War of the Words: The Conflict between Definitions of Antisemitism
The IHRA, JDA, and Nexus Definitions
The fight against antisemitism has historically been difficult, but in March the term itself became a battlefield with the drafting of a third international definition of antisemitism.
The Jerusalem Definition of Antisemitism (JDA) was marched out in opposition to the popular International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition and the recent but lesser-known Nexus definition.
Factions championing different definitions have since been firing off tweets, enlisting signatories and launching campaigns.
For outsiders to the conflict, it’s hard to understand what the fight is about. The IHRA, JDA, and Nexus definitions have many similarities and overlaps. It is in the distinctions, views on double standards, self-determination and legitimate criticism, that counter-antisemitism activists and political activists clash.
The IHRA working definition of antisemitism was the first to take the field. The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance was created with the backing of 34 countries to “promote education, remembrance and research about the Holocaust.” However, there was no international standard of antisemitism that the multinational effort could use for education and research. To this end, IHRA adopted a working definition of antisemitism in 2016.
It was based on a previous research project on antisemitism, “initially designed as an aid for data collection regarding antisemitic incidents in Europe,” David Schraub, one of the developers of the Nexus definition and assistant professor of law at the Lewis & Clark Law School, explained to the Magazine. “When it was drafted, it was never envisioned as some sort of overarching framework that could capture all forms of antisemitism in all places.” Yet due to rising levels of antisemitism, the IHRA definition was pressed into service.
The IHRA definition has a main definition and 11 guidelines to serve as examples of how antisemitism may manifest. According to IHRA, “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.”
Of the guidelines, four were for classic antisemitism, and the remaining seven on antisemitism involving Israel. The inclusion of examples with Israel would later become contested, but for counter-antisemitism activists it was necessary to combat a rising trend of “new antisemitism” involving the Jewish state.
The last half of the decade saw a surge of antisemitism in the US. According to FBI religious hate crime statistics, in 2016 Jews represented 53% of all victims, which rose by 10% in 2019. That year, Jews were the targets of a series of street and shooting attacks.
During the pandemic, Jew-hatred shifted online with COVID-19 conspiracies and rants by celebrities, which often touched on Israel.
On American campuses, while “classical” manifestations of antisemitism were dropping, incidents that involved Israel rose by 300% in 2019, according to the AMCHA initiative. This coincided with a steady rise in US campus Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions activity. American Jews were experiencing multiple forms of antisemitism that academic institutions, social media platforms and authorities didn’t understand, and therefore didn’t know how to address.
“Today, we are seeing not only a resurgence in ‘classical’ antisemitism directed towards Jews as individuals, but also a manifestation of antisemitism directed against the Jewish state, which takes on false claims and malicious distortions of truth dangerously disguised as acceptable criticism of Zionism and Israel,” Arsen Ostrovsky, CEO of the International Legal Forum (ILF), told the Magazine.
Antisemitism is identifiable to most when it mirrors racism, but many are unfamiliar with classic antisemitic imagery or tropes, or how “Jew” can simply be substituted with “Zionist.” Activists were frustrated that authorities couldn’t hear the dog whistles.
“Jewish students support IHRA because they recognize they are being targeted under the context of anti-Zionism,” Daniel Koren, executive director of Hasbara Fellowships Canada, told the Magazine. “They see that administrators do not have the tools or guidelines to understand the difference between legitimate criticism of Israel as opposed to the outright hatred of Jewish people.”
With lack of a shared understanding of antisemitism, definition became vital.
“We need to first define and identify that which we are trying to defeat, in order to defeat it,” Ostrovsky stressed. “We need to be very clear when... statements or actions morph from legitimate criticism of Israel into antisemitism, and the IHRA definition provides the best, clearest and most objective tool for enabling that.”
With such a multitude of ways antisemitism could manifest, a comprehensive definition of antisemitism was needed and IHRA, while imperfect to some, was there.
“When we started to need an authoritative framework for assessing antisemitism to account for cases where there was live controversy, IHRA got pressed into service less because it was the right tool for the job but rather because it was the only tool available,” said Schraub.
Since its deployment, IHRA has gained immense institutional support.
“The IHRA definition is the most widely endorsed definition of antisemitism in the world, having been adopted by over 30 countries, a host of leading multilateral institutions and civil society,” Ostrovsky explained.
This includes campuses. According to Ilan Sinelnikov, president of Students Supporting Israel, 25 US campuses have adopted the IHRA definition, 11 of them as a result of SSI campaigns.
HOWEVER, THE biggest campaigner for IHRA on campuses was then-president Donald Trump, who in 2019 signed an executive order to have the Justice and Education departments use the IHRA definition. Trump’s involvement deepened battle lines that developed as IHRA grew in popularity.
Like all things in the current hyper-partisan environment, the definition of antisemitism quickly became political, a strategic hill to be conquered. Both right- and left-wing political activists have their agendas, and defining antisemitism presents obstacles and boons in their pursuit. For the partisan Left, Trump’s involvement with IHRA tainted it, as with his supporters it sanctified it.
Both poles of the political spectrum have an interest in the problem of antisemitism being laid at the feet of the other, so as to dissuade or enlist voters. Some on the Left see IHRA as a problem because it does not focus on white supremacy, a product of the radical Right. For some on the Right, antisemitism comes from the Left, where BDS largely resides, and IHRA holds BDS objectives and tactics as antisemitic.
Of course, the most dug-in sides on the definition of antisemitism are pro-Israel and anti-Zionist activists. IHRA is unacceptable to the latter not only because it casts denial of Jewish self-determination, double standards and certain rhetoric as antisemitic, but it also supposes that antisemitism exists among anti-Zionists at all, a premise that must be rejected altogether for legitimacy’s sake.
“People want a definition of antisemitism to indict what they dislike and to protect what they like,” Schraub explained of the divisions. “If you back BDS, you want to be damn sure that a publicly accepted definition of antisemitism doesn’t include BDS. If you back Trump, you want to be damn sure that the definition doesn’t capture anything Trump says [that may be antisemitic].”
Those who felt the definition of antisemitism was not favorable needed to provide another. Meanwhile, some counter-antisemitism activists had concerns that IHRA wasn’t clear or comprehensive enough. Consequently, new powers rose to challenge IHRA’s terminological hegemony.
THE NEXUS Task Force was established in 2019 to “examine the issues at the intersection of antisemitism and Israel in American politics.”
According to Schraub, the Nexus definition came about because “there were many people who were very concerned about antisemitism, who very much wanted to avoid doing antisemitic things, but who did not see IHRA as providing sufficient guidance to let them know what was okay and what was problematic.... Our purpose was to provide greater clarity and fine-tuning so we wouldn’t see people of goodwill accidentally blunder into an antisemitic hot spot.”
According to the Nexus definition, “Antisemitism consists of anti-Jewish beliefs, attitudes, actions or systemic conditions. It includes negative beliefs and feelings about Jews, hostile behavior directed against Jews (because they are Jews), and conditions that discriminate against Jews and significantly impede their ability to participate as equals in political, religious, cultural, economic or social life.
As an embodiment of collective Jewish organization and action, Israel can be a target of antisemitism and antisemitic behavior. Thus, it is important for Jews and their allies to understand what is and what is not antisemitic in relation to Israel.”
Nexus includes nine guidelines to what animus toward Israel is antisemitic, and another four about what is not. In comparison to IHRA’s examples, Nexus also includes “conditions which impede the full equality of Jews as a form of antisemitism,” “dismissal of Jewish claims about antisemitism,” and the Jewishness of Jews being “denied or denigrated,” as forms of antisemitism.
The Jerusalem Definition of Antisemitism began development in 2020 under the auspices of the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, and was deployed on March 25, 2021. The JDA was introduced with an academic phalanx of over 200 signatories from disciplines “of Holocaust history, Jewish studies and Middle East studies.”
The JDA has a much cleaner definition of antisemitism than IHRA or Nexus: “Antisemitism is discrimination, prejudice, hostility or violence against Jews as Jews (or Jewish institutions as Jewish).”
It has 15 guidelines in total, five on general antisemitism, five Israel examples that are antisemitic and another five that are not. It also has an extensive FAQ and a preamble that explains the reasoning behind the JDA.
In contrast to IHRA, it notes that BDS is not inherently antisemitic, the fight against antisemitism falls under the broader fight against racism, and it removes double standards, denial of Jewish self-determination in Israel and comparisons of Israel to Nazi Germany, as antisemitic.
The JDA’s introduction garnered mixed reactions. It was clearly developed as a counter to IHRA, with the JDA outright stating that it “responds to ‘the IHRA Definition.’” This motive drew supporters, but also delegitimized it in the eyes of many others.
“The Jerusalem Definition, in my view, is an obvious political attempt to legitimize antisemitism,” said Koren. “It is an insult to the students fighting for change.”
Ostrovsky expressed a similar sentiment: “The recent spate of alternate definitions is a blatant attempt to water down and undermine the fight against antisemitism, and specifically the IHRA definition, by seeking to extricate Israel from the equation and get BDS, pernicious vilification of the Jewish state and opposition to Zionism through the back door, with some veneer of legitimacy.”
Organizations like IfNotNow (INN) have embraced the JDA.
“We welcome the JDA, as a viable alternative to the controversial and unhelpful IHRA definition,” INN said in an official statement, noting that IHRA was part of a campaign to “shield the Israeli government from accountability” and that it muddied the waters about “real antisemitism” and misused “Jewish communal resources.”
INN also emphasized the JDA’s promotion of fighting antisemitism as “inseparable from fighting other forms of discrimination.”
Interestingly, the BDS movement has been highly critical of the JDA. BDS denies there is antisemitism in anti-Israel circles, and claims that everything from JDA’s name to its focus reinforces this premise. BDS was angered that the definition “excludes representative Palestinian perspectives,” and also did not strongly enough reject double standards, denial of Jewish self-determination and certain imagery as being antisemitic.
SINCE THE definitions were established, their proponents have clashed on three main fronts: double standards, self-determination and legitimate criticism.
Some feel that Israel is subjected to discriminatory standards only because it is a Jewish state. On the other side, commentators fear their focus could make them appear antisemitic under some interpretations. While the JDA claims that a double standard is not, in and of itself, antisemitic, IHRA and Nexus assert that in certain situations it is.
Schraub explains that the problem with maximalist positions of double standards is that, on “one hand, the double standard is perhaps the closest thing we have to the most intuitive core case of discrimination: treating likes unalike.” However, “people are allowed to have areas of focus and concentration without it being a ‘double standard.’”
Many activists are pursuing their best interests on the role of double standards, either avoiding being called antisemitic or seeking to wield it against violators.
This rush of conflicting interests occurs with the matter of denial of self-determination as well.
For Zionists, self-determination is a fundamental national right, and to deny Jews a right enshrined by other nation-states is inequality and discrimination.
For those who seek Israel’s dismantling or for it to cease being a Jewish state, a definition could make their objectives explicitly antisemitic, and push their camp out of polite society.
The JDA doesn’t see denial of self-determination as inequality or as a double standard. Both Nexus and IHRA support the right of self-determination, though Schraub does offer some caution on this issue. “The JDA, I think, is less clear on this point, and that, to me, is a weakness.... But critics of the JDA who don’t actually accept the idea that there is a general right to self-determination that applies to Palestinians, only a Jewish right of self-determination,” are applying a double standard themselves.
The introduction of a tool in which some anti-Israel speech could be measured as antisemitic created a limitation on BDS and anti-Zionist operations. Suddenly, Jewish Voice for Peace’s campaign to blame Israel for US police brutality and George Floyd’s death was institutionally unacceptable. Comparing Israelis to the coronavirus was measured against classic comparisons of Jews to pests.
This required a shift in tactics, and BDS activists, once doctrinally seeking to limit free speech on campuses, shifted to castigating definitions of antisemitism as a campaign to stifle Palestinian voices and criticism of Israel. Proponents of IHRA dismiss this as disingenuous.
“The IHRA definition does not stifle any speech in support of Palestinian rights,” said Koren. “It very clearly stipulates that criticism of Israel is not antisemitic, but demonization or dehumanization of Israel (or the Jews as a people) is antisemitic.”
“Those who say the IHRA definition “stifles” pro-Palestinian speech are being willfully misleading,” said Ostrovsky. “On the contrary, IHRA is very explicit that ‘criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.’”
Some anti-Zionist groups have accepted the JDA as not limiting speech; yet BDS still sees all available definitions as operational impediments. Consequently, out of this third front of conflict, a new definition may be developed to suit BDS political needs.
A final front may develop later, based on the JDA assertions on racism. The JDA contends that antisemitism is not unique, simply another form of racism, and can therefore be properly fought only together with other forms of racism. This may result in antisemitism being ignored in situations inconvenient to left-wing racial narratives.
For all the conflict with new definitions, IHRA’s momentum has not slowed. In Ontario, not long after the Canadian province adopted IHRA, a student initiative matched the JDA’s signatures with 210 in support of the older definition. Academics for IHRA, a project in which ILF is deeply involved, launched just after JDA’s release, and eclipsed its signatures with over 350 scholars signing an open letter of its own. On April 11, SSI hosted a massive summit on IHRA involving 50 organizations from 11 countries, with the goal of building bipartisan and pan-religious support.
Despite the controversy, there has not yet been any significant adoption of the JDA, and the Nexus definition has been largely ignored.
Ultimately, the points of contention in defining antisemitism may be insurmountable for some groups. Each definition will likely secure its own institutional territory and political following.
However, there remains the possibility of armistice through the imperfection of the definitions. One thing that IHRA, JDA and Nexus agree on is that none of the definitions are exhaustive or final.
As Schraub notes, there will be no definition “free of controversy” or safe from being used in “bad-faith ways by abusive actors.”
Acknowledgment of the imperfection and fallibility of the definitions may allow them to coexist, if not peaceably, in a cold war.