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The First Step to Fighting Antisemitism: Why the IHRA Definition Matters

Antisemitism is a global problem. It was born in the West and peaked during the Holocaust, leading to its temporary repudiation by polite society.

A cartoon printed by the Iranian government. —Courtesy of Iranwire.com/Behnam Bahrami

By Robert Williams and Mark Weitzman

Antisemitism is an ancient hatred, but it still plagues our society and can hide in plain sight. For too long, people relied on subjective approaches to identify it — they felt it in their bones. But antisemitism is too big a problem: one needs to define it in order to counter it.

US President Joe Biden administration’s embrace of the non-legally binding Working Definition of Antisemitism of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) makes it the third administration to support this definition. As chair and past chair of the IHRA antisemitism committee, and as individuals who have devoted our careers to Holocaust education and awareness, we welcome this development; as Americans, we applaud it and hope it generates more awareness of the threat of antisemitism to peaceful and secure democracies.

Antisemitism is a global problem. It was born in the West and peaked during the Holocaust, leading to its temporary repudiation by polite society. Over the past decade, it has reemerged significantly across Europe as borne out by statistics and official reports. The United States is not immune from these trends, as references to blaming Jews for the COVID-19 pandemic (“Jew flu”) or the appearance of “Camp Auschwitz’’ shirts illustrate. FBI statistics showed a 14 percent increase in antisemitic crimes between 2018 and 2019, and the past several years have witnessed the most deadly wave of attacks on Jews in American history. Because hate crimes are notoriously underreported and because social media amplifies antisemitism, racism, and other forms of hate, the problem is probably worse than this. Fighting antisemitism requires common understanding that can lead to cooperative efforts.

In the past, scholars and advocates attempted to define antisemitism. None of these efforts achieved international status. In 2016, the now 34 countries of the IHRA adopted its Working Definition. Since then, 30 countries have adopted or endorsed it at the national level, as have many local governments, the European Union, the Organization of American States, religious organizations, universities, sports leagues, and businesses. More importantly, the IHRA definition has generated open and useful public dialogue on the problems of antisemitism. One significant example of this was in the United Kingdom, where the definition became a catalyst for debate about antisemitism in the Labour Party and other British institutions.

At its core, the IHRA definition states, “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.” It does not define who is an antisemite, or even who is a Jew. Instead, it says there are certain manifestations of antisemitism. This focus on forms allows for dialogue, that is, conversations about conscious or unconscious expressions of antisemitism, which in turn can lead to real and lasting change.

Because antisemitism is not always evident, the IHRA definition includes 11 examples that can help one identify it when accounting for “overall context.” Built on agreement by multiple groups of experts and diplomats before its adoption by the IHRA, these examples include antisemitism as it is informed by religious, racist, or nationalist ideas, as well as extremist opposition to Israel. The definition does not call for proscribed speech and does not seek to protect any group from reasonable criticism. It does note that some countries criminalize antisemitic expressions, but it does not call for criminalization. While the examples are not a rigid taxonomy allowing for the identification of every type of antisemitism, they are an internationally accepted baseline that can allow us to shine a light on places where antisemitism might exist.

Because of these features, it is important to note that the IHRA definition is not a political or legal weapon; it is an educational resource. Fighting antisemitism is not about the Left or the Right. It is about building mutual respect and overcoming those forces that tear us apart. Societies that accept antisemitism open the door to other forms of violent bias. After all, most antisemites do not restrict their hatreds just to Jews. By fighting one form of hate, we can become better at fighting them all.

The IHRA definition is a step on a longer path toward developing information-based approaches to countering antisemitism. Taken by itself, it cannot cure a 2,000-year-old social malady, but it is a means by which Jews and non-Jews can understand better how antisemitism appears today. It provides a basis for education and the monitoring of trends, both of which are necessary to create better responses to hatred in its old and new, but always dangerous, forms.

Robert Williams, of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and Mark Weitzman, of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, are chair and past chair of the Committee on Antisemitism and Holocaust Denial of the IHRA.

This article was first published in the Jerusalem Post.

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