not only in the Middle East, where vicious rhetoric and action against Jews had been mostly unchallenged for decades, but also in many Western countries. The most violent, murderous attacks against Jews in the last two decades have come from jihadists and white nationalists. However, many of the relatively less violent acts against Jews have been perpetrated by people who can neither be identified as jihadists nor white nationalists.

Jewish communities have been increasingly concerned about the rise of antisemitism. This is true now even in the U.S., where Jews once regarded the country as a welcome exception. Since 1991, when the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) first maintained hate crime statistics, Jews have been the top target of religion-based hate crimes each year. They are now more likely than any other minority group in the U.S. to become victim of hate crimes, three times as likely as black people and twice as likely as Muslims. Jewish communities across the country have had to implement security measures against harassment and violent terror attacks. While such events are nothing new for Jews in Europe, they are novel for many Jews in the U.S.

However, a growing number of governmental officials have realized that antisemitism, if unchecked, threatens the idea and thus identity and core of democratic and pluralistic societies. Adopting the Holocaust survivors’ pledge “Never Again,” has been much more than a gesture of goodwill towards Jews. It is also in the self-interest of democracies. In order to present democracy as good it has to be demonstrated that it stands against evil forces, the most powerful symbol of which has become the Holocaust. Thus, at least in principle, and in contrast to the beginning of the 20th century, almost everyone is happy to say that they condemn antisemitism and want to fight it.

So far so good, but how should antisemitism be confronted and what actually is antisemitism? Declarations against antisemitism are meaningless without being able to clearly identify it. In the aftermath of WWII, this was a relatively easy task. Antisemitism was equated with Nazism or fascism and thus democracies had to fight remaining or reemerging pockets of Nazism and fascism.

However, while it remains true that neo-Nazis are antisemites, not all antisemites are neo-Nazis. Religious forms of antisemitism are still around. Despite important reforms of Christian doctrines and decades of interreligious dialogue, Christian Jew-hatred is not dead. Similar to Christianity, Islamic societies have a long history of treating Jews with contempt and Islamists have used this to fuse modern conspiracy theories with elements of Islam, resulting in a deeply conspiratorial worldview in which the Jews are using the West to orchestrate a war against Islam. The contemporary jihadists have been building on this.

And some entirely new arguments emerged since the establishment of the state of Israel. Antisemites of different provenance have used the realization of the Zionist vision of a state for the Jewish people to justify their attacks against Jews. They have accused Jews of being more loyal to Israel than to the society where they live in, most infamously during the show trials in the Soviet Union under Stalin or in Poland at the end of the 1960s when thousands of Polish Jews were harassed and fired under the pretext of being “Zionists.” In the imagination of many contemporary “anti-Zionist” detractors, Zionists are racists, white supremacists and an imperialist cabal that is operating worldwide for some sinister goals. Allegedly, Jewish nationalism is fundamentally different from the national ideologies of other countries. In other words, the repertoire of antisemites has been expanded once again, as it has often been the case throughout history. For one, the old nationalist accusation against Jews of disloyalty can be reinforced by accusing Jews of loyalty primarily to Israel. Second, Jews in the diaspora can be blamed for alleged or real crimes of the Israeli government. Third, antisemitic conspiracy fantasies can be reformulated in a way that replaces Jews, Freemasons, or Illuminati with “Zionists.” And fourth, blaming the Jewish nation state for the worst crimes against humanity conveniently relativizes the Holocaust that still weighs on the conscience. It weighs on the conscience because no country in the world did much to stop this coordinated mass violation of the very basic idea, supposedly cherished in all modern societies, that every human life is precious. The Holocaust was certainly a catastrophe for Jews, but it was also a catastrophe for humanity and civilization.

 Many proponents of these four new ways of attacking Jews by invoking Israel happen to be on the political left where antisemitism and hostility against Jews is expressed in a more indirect way than is the case usually on the political far right. However, that does not mean that others would not use these new opportunities, too. Even jihadists and white nationalists who are generally not shy when it comes to expressing hatred against Jews directly, also rail against Zionists or their own “Zionist Occupied Government” when attacking Jews in the diaspora, such as the terrorists in Halle, Germany (2019), Poway, California (2019), and Toulouse, France (2012).

How is that related to the debates about the IHRA Definition? Well, half of the objections to the IHRA Definition revolve around these new arguments in the repertoire of antisemites. Not all forms of anti-Zionism are antisemitic, but it is evident that some antisemites have expressed their hatred against Jews in the form of anti-Zionism, sometimes just by replacing the word “Jews” with “Zionists.” Anti-Zionist antisemites usually contest this because they do not like to be called out for their biased views, but this is as laughable as Wilhelm Marr who coined the term antisemitism and insisted that he is not a Jew-hater but a rational antisemite. But if some forms of “anti-Zionism” can be considered antisemitic, which ones? And what is the difference to criticism of the State of Israel?

It is difficult to arrive at one definition of antisemitism that can be meaningfully applied across all times and places. One of the challenges has been that its forms have changed over the centuries and that even at any given time in history, there has been a diversity of manifestations of hatred and contempt for Jews as Jews. Motivations and ideological sources can vary and often come from opposing ends. Jews have been targeted with contempt and fear, with hate and cold plans of assassination, some tormentors of Jews even voiced admiration for the Jews. Singling out Jews and targeting them has been justified with ideologies as different as religion, nationalism, or anti-imperialism. A definition that encompasses all of the different forms, sentiments, and sources throughout history is difficult to come by, if not to say, daunting. Some scholars have suggested that different terms should be used for different epochs, such as anti-Judaism, Jew-hatred, antisemitism, Judeophobia, or Zionophobia but this merely evades the problem.

However, Helen Fein came up with a definition that seems to do justice to all of that and that has been used by many scholars. She proposed “to define antisemitism as a persisting latent structure of hostile beliefs toward Jews as a collectivity manifested in individuals as attitudes, and in culture as myth, ideology, folklore, and imagery, and in actions — social or legal discrimination, political mobilization against Jews, and collective or state violence — which results in and/or is designed to distance, displace, or destroy Jews as Jews.”[1] This needs to be fleshed out, of course and Fein did just that at book length.

The core text of the IHRA Working Definition is surprisingly similar in substance, formulated perhaps for a more hands-on approach. “Antisemitism is 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.” It is hard to see what should be objectionable to this text, other than that it needs to be made more tangible with further explanations. The authors of the IHRA Definition did just that and thus provided eleven examples that are part of the definition. Some of the examples that describe Israel-related forms of hostility towards Jews have drawn criticism. Before addressing these examples, however, it is important to note that they are introduced with two caveats. “Criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic,” it reads, and it is stressed that the overall context needs to be taken into account when looking at examples.

The first five examples do not seem to be controversial.

(1) Wishing to harm or even to kill Jews in the name of some extremist views or

(2) making some stereotypical allegations, such as the myth of a world Jewish conspiracy are generally seen as clearly antisemitic.

(3) Accusing Jews as a people of being responsible for real or imagined wrongdoing committed by others also seem to be a valid example of antisemitism for most people.

(4) Holocaust denial, or closely related,

(5) “Accusing the Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust” basically accuses not only Jews and Holocaust survivors as liars but also necessitates a conspiracy myth how all the evidence has been produced that attests to the horrors of a crime that is very difficult to exaggerate.

The last six examples try to capture the new variants of attacks against Jews since the creation of the Jewish state. Any definition of contemporary antisemitism would be incomplete without addressing these new forms. These examples were added precisely because many of the antisemitic attacks against Jews in Europe at the beginning of the 21st century were made in these forms, as Dave Rich and Philip Spencer recall.

(6) “Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.” The accusation of Jews of disloyalty to the nation is as old as the modern nation state. We have seen this during the Dreyfus affair in France but also in the “stab-in-the-back” legend that accused German Jews of being responsible for losing WWI. Adding loyalty to Israel to it does not change much compared to the old antisemitic trope. Of course, we can think of cases where this might not be antisemitic, which is true to all of the examples and therefore the caveat of taking into account the overall context is important. One such counter example could be made with the case of the American intelligence analysts Jonathan Pollard who spied for Israel. However, such examples are rare and, more importantly, backed with evidence and not based on some general suspicion of disloyalty.

The next two examples are the ones that are contested the most.

(7) “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.” The right to self-determination is a fundamental principle in modern international law. Why should the Jewish people of all people be deprived of that right? I find it convincing that singling out the Jewish people of denying that right and, as the state has been in existence for several generations now, thereby calling for the elimination of an existing state with all its potentially devastating consequences is a good indication for an antisemitic mindset. To say that “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor” is equivalent to denying the Jewish people the right to self-determination might need some explanation. I read this claim as a form of delegitimization of the very existence of the State of Israel. This however is only true in a context where racism is regarded a cardinal sin that should be eliminated as much as possible, which is luckily true in most contexts these days.

The eighth example is the trickiest.

(8) “Applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation,” calls for more context that provides evidence for such a double standard. However, if a double standard can be demonstrated and if there is no good explanation for treating the Jewish people or Israel differently from any other nation then we should consider the possibility that this is routed in hostile beliefs towards Jews. The caveat that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic,” should prevent us from labelling anything negative about Israel as antisemitic. This would be a problem, indeed, but this would also be a misrepresentation of the IHRA Definition. The examples do not include “criticism” but forms of defamation, as Bernard Harrison and Lesley Klaff have demonstrated.

That (9) “Using the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism (e.g., claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis,” can be considered antisemitic should not be shocking, although it might have been useful to provide more than two examples of classic antisemitism, such as the old trope of Jewish revenge.

(10) “Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis,” obviously depends on what kind of Nazi policies are compared with Israeli policies (“the overall context needs to be taken into account”) and “drawing comparisons” should be understood in the colloquial sense of equating and not stressing differences. However, equating Nazi genocidal policies with policies of the Israeli government – what scholars have termed Holocaust inversion – is not only bad taste but false to an extent that it can only be regarded as a form of libel, not criticism. For those who still wonder what the difference is between criticism of Israel and antisemitic accusations against Israel, it might be helpful to think of it in terms of the difference between criticism and defamation or libel. In some cases, it is difficult to distinguish between the two but in most cases, it is pretty clear.

The last example, (11) “Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel,” does not look controversial to me. Blaming people for something that they had no control of seems to be a justified indicator of bias

I agree with Eve Garrard that the IHRA definition doesn’t provide us with a philosophically satisfactory account of antisemitism. However, the purpose of this definition is to provide hands-on guidance for data collection and for making decisions if a certain statement should be tolerated or perhaps called out for being biased.

We cannot look into people’s heads and thus we never know for sure if their actions against Jews are driven by a worldview that include “hostile beliefs toward Jews as a collectivity.” We can only look at indicators, considering the overall context as the IHRA Definition demands. A good way to look at indicators are defamatory statements about Jews and what is closely associated with Jews, be it the Jewish state or whistleblower codewords such as “global finance.” The IHRA Definition spells out eleven of such indicators as examples. My observations of discourses about Jews on social media have taught me some additional indicators of an antisemitic mindset but the examples of the IHRA Definition cover the main areas.

However, some criticism is not about the text itself but about how it is implemented. Ken Stern, one of the many authors of the definition, who is often quoted by those who oppose the IHRA definition, actually still stands by the text. His argument is rather that the definition is being abused by those who would shut down conversations and censor viewpoints that might be controversial and even painful to hear but that are important to be said. Actually, the exact opposite is often the case. It is those who complain about the definition who seek to silence those who point out that there is a problem with antisemitism.

The Definition is non-binding and does not outlaw anything. Antisemitic statements are not a crime as such. In some countries, Holocaust denial or incitement to racial or religious hatred are crimes defined by law. The IHRA Definition does not affect these laws. It might, however, have an impact on hate crime laws. But this requires a crime in the first place and antisemitic or other bigotries are regarded as aggravating factors. It is rather a good thing that judges now have some guidance regarding what constitutes antisemitism when determining if bias was a motivating factor in a crime. Thus, the fear that the IHRA Definition criminalizes protected speech is unfounded.

What about the fear that the IHRA Definition will lead to censorship on campus? Some people argue that it might be fine to use the definition to monitor antisemitic incidents, but that beyond this it should have no role to play on campus. This is a strange argument but any worries about freedom of expression should be taken seriously as it is a fundamental principle of democracy and academia. As Ken Stern rightly notes, imposing hate speech codes will not solve the problem of campus antisemitism. The adoption of IHRA is not a quick fix that can replace the long-term antisemitism awareness training and educational programming necessary to foster a learning environment that is inclusive and welcoming to all students, including to Jewish students who feel a deep connection to Israel. But in terms of the remedial education that Stern endorses, why should antisemitic forms of anti-Zionism be treated any differently from racism, heterosexism, hatred against Muslims, or other bigotries? 

On many British and American colleges and universities Jewish students are being excluded from campus life, told they are unsuited for student government office, and often relentlessly harassed on account of their perceived attachment to Israel. It’s hard to see how campuses adopting the IHRA definition will harm Jewish students, as Stern claims, when at the moment many of them are forced to act like the Marranos of yesteryear—hiding their Jewish identities or generally positive views of Israel as a country in order to fit in. What is more, Stern and other critics seem to conflate freedom of expression, including the right to express antisemitic opinions and viewpoints, with a duty to provide antisemites a platform by which to voice their antisemitic ideas. The latter does not exist, certainly not for private companies, such as newspapers or social media platforms. It also does not exist for public universities or publicly funded cultural events. Why should the public fund events for outspoken antisemites? Why should they fund defamatory and bigoted events? There is no reason why the public should provide special assistance to them, nor to racist, sexist, or other bigots, for that matter. And when students are confronted by antisemitic forms of anti-Israel hate—either from their peers or from faculty—university leaders should exercise their own free speech rights to forcefully and unequivocally condemn it.

A meaningful definition, such as the IHRA Working Definition, is a tool that helps to identify antisemitic acts and statements. It is regrettable but understandable that those whose views are covered by the definition (or whose friends’ views are) reject the definition. If they want to criticize Israel for this or that policy, fine, join the many. They do not need to demonize and slander Israel or the Jewish people. That’s antisemitic.

[1] Helen Fein, “Dimensions of Antisemitism: Attitudes, Collective Accusations, and Actions,” in The Persisting Question. Sociological Perspectives and Social Contexts of Modern Antisemitism, ed. Helen Fein (Berlin/ New York: De Gruyter, 1987), 67.


Günther Jikeli, historian and sociologist, holds the Erna B. Rosenfeld Professorship at the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism/ Borns Jewish Studies Program at Indiana University. He is an associate professor at Germanic Studies and Jewish Studies. He is a permanent fellow at the Moses Mendelssohn Center at Potsdam University. Together with Olaf Gloeckner he published “The New Unease. Antisemitism in Germany Today” [in German] in 2019.
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