The Boston City Council’s New Resolution On Antisemitism

Boston City Hall

Readers, you are endlessly patient. I have heard from some of you who have said that you have appreciated my posts on the war, on antisemitism, and on related issues in the months since October 7. I am sure there are those of you who do not appreciate these posts and wish I could get back to service by email on Chinese companies whose addresses are known and the prospects for ratification of the Judgments Convention. I hear you! All I can say is that, as for many Jewish people, there is a before October 7 me and an after October 7 me, and that the issues confronting Jewish people in America, in Israel, and around the world since October 7 are existential. So I have had less time and energy to spend thinking and writing about the corners of the law that we love over the past few months. I wish for the world to return to sanity so that I can return to what I like doing best! Here are my thoughts on the Boston City Council’s latest resolution on antisemitism.

The United States recognizes a lot of “heritage months” for ethnic groups in the USA. I have not found a single authoritative list. The State Department lists Black History Month, Women’s History Month, Arab American Heritage Month, Jewish American Heritage Month, Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, Caribbean-American Heritage Month, and Hispanic Heritage Month, among other celebrations of groups other than ethnic groups. There is also Irish American Heritage Month, Native American Heritage Month, and no doubt others. These are nice recognitions of the contributions Americans with roots all over the world have made to our country, and it’s usual for the White House, governors, and cities and towns to issue proclamations recognizing them. So it’s normal, expected, and good that the Boston City Council passed a resolution last week recognizing Jewish American Heritage Month.

But in 2024, things are not so simple. The resolution comes just more than a week after the resolution that I and others criticized for its naive and simplistic solution to the war in Gaza. Perhaps in order to respond to those criticisms (I mean the criticisms of others—I don’t expect anyone in city government is reading Letters Blogatory!) the Council included in this resolution a statement of its commitment to “standing up with our Jewish residents to denounce all forms of antisemitism and hate.”

That’s great, everyone should condemn antisemitism! But it’s very easy to say, “I condemn antisemitism,” and a bit harder to explain what that means.

The resolution’s preamble talks about the rise in antisemitism:

Jewish Americans have long been the target of white supremacists, including the Ku Klux Klan and NSC-131. In 2021, a Rabbi was stabbed by an antisemitic individual in Brighton.

All of that is true! The antisemitism from the far right, the world of white supremacy, groups like the Klan, and so forth is frightening and awful. And the stabbing of a rabbi in front of a Jewish school in Brighton, one of Boston’s neighborhoods, was frightening and awful. But was the young man who stabbed Rabbi Noginski, Khaled Awad, a right-wing white supremacist or a member of the Klan? No, he was not. The government alleged that he was an immigrant from Egypt who had “biased views against Jews, Christians and American culture.” The resolution is 100% right to recognize good old-fashioned antisemitism from the violent, white supremacist right. But only a kind of bizarre myopia could lead the Council to lump in the stabbing of Rabbi Noginski with white supremacy and the Klan and to omit the risks of violent antisemitism that don’t come from that part of the political and cultural spectrum. And not long after the stabbing, the incident of antisemitism that I think most focused the minds of the Jewish community in Massachusetts was the Mapping Project, which published a map of Jewish institutions in the area, including schools, social service organizations, and charities, for the express purpose of encouraging people to “disrupt” them in the physical world. That was not a project of the far right but of the far left.

But even more myopic is the omission of any mention of the (so far mostly) nonviolent antisemitism that, if you asked many or even most Jews in Boston and throughout America, is their main concern right now. Can students walk freely through their campuses wearing a kippah or a Star of David or just “looking Jewish?” Are writers who either say out loud that they are Zionists or don’t say out loud that they aren’t Zionists on a boycott list? Is our attitude towards Jews and the Jewish state colored by the projection of whatever we fear the most or think is worst in the world onto the Jews? And do we have a double standard when it comes to taking the concerns of the Jewish minority seriously?

The resolution insists that the Council is “committed to standing with Jewish American residents of Boston and the Commonwealth.” That is a good commitment, but I have to wonder whether they have a real sense of what the Jewish community in Boston and Massachusetts as a whole actually thinks and worries about. Of course there are Jews who will find nothing lacking in the resolution. One of its two sponsors is Benjamin Weber, a Jew who represents the progressive neighborhood of Jamaica Plain. But I wish the Council would show some curiosity about the range of views in the Jewish community. Councilor Weber’s view is a part of the picture but is not the whole picture, and I am pretty sure it is not the view of a majority by a long shot. “Standing up with our Jewish residents” means listening to Jewish Bostonians.

A simple way to judge whether a resolution against antisemitism is meaningful is to look at who has supported it. One of our city councilors has unfortunately expressed unambiguously antisemitic views, arguing in a public meeting that Arabs are also victims of antisemitism because Arabic, like Hebrew, is a semitic language, and that in fact the true Jews aren’t, well, the Jews, but the people of Ethiopia.1 You can find a brief explanation of why such ideas are antisemitic here. If someone with those views is totally comfortable voting for a resolution condemning antisemitism, then perhaps there is something incomplete or insufficiently robust about the resolution.

This is why it is so important to have some framework for talking about antisemitism. Yes, I am about to talk about the IHRA working definition of antisemitism, which Massachusetts endorsed in 2022. I’ve written about it twice before, once just over a year ago in connection with the ABA’s resolution on antisemitism, and once just a few months before October 7, when the White House announced the new National Strategy on Combatting Antisemitism. The IHRA working definition is surprisingly flexible and non-prescriptive. It says simply:

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 working definition is accompanied by examples of speech or acts that may be antisemitic. It’s not a statute. It simply gives some examples that “could, taking into account the overall context,” be “contemporary examples of antisemitism.” The controversy comes because some of the examples refer to the Jewish state. For instance, one reads:

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.

Does that mean that such a denial is necessarily antisemitic? No, it does not. There are probably a lot of people who do not believe in the right of peoples or nations as such to self-determination even though that right is central to international law, and who would have the same objections to the existence of many other states on similar grounds. For example, someone who believes a Jewish nation-state is just plain wrong because it is the state of the Jewish nation might have a similar view about the explicitly Arab nation-states of Egypt,2 Palestine,3, Lebanon,4 Jordan,5 and Syria,6 just to take the states bordering Israel as examples. That is why the IHRA working definition makes it clear that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.” So if you really think that every state must be like the United States, and that the idea of a nation-state is inherently racist and impermissible, but you are out protesting the racism of Israel and not racism of the explicitly Arab states that surround it, the IHRA working definition invites you to ask whether, on reflection, your views and actions are what you want them to be.

If the Boston City Council really wants to take a stand on antisemitism, it should do it in a way that respects what most of the Jewish world thinks antisemitism is. Even if the Council doesn’t want to adopt the IHRA definition formally, at least grapple with it, so that when you pass a resolution saying “we oppose antisemitism,” the resolution means something. Until the Council does some soul-searching, it is hard to take this latest resolution seriously.

Image Credit: Daderot (CC0)

  1. Just to be clear, there are Ethiopian Jews, almost all of whom now live in Israel, and who are an important part of Israeli and Jewish society.
  2. “Egypt is part of the Arab nation and enhances its integration and unity. It is part of the Muslim world, belongs to the African continent, is proud of its Asian dimension, and contributes to building human civilization. … Islam is the religion of the state and Arabic is its official language. The principles of Islamic Sharia are the principle source of legislation.”
  3. “Palestine is part of the larger Arab world, and the Palestinian people are part of the Arab nation. Arab unity is an objective that the Palestinian people shall work to achieve.”
  4. “Lebanon has an Arab identity and belonging. It is a founding active member of the Arab League, committed to its Charter; as it is a founding active member of the United Nations Organization, committed to its Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The State embodies these principles in all sectors and scopes without exception.”
  5. “The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is an independent sovereign Arab State. It is indivisible and no part of it may be ceded. The Jordanian people is a part of the Arab Nation, and its ruling regime is parliamentary with a hereditary monarchy. … Islam is the religion of the State and Arabic is its official language”
  6. “The Syrian Arab Republic is a democratic state with full sovereignty, indivisible, and may not waive any part of its territory, and is part of the Arab homeland; The people of Syria are part of the Arab nation. … The religion of the President of the Republic is Islam; Islamic jurisprudence shall be a major source of legislation.”

One response to “The Boston City Council’s New Resolution On Antisemitism”

  1. Salem

    This wilful blindness to the actual rising antisemitism is highly concerning. You were right that their resolution about the war was naïve at best, but I tend to give them a pass on that. It’s Boston City Council, of course they can’t do foreign policy. They shouldn’t be weighing in in the first place, but it’s 2024, what can you do?

    But this is very different. Making sure that people in Boston are treated fairly without regard to race, creed, etc, and listening to residents, really are core parts of their responsibility, and for which they have, at least in theory, ample institutional support. Extremely disappointing.

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