The U.N. will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the World Conference on Racism at Durban, South Africa, on Sept. 22. Far from scoring a victory against racism, however, the 2001 conference is remembered for a spate of virulent attacks against Jews and Israel — indeed, the United States and at least nine other countries have declined to attend this year’s meeting. The venomous attacks in 2001 spurred governments and scholars to draft a definition of antisemitism that is now embodied in the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition, which recognizes that antisemitism may include attacks on Israel that demonize or delegitimize the Jewish State.
Like other definitions of antisemitism, IHRA defines antisemitism as hatred of Jews, directed at individuals or community facilities, including synagogues. Unlike other definitions, however, IHRA recognizes that, while “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic,” “targeting … the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity” may well be.
This is not to say that all Jews identify with Israel. They do not. By the same token, not all Jews wear kippot or keep kosher. No one denies that attacks on these practices would be antisemitic. Yet attachment to Israel as the Jewish homeland is just as fundamental to the identity of many Jews. Anyone who picks up a Jewish prayer book will see the word Israel and Jerusalem on practically every page. And anyone who has been to a Passover seder has ended the service by saying, “Next year in Jerusalem!” Asking Jews to check their devotion to Israel before they may join an academic circle, or a student council, or a parade celebrating LGBQT pride, is asking them to renounce their Judaism. That is unquestionably antisemitic.
Criminalization of the Jewish state and calls to obliterate it are also undeniably antisemitic.
The antisemitic violence that erupted during the recent conflict in Gaza proves the point; Jews were attacked on the streets of New York, Los Angeles and other major U.S. cities, as well as across social media, not because of any personal connection between the victims and the State of Israel, but simply because they were Jews. Jews may dispute among themselves the importance of Israel to their Jewish identity, but antisemites outside the fold do not stop to quibble before striking out.
Critics of the IHRA definition, however, remarkably continue to deny that anti-Zionism is a contemporary form of antisemitism. For example, the Nexus definition asserts that holding Israel to a “double standard,” or “paying disproportionate attention to Israel and treating Israel differently than other countries,” “is not prima facie proof of antisemitism.” The Jerusalem Declaration, which continues to hold sway in some academic circles, likewise maintains that a “double standard” is not, in and of itself, antisemitic. It goes even further, asserting categorically that proposing to eliminate Israel as the Jewish State, labeling Israel “apartheid” or “settler-colonial(ist),” or supporting the “(b)oycott, divestment and sanction” movement cannot be considered antisemitic.
Sympathy for the plight of Palestinians is not, of course, antisemitic. When the Palestinian cause is immutably linked to the elimination of the Jewish State, however, that is another story. Unfortunately, the Jerusalem Declaration tries to accommodate movements that promote that narrative. It also suggests that Israel is racist, apartheid and settler-colonialist, based on “evidence” it fails to identify. And it condones boycotts against Israel, while utterly ignoring BDS’ self-proclaimed goal of annihilating Israel. Omar Barghouti, the founder of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, makes no bones about it: He and his followers would never accept a Jewish state in the land he calls Palestine.
The elimination of the Jewish State cannot in good faith be characterized as “politics” or mere criticism of the Israeli government. Make no mistake, the BDS goal means Jews would once again be exiled from the land of Israel or allowed to stay in their ancestral homeland only if they surrender their independence, sovereignty and (as history shows) their physical security.
As a member of the Brandeis Center’s legal team, I encounter examples of antisemitism daily. These incidents make crystal clear that only the IHRA definition succeeds in addressing the full panoply of antisemitic threats that Jews confront today — threats on display in Durban 2001 and in the 20 years since. The competing “definitions” turn a blind eye to reality, endangering the people they purport to protect, while protecting their authors from political fire.
L. Rachel Lerman is vice-chair of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, a non-profit that conducts research, education and advocacy to combat the resurgence of antisemitism on college and university campuses.