Most members of US Jewish umbrella group adopt IHRA definition of anti-Semitism

Provisions regarding Israel in the classification of anti-Jewish hatred have become a flashpoint for debate, with critics warning they could stifle criticism of Israeli policy

From left: Conference of Presidents chairman William Daroff, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Conference's Malcolm Hoenlein and Arthur Stark, at a Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations event. (Twitter via JTA)
From left: Conference of Presidents chairman William Daroff, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Conference's Malcolm Hoenlein and Arthur Stark, at a Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations event. (Twitter via JTA)

JTA — Nearly all of the members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations are adopting a common, but hotly debated, definition of anti-Semitism.

The conference, an umbrella group of Jewish organizations, announced Tuesday that 51 of its 53 members have adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of anti-Semitism, 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.

Defenders of the definition say its Israel examples — which include comparing Israel to the Nazis, calling Israel racist and applying a double 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.

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)

In a statement, the Conference of Presidents said the definition’s widespread adoption “reflects the broad support that exists for the most authoritative and internationally accepted definition of antisemitism as an educational tool, as well as the widespread view that it is critically important to define antisemitism in order to combat it successfully.”

The two members of the conference that did not adopt the definition, Americans for Peace Now and the Workers Circle, are both progressive groups. Americans for Peace Now, a frequent critic of Israeli policy, told Haaretz last month 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 Workers Circle, a Yiddish culture group that generally does not focus on Israel, had no comment on the announcement.

Several of the Conference of Presidents’ largest members have already endorsed the definition — including the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish Federations of North America and the American Jewish Committee, as well as representatives of all three major American Jewish denominations. Other members of the conference signed onto an open letter to Facebook from pro-Israel groups, asking it to adopt the definition.

But William Daroff, the conference’s CEO, said the goal of the declaration was to demonstrate unity between the groups on the question of what constitutes anti-Semitism.

“In the divided world we live in, where disagreements are often highlighted, we can focus on the great agreement that exists in the Jewish community from left to right, from Reform to Orthodox,” he said. “The fact that 51 of 53 organizations in the Conference of Presidents are coming forward with one voice to show solidarity is something that in this day and age should be heralded.”

Activists outside a meeting of the Labour National Executive Committee in London, Tuesday September 4, 2018, where Labour adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism, with a ‘free speech’ caveat. (Stefan Rousseau/PA via AP)

But “adoption” of the definition can mean different things depending on the organization. Earlier this month, 10 Jewish groups with progressive positions on Israel — including two organizations that signed onto Tuesday’s announcement — condemned attempts to codify the definition into law or regulations. The groups said “the effort to enshrine [the definition] in domestic law and institutional policy… risks wrongly equating what may be legitimate activities with antisemitism.”

On Monday, the Reform movement said something similar, endorsing the definition but saying it “should not be codified into policy that would trigger potentially problematic punitive action to circumscribe speech, efforts which have been particularly aimed at college students and human rights activists.”

Other members of the Conference of Presidents, including the leadership of the conference itself, signed onto a letter to President Joe Biden advocating that the definition be used in adjudicating civil rights complaints. The definition, the letter said, “ought to inform the enforcement of Title IX throughout the government.” The letter also praised a 2019 executive order by President Donald Trump that essentially adopted the definition as a reference for adjudicating civil rights complaints on campus.

Daroff acknowledged that groups were not all adopting the definition in the same way. But he said they all share a baseline that the definition is a reliable guidepost for identifying anti-Semitism.

“Consensus does not mean unanimity,” he said. “It means that there are organizations who may agree or disagree with different parts of a policy, but generally speaking, a consensus exists.”

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