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Biden admin ’embraces’ IHRA anti-Semitism definition shunned by progressives

Heeding call of major Jewish groups, State Department official urges others to adopt classification, which critics say will curb free speech against Israel

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Activists outside a meeting of the Labour National Executive Committee in London, with signs protesting the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, September 4, 2018. (Stefan Rousseau/PA Images via Getty Images/ via JTA /SUE)
Activists outside a meeting of the Labour National Executive Committee in London, with signs protesting the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, September 4, 2018. (Stefan Rousseau/PA Images via Getty Images/ via JTA /SUE)

A senior US State Department official announced Monday that the Biden administration “embraces and champions” a definition of anti-Semitism that has become a point of tension between mainstream and progressive Jewish organizations in America.

“As prior US administrations of both political stripes have done, the Biden Administration embraces and champions the [International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s] working definition [of anti-Semitism]. We applaud the growing number of countries and international bodies that apply it. We urge all that haven’t done so to do likewise,” said Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Kara McDonald.

Addressing an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe meeting, McDonald said, “We must educate ourselves and our communities to recognize anti-Semitism in its many forms, so that we can call hate by its proper name and take effective action. That is why the IHRA working definition of anti-Semitism, with its real-world examples, is such an invaluable tool.״

The IHRA working definition is a 500-word document with a brief explanation of anti-Semitism followed by 11 examples of how it can manifest — most of which involve speech about Israel.

The definition has been adopted by dozens of countries and a growing list of organizations and universities to help monitor, teach about and combat anti-Semitism. But its Israel provisions have also become a flashpoint for debate. And adoption of the definition can signify different things to different groups.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Kara McDonald. (Screen capture/YouTube)

Defenders of the definition say its Israel examples — which include comparing Israel to the Nazis, calling Israel racist and applying a standard to Israel that isn’t applied to other countries — are helpful in identifying where anti-Israel activity turns into anti-Semitism. Its detractors, however, say that the examples can have the effect of branding all criticism of Israeli policy anti-Semitic.

Palestinians have said it serves to make Israel immune to criticism for its treatment of them and for what they view as its violation of international law.

Elaborating on the position, a State Department official told The Times of Israel, “We see the working definition as a critically important tool to help the public and government at all levels at home and around the world recognize traditional and contemporary forms of anti-Semitism when they encounter them. We must be able to identify the many manifestations of anti-Semitism in today’s world so that we can most effectively address them.”

William Daroff — who heads the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations that had called on US President Joe Biden to follow the Obama and Trump administrations in adopting the definition — lauded McDonald’s remarks. “They are absolutely the direction we’re seeking from the administration,” Daroff told The Times of Israel.

But not all of the Conference’s 53 members have adopted the resolution. Americans for Peace Now and the Workers Circle, both progressive groups, have held out. Americans for Peace Now, a frequent critic of Israeli policy, told Haaretz in December that it would not adopt the definition because it is “already being abused to quash legitimate criticism and activism directed at Israeli government policies.”

The Reform Movement has taken a slightly more moderate position, calling the IHRA definition helpful but stating that it should not be given the force of law.

“Our commitment to principles of free speech and concerns about the potential abuse of the definition compel us to urge its use only as intended: As a guide and an awareness-raising tool,” the movement said in a statement last month. “The definition should not be codified into policy that would trigger potentially problematic punitive action to circumscribe speech.”

Pushing back on the argument, Daroff said that “the definition itself states that it should not be used to restrict legitimate speech. However, what it does is clearly state the truth, which is that oftentimes criticism of Israel is a proxy for criticism of Jews.”

JTA contributed to this report.

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