The American Bar Association has adopted a resolution on antisemitism at its midyear meeting in New Orleans. The resolution urges US authorities to condemn antisemitism and encourages US and foreign states to pass legislation to combat it. It also recommends that the ABA take “a leadership role” in fighting antisemitism. This is welcome news in light of the alarming increase in antisemitic incidents over the past several years.
The resolution was more controversial than it should have been, because as proposed, it would have condemned antisemitism “as referred to in the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism.” What’s that? The IHRA Working Definition is simple to state:
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.
The IHRA Working Definition has been broadly adopted, endorsed, or recommended, mainly but not exclusively by governments in Europe, the Americas, and Australia. Within the US, many cities and states have also adopted or recognized it. It’s also broadly but not universally agreed within the Jewish community, which of course must have a say on what is or is not antisemitic, just as other minority groups must have a say on what is or is not hateful speech or action when directed at them.
The IHRA has given some examples that “may serve as illustrations.” These illustrations are not hard-and-fast rules. The IHRA noted that the illustrations “could, taking into account the overall context,” be “contemporary examples of antisemitism.” Some of them are or should be noncontroversial (“Calling for, aiding, or justifying the killing or harming of Jews in the name of a radical ideology or an extremist view of religion,” or “Denying the fact, scope, mechanisms (e.g. gas chambers) or intentionality of the genocide of the Jewish people at the hands of National Socialist Germany and its supporters and accomplices during World War II”). But others, namely those that refer to the State of Israel, are highly controversial, even though the IHRA made it clear that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.” Human Rights Watch, for example, pressed the ABA not to refer to the IHRA Working Definition because one of the illustrations is:
Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.
It is hard for me to understand an organization named “Human Rights Watch” objecting to the idea that denying the Jewish people the right to self-determination is not antisemitic, or saying that an objection to the existence of the Israeli state, as distinguished from a criticism of the acts or policies of the Israeli state, is racist. After all, the right of peoples to self-determination is a fundamental right. As the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states, “every people has a right to self-determination.” So to say that “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination” isn’t antisemitic is to deny that there is a Jewish people (which is, in fact, something that antisemites sometimes say), or else to say that the Jews, uniquely, do not have the same right as every other people.
Or maybe the real objection is not to the illustration itself, but to the illustration of the illustration—the accusation that the very existence of the Jewish state is racist. This is a reworking of idea behind the UN General Assembly’s “Zionism is Racism” resolution, adopted in 1975, which was revoked in 1991. It does seem to me that if someone says that the existence of the Jewish state, and not for example the way it treats its Arab minority or the way it treats Palestinians in the West Bank, is racist, then yes, depending on the context, that statement might be antisemitic—which is as far as the IHRA Working Definition goes.
Some folks who say that the existence of Israel is racist, or who say even really outlandish things about Israel, Israelis, and Jews, will say that they are not antisemites. But the whole point of the IHRA Working Definition is to give everyone a framework for thinking about what antisemitism means, so that when someone says, “I am not an antisemite,” we don’t have to just throw up our hands and ask how we can know anything about anyone, really.
In short, the ABA is to be commended for having committed to fighting antisemitism, as it fights other kinds of discrimination. Its decision not to reference the IHRA Working Definition of antisemitism in its resolution is a missed opportunity.