The US State Department has revised its definition of anti-Semitism and included "drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis" to its growing list of examples of anti-Jewish hatred. An earlier definition of anti-Semitism adopted by the State Department cited 10 examples of which three were related directly to criticism of Israel, including "claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour."
The move appears to be a reaction to comments made by US Democrat Representative Ilhan Omar during the introduction of a resolution last month championing "the right to participate in boycotts in pursuit of civil and human rights."
"Americans of conscience have a proud history of participating in boycotts to advocate for human rights abroad including… boycotting Nazi Germany from March 1933 to October 1941 in response to the dehumanization of the Jewish people in the lead-up to the Holocaust," said Omar in the pro-BDS resolution, co-sponsored by her Democrat colleagues Rashida Tlaib and civil rights leader John Lewis.
"Anti-Semitic acts are criminal when they are so defined by law," says the State Department definition. An example would be Holocaust denial. Furthermore, it states that, "Criminal acts are anti-Semitic when the targets of attacks, whether they are people or property – such as buildings, schools, places of worship and cemeteries – are selected because they are, or are perceived to be, Jewish or linked to Jews."
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The examples included in this definition mirror those given by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). The IHRA definition has been a source of controversy over its inclusion of examples that appear to conflate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism.
US attorney Kenneth S Stern helped to draft the IHRA definition, but has expressed concerns over its current use, which he believes will have a chilling effect on free-speech. In written evidence submitted to the US Congress last year, Stern set out his case for why he thinks the definition is being misused: "The definition was not drafted, and was never intended, as a tool to target or chill speech on a college campus." The attorney added that the impact of the definition, which he said he highlighted in a conference, was damaging. He found that the "working definition" was being employed in an attempt to restrict academic freedom and punish political speech, opening up a "Pandora's box".
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According to Stern, the purpose of the "working definition" was to standardise data collection about the incidence of anti-Semitic hate crime in different countries and that it had never been intended to be used as a legal or regulatory device to curb academic or political free speech. He pointed out that that is how it has now come to be used, giving examples where the IHRA definition was cited to ban pro-Palestinian events.
The most recent instance of IHRA's impact on free speech in Britain saw the London Borough of Tower Hamlets refusing to host the closing rally of the annual Big Ride for Palestine, which raises awareness and money for traumatised Palestinian children in the besieged Gaza Strip. The council apparently feared that it would fall foul of the IHRA "anti-Semitism" criteria if it allowed the cyclists and their supporters to use council-owned property.