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Understanding IHRA

November 27, 2020

Discussions about Israel, often passionate, occasionally get sidetracked by a descent into—or accusations of—antisemitic rhetoric. When does criticism cross the line from legitimate debate into antisemitic hate speech? Are Israel’s antagonists really bigots hiding behind a veil of political disagreement, or are Israel’s overzealous advocates falsely alleging antisemitism to deflect the conversation?

Fortunately, there’s a tool we can use to differentiate between the two: the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of Antisemitism. The definition itself is straightforward, and offers examples regarding Israel, such as including “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination” as an expression of antisemitism.

“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.” –International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance

Over forty countries have joined the Alliance and endorsed its definition; every week we hear news of another country, municipality, or student government that has adopted it. And every week we also hear cries that the definition stifles free speech or that it amounts to censorship. These cries are misguided at best and dishonest at worst; nothing in the IHRA (or any other) definition limits the freedom of expression.

First, the IHRA definition does not include criticism of individual Jews or of Israel as a country as antisemitic. It explicitly excludes the latter, clearly stating that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.” Criticism—however harsh, and whether justified or not—of any Israeli policy, person, or action is not, according to either the IHRA or common sense, antisemitic.

Second, a definition does not dictate policy. The IHRA examples help identify and recognize what is—and, importantly, what is not—antisemitic. The IHRA definition says nothing about what to do about incidents or expressions of antisemitism. It doesn’t tell organizations what their policies should be, or how to respond to specific events, or what should or should not be legally prohibited. For example, Holocaust denial (which qualifies as antisemitic under the IHRA definition) is outlawed in some European countries; in the United States such denial, while ahistorical and immoral, is protected free speech.

Most importantly, behavior is different from speech. Racist slurs and hate speech, however offensive and despicable, are constitutionally protected; the government cannot censor, fine, or imprison a person for expressing such sentiments. Commercial conduct, however, is subject to a different set of rules than expression. Denying service at a restaurant to people of a particular race, gender, religion, or national origin is illegal discrimination, not speech. Similarly, bullying and harassment are discriminatory behaviors, not speech, and are not protected as free expression. Hate crimes such as vandalism, arson, and assault are illegal because they are criminal acts, exacerbated by the motive of “bias against people or groups with specific characteristics that are defined by the law.”

Antisemitism is deplorable, as is censorship, so it is important to understand the boundaries of each. The IHRA definition helps universities and other organizations recognize bigotry in their midst; it does not prohibit criticism, curtail free expression, or dictate policy. The definition is simply a tool for identifying antisemitic expression, for distinguishing criticism from hate, for informing policy decisions, and for guiding responses to events and incidents. Discouraging both antisemitic undertones and false accusations of antisemitism enables us to have a substantive and civil discussion about Israel’s actual policies and actions.


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Also published at the Times of Israel, November 30, 2020. As always, your feedback is very welcome and actively solicited. Please contact me with your reactions, additions, and rebuttals.

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