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Controversial ‘anti-Semitism code’ being ‘weaponised’ by pro-Israel groups, warns drafter

A small group holding Israeli flags were holding a counter protest as Hundreds of protesters gather in front of the Israeli Embassy in central London in solidarity with Palestinian people who are holding large "Great March of Return" and "Palestinian Land Day" rallies across Gaza border, in London, United Kingdom on March 30, 2019 [Hasan Esen / Anadolu Agency]
A small group holding Israeli flags were holding a counter protest as hundreds of protesters gather in front of the Israeli Embassy in central London in solidarity with Palestinian people in London, United Kingdom on 30 March 2019 [Hasan Esen/Anadolu Agency]

The author of a controversial definition of anti-Semitism has spoken out over its misuse and warned of its “chilling effect” on free speech. Writing in the Guardian, American attorney Kenneth Stern, who drafted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) “working definition of antisemitism,” warned that “rightwing Jews are weaponizing” it to supress criticism of Israel.

Stern explained that the code he drafted 15 years ago as the American Jewish Committee’s anti-Semitism expert is being used for a completely different purpose than the one intended.

“It was never intended to be a campus hate speech code,” said Stern in criticism of President Donald Trump’s executive order last week to extend a legal provision that treats Jews as a distinct nationality or a race, even though the vast majority of American Jews do not see themselves as being a separate nationality or race to America. Critics say it reinforces a common anti-Semitic trope about Jews belonging to a different nation.

Stern dismissed the White House’s reasoning for extending sections of the Civil Rights Act in a manner not done for any other religious or ethnic groups. Supporters of Trump’s executive order claim that a gap exists in the protection of Jews at university campuses that doesn’t exist for other minorities.

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“The problem isn’t that the executive order affords protection to Jewish students under title VI of the Civil Rights Act,” said Stern, “The Department of Education made clear in 2010 that Jews, Sikhs and Muslims (as ethnicities) could complain about intimidation, harassment and discrimination under this provision,”

The same provision, which pro-Israel groups insist needed to be expanded further, was successful employed by Stern to defend Jewish students at campuses from racist attacks. With Jewish students already afforded equal protection as all other minorities, Stern suggested that the effort by right-wing Jews to expand this provision further was designed to shield Israel from criticism.

Since 2010, “rightwing Jewish groups took the ‘working definition’, which had some examples about Israel (such as holding Jews collectively responsible for the actions of Israel, and denying Jews the right to self-determination), and decided to weaponize it with title VI cases,” said Stern. He also warned that instead of targeting acts of anti-Semitism, the code was being repurposed for “supressing political speech”.

Stern, a director of the Bard Centre for the Study of Hate, and the author of the forthcoming book “The Conflict Over the Conflict: The Israel/Palestine Campus Debate”, argued that no parallel examples that has the same force of law existed for any other minority groups.

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Dismissing Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and special adviser’s, article in the New York Times insisting that “Anti-Zionism is antisemitism,” Stern said: “I’m a Zionist. But on a college campus, where the purpose is to explore ideas, anti-Zionists have a right to free expression. I suspect that if Kushner or I had been born into a Palestinian family displaced in 1948, we might have a different view of Zionism.” He went on to dismiss the suggestion that anti-Zionism was a form of vilification of Jews.

Stern said the adoption of IHRA would have a “chilling effect” and that it would empower pro-Israel organisations such as the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) to “hunt political speech with which they disagree, and threaten to bring legal cases.”

Concluding his remarks, Stern said that “Antisemitism is a real issue, but too often people, both on the political right and political left, give it a pass if a person has the “right” view on Israel.”

Stern’s article is the latest in a long list warning that freedom of expression on Palestine is being suppressed in the name of the IHRA definition.

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