The man who took the lead in drafting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism, Kenneth Stern, has warned the incoming Biden administration not to adopt it. In a sensational article in the Times of Israel, Stern claimed that pro-Israel lobby groups have weaponised the definition in an attempt to silence critics of Zionism.
“Jewish groups have used the definition as a weapon to say anti-Zionist expressions are inherently anti-Semitic and must be suppressed,” wrote Stern. The director of the Bard Centre for the Study of Hate, who is also an attorney, wrote his article in response to a letter from the Jewish Federation of North America to the Biden-Harris Transition Commission, urging them to adopt the IHRA as one of its top priorities when they take office next month.
“Reasonable people can have different opinions about when anti-Semitism is reflected in anti-Zionism,” continued Stern “But is this – having the government label anti-Zionism [as] anti-Semitism — the number one way we want to ask the new administration to fight the problem?”
Tracing the history of the IHRA definition, Stern pointed out that he had drafted it in 2005 “largely to give European data-collectors guideposts of what to include and exclude in reports about anti-Semitism, so data could be compared across borders and time.” He suggested that the “allure” of the definition for Zionists has been the specific examples related to expressions about the state of Israel. Seven of the 11 illustrative examples conflate racism towards Jews with criticism of the state of Israel.
Arguing that the IHRA definition undermines the fight against anti-Semitism, Stern offered an example of efforts to combat racism in other communities. “Imagine if Black Lives Matter said the most important thing the new administration could do to remedy systemic racism is adopt a definition of racism, and that definition included this example: opposition to affirmative action.” He said that such an insistence would change the debate about systemic racism into one about free speech.
Stern’s recommendation for those serious about fighting anti-Semitism is to stop treating the IHRA definition as a “simple symbol, like a flag” that everyone has “to rally around”. Instead, “We should be asking [the Biden administration] to convene a White House Task Force on hate (including anti-Semitism), bringing together leading thinkers and organisations to map out ways we might reduce the vilification of others (including Jews).”
This is the second high-profile intervention by Stern warning against the adoption of the definition. Last December he wrote an article in the Guardian arguing that the working definition of anti-Semitism was being “weaponised’ by pro-Israel groups.
Opposition to the IHRA document has been fierce over recent months, largely due to pushback against efforts to impose the controversial code on academic institutions. Last week, a leading expert on anti-Semitism, Professor David Feldman, warned the British government against the imposition of the IHRA definition on universities.