Supporters of Israel advocating for the controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism have suffered a major blow in their ongoing effort to shield the apartheid state from criticism, following the release of a strategy document by the White House detailing its plan to combat the rise of anti-Jewish racism. Since at least 2016, anti-Palestinian groups have been clamouring to place the IHRA at the heart and centre of regulatory frameworks, which critics say is designed to police free speech on Israel and Palestine.
Yesterday, the US President Joe Biden had his say on the issue and the outcome is far from what advocates of the IHRA had been calling for. Instead of adopting the IHRA as the only definition of anti-Semitism, which hundreds of pro-Israel groups had been advocating for during consultation, its status has been demoted as one of the definitions of anti-Jewish racism alongside others that “serve as valuable tools to raise awareness and increase understanding of anti-Semitism.”
The White House’s strategy for combatting anti-Semitism refers to IHRA as “most prominent” but also “non-legally binding working definition” alongside other definitions it “welcomes and appreciates”. The US Administration also cites the non-controversial “Nexus Document” as a valid definition of anti-Semitism. Unlike the IHRA, the Nexus Document does not conflate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. Interestingly, the IHRA is only mentioned once in the report, alongside other less controversial definitions of anti-Semitism, that do not mention Israel.
Noticeably, the White House did offer its own definition of anti-Semitism: “Anti-Semitism is a stereotypical and negative perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred of Jews” said the strategy document, without mentioning Israel once. “It is prejudice, bias, hostility, discrimination or violence against Jews for being Jews or Jewish institutions or property for being Jewish or perceived as Jewish. Anti-Semitism can manifest as a form of racial, religious, national origin, and/or ethnic discrimination, bias, or hatred; or, a combination thereof. However, anti-Semitism is not simply a form of prejudice or hate. It is also a pernicious conspiracy theory that often features myths about Jewish power and control.”
To the disappointed of pro-Israel groups, the White House’s definition does not mention the apartheid state once. Seven of the eleven examples of anti-Semitism in the IHRA conflate criticism of Israel with ant-Jewish racism. Because of this fact, opponents of the IHRA have warned that instead of focusing on how to keep Jews safe, the so called “working definition” is fixated on shielding Israel from accountability. The Biden administration seems to be implicitly sympathetic to this view. With no mention of Israel in the White House’s own definition of anti-Semitism, there is no other way to interpret the position of the Biden administration other than to view it as a snub to advocates of the IHRA. Having campaigned hard and long to make sure that the IHRA was at the heart and centre of the White House’s strategy to combat anti-Semitism, it was mentioned once and only in passing.
The Biden administration’s strategy represents “the most comprehensive and ambitious US government effort to counter anti-Semitism in American history”. To develop this strategy, the White House held listening sessions with more than 1,000 diverse stakeholders across the Jewish community and beyond. These sessions have included Jews from diverse backgrounds and all denominations. The White House also met with Special Envoys who combat anti-Semitism around the globe to learn from their best practices. Bipartisan leaders in Congress and from across civil society, the private sector, technology companies, civil rights leaders, Muslim, Christian and other faith groups, students and educators and countless others were engaged during “listening sessions”.
A bitter row had ensued during the consultation period over the status of the IHRA. Though there is said to have existed a broad consensus that anti-Semitism in America is a crucial problem and must be addressed, some Jewish organisations tried to undermine this effort, according to Hadar Susskind, the President and CEO of Americans for Peace Now. By insisting on the prioritisation of the IHRA above all other issues, Susskind claimed that a number of American Jewish organisations had prioritised shielding Israel from criticism over combatting anti-Semitism.
“Rather than support this far-reaching plan to truly combat anti-Semitism, there are those in our community who, instead, insist that this plan should be about the IHRA definition, and only the IHRA definition,” said Susskind on twitter, while revealing details of the polarisation in the Jewish community over the IHRA. “Why are some insisting that the IHRA definition is so unique that it alone is worthy of inclusion in this effort?” Susskind asked. “Why do those same people insist that the Nexus definition and the Jerusalem Declaration on Anti-Semitism are so unacceptable as tools to combat anti-Semitism?”
Explaining the difference, Susskind said that “the IHRA definition and only the IHRA definition has been weaponised by the Israeli government and those who defend its worst policies and actions”. He mentioned how the IHRA definition has been used repeatedly to define anti-Zionism as anti-Semitism and “honed into a weapon to shut down criticism of Israeli policy and discourse on Israel-Palestine.”
J Street, another liberal pro-Israel advocacy group, which had urged the Biden administration not to incorporate the IHRA in its strategy, also welcomed the report. “Importantly, the strategy avoids exclusively codifying any one specific, sweeping definition of anti-Semitism as the sole standard for use in enforcing domestic law and policy, recognising that such an approach could do more harm than good” said J Street. “While some voices have pushed the White House to give the full force of US law to the IHRA Working Definition of Anti-Semitism and its accompanying examples, the Biden Administration rightly cites this definition as just one of a range of illustrative and useful tools in understanding and combating anti-Semitism.”
J Street went on to add that it was supported by many other advocates in the Jewish community – including the definition’s original author, Kenneth Stern – in warning that the IHRA and examples of anti-Jewish racism cited in the definition have been used to focus attention disproportionately on criticism of Israel and advocacy of Palestinian rights.
In refusing to endorse the IHRA as the only definition of anti-Semitism, President Biden has shown that a genuine effort to combat the rise of anti-Jewish racism cannot have a document shielding Israel from accountability at the heart and centre of its strategy.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.