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When It Comes to Defining Antisemitism, It’s Official: IHRA is No Longer the Only Game in Town | Opinion

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by Joe Sterling, Georgia Recorder
June 27, 2023

The battle over a controversial definition of antisemitism has taken a new turn in Georgia and the rest of the country, thanks to the Biden administration. That’s good news for those of us who oppose giving that one definition the force of law.

Supporters of a Georgia bill intended to fight antisemitism have been pushing a measure that codifies the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s non-legally binding working definition and 11 examples of antisemitism.

It passed the House and never reached the Senate floor this year but there is a good chance it will be picked up in January.

Georgia lawmakers fighting the scourge are now politically center stage.

The high-profile demonstrations by an antisemitic group in front of synagogues in Macon and East Cobb, the dissemination of anti-Jewish flyers in Georgia neighborhoods and the increase of antisemitic acts across the country demand action. 

The Biden administration’s detailed National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism, rolled out in May after input from 1,000 stakeholders, just changed the focus on defining antisemitism.

IHRA isn’t the only definition to help enforce law and policy, the strategy says. It is no longer the only game in town.

“There are several definitions of antisemitism, which serve as valuable tools to raise awareness and increase understanding of antisemitism,” the strategy said. 

“The most prominent is the non-legally binding ‘working definition’ of antisemitism adopted in 2016 by the 31-member states of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), which the United States has embraced. In addition, the administration welcomes and appreciates the Nexus Document and notes other such efforts.”

Supporters of IHRA wanted the Biden administration to exclusively cite the definition it supports and are upset that it didn’t. Many supporters are pleased the IHRA definition was mentioned and included.

But for those of us on the liberal side, we think it is wise that the administration favors consulting all available views in combating the hatred of Jews. We can argue about the meaning of the word “prominent,” used to describe IHRA’s status. It just might mean, simply, “well known,” which IHRA appears to be.

I’m a member of the Georgia chapter of J Street, the D.C.-based liberal pro-Israel group. We oppose the codification of IHRA.

We and the Progressive Israel Network, an umbrella group in which we are members, believe that a couple of the 11 IHRA examples focus too much on Israel and could be used to stifle political speech regarding Israel and the occupied territories.

“It is undeniable that critics of Israel can sometimes cross the line into antisemitism and must be held accountable when they do,” J Street said in a statement after the strategy was released.

“But refocusing the fight against antisemitism on defining as a matter of law what is and what isn’t appropriate criticism of Israel, while surging rightwing antisemitism is endangering the lives of American Jews, is dangerous and irresponsible.”

In my opinion, other definitions of antisemitism are meaningful and detailed and should be consulted along with IHRA.

Georgia legislators and Jewish leaders choosing to rely on law that hangs its hat solely on IHRA are not doing the problem justice.

Other definitions include the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism, the Nexus Document and T’ruah’s Very Brief Guide to Antisemitism. They embody the spirit of the new strategy and I hope lawmakers read them carefully. They are useful tools for the public because they clearly define what is and what isn’t antisemitism.

I was thinking about alternatives to IHRA when reading about the neo-Nazi demonstration in East Cobb. 

One news report said the protesters’ signs in East Cobb said, “Every Single Aspect of [a particular topic] is Jewish,” with the topics including abortion, the media, the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank and elected officials.”

The administration’s strategy understands this antisemitic thought pattern, that a conspiracy theory is the basis of hatred against Jews. “While many American Jews identify as a vulnerable minority group, especially as antisemitism surges, Jews tend to be assailed for having too much privilege or too much power. This is a persistent feature of antisemitism: It rests on a conspiracy theory.”

That is a more relevant and understandable view with accessible wording, unlike the cloudy IHRA working definition 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.” 

Macon residents gathered June 24 to support members of the Beth Israel synagogue after Nazis demonstrated nearby.  Courtesy of Todd Wilson

People who have embraced Nazism and white nationalism such as those who demonstrated in East Cobb and Macon are usually unreachable. People who decided to march several years ago in Charlottesville, for example, are probably set in their ways.

But millions of our friends and neighbors are there to be educated. The antisemitism strategy laid out by the Biden administration calls for understanding, teaching, learning and outreach and it has been embraced across the board

Let’s use all the tools we have to fight this scourge, not just one of them.

Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Georgia Recorder maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John McCosh for questions: info@georgiarecorder.com. Follow Georgia Recorder on Facebook and Twitter.