OPINION | Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism presents improvement, not end goal

Ori Tsameret, Intersections Editor

Emma Vaughters

In May 2016, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, an intergovernmental organization headquartered in Berlin that is dedicated to advance and promote robust Holocaust education, touted its Working Definition of Antisemitism. The definition states that “antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.” Attached to this definition were several examples, ranging from application of tropes of Jewish people to certain forms of commentary on Israel.

Although this definition was first publicly discussed in 2016, in recent years there has been a large push by university groups, political coalitions and even the Israeli government to pressure different institutions to adopt this definition. Despite the definition being a “working” one and concerns over its implications for free speech from various Jewish, Palestinian and other actors, including its lead legislator, the definition continues to be adopted, even by the U.S. government.

Citing the IHRA definition as a reason for its creation, the 200+ scholars who drafted the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism sought to strengthen the fight against antisemitism while protecting free speech regarding Israel/Palestine when they presented it last month. The declaration defines anti-Semitism as “discrimination, prejudice, hostility or violence against Jews as Jews (or Jewish institutions as Jewish).” Attached to the definition are guidelines, both generally and specifically with respect to Israel/Palestine.

These two definitions differ tremendously. IHRA’s definition will not allow any racial critiques of Israel’s founding, while the JDA definition lists the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement as legitimate, full stop.  However, even JDA’s definition falls short. First, as a response to the IHRA definition, it is incomplete as a whole definition and narrow in scope. A definition that positions itself against an existing one, as opposed to one that is simply dedicated to encapsulating a certain construct, will ultimately fall short. Additionally, despite the heavy emphasis on Israel/Palestine politics in the definition, no Palestinians are undersigned

The JDA definition is, in my mind, a step in the right direction for contemporary discussions of anti-Semitism and a useful tool in dealing with its manifestations. However, codification of systems of oppression is not a necessary nor always effective manner of combating them. Oppression may fluctuate over time, and definitions may seem dated over time.

Neither the IHRA nor JDA definition has provided a compelling argument as to why anti-Semitism needs to be spelled out in order to be combated, especially in the academic and legally binding contexts in which these definitions were forged. Definitions such as these are rigid and would presumably act as a “cheat sheet” for legislative or legal policy changes, thus limiting critical thinking on anti-Semitism as it emerges or dies out, and assuming a set of common experiences amongst global Jewry, a harmful monolithic misconception. These definitions may be rooted in or promote themselves unhelpful, misleading paradigms about oppression, such as the IHRA’s description of anti-Semitism as a “scourge,” which infects a society, as opposed to critically analyzing anti-Semitism’s source. 

While potentially a useful template, codification of anti-Semitism has been shown to often lead into a hyperfixation on tropes that promote anti-Semitic rhetoric as opposed to material concerns, such as Jewish safety. Of course, harmful ideas and stereotypes may snowball into violence or harmful police, but modern-day Jews have better things to worry about than if “cabal” is an anti-Semitic term. Not least of all, the adoption of these definitions has implications for policy, and one that leans towards the criminalization of perceived anti-Semitism. A carceral perspective on ending anti-Semitism will not accomplish safety for Jews and may often lead to the targeting of other groups. In summation, though definitions of anti-Semitism are not made equal, treating these as anything other than general guidelines to critically engage and grapple with is an erroneous way to go.