Battle of Antisemitism Definitions is Actually a Proxy War For Criticism of Israel

Last month, a global consortium of leading scholars released the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism (JDA), the product of a year-long labor to produce a new working definition of antisemitism that builds upon the widely-cited, but nearly as widely critiqued and abused, text of the International Holocaust Remembrance Association (IHRA). In the words of its authors, the JDA seeks “to provide a usable, concise, and historically-informed core definition of antisemitism with a set of guidelines.” In doing so, it aims to “strengthen the fight against antisemitism by clarifying what it is and how it is manifested,” while also protecting—and this is the key difference—“a space for an open debate about the vexed question of the future of Israel/Palestine.”

What exactly is at stake here? Everyone largely agrees on the nature of antisemitism. Scholars understand its core myths, pre-modern and modern, such as Jews constituting a single, global organism conspiring to conquer and destroy the world, led by a powerful “international Jew”—think Rothschild or George Soros—controlling vast populations and wealth. 

The real debate is about criticizing Israel. Although IHRA notes the importance of context, in practice its vague language and large net has been misused to target pro-Palestinian advocacy on college campuses and in legislation. For example, IHRA’s concern about criticizing Israel by a “double standard” has often been interpreted to mean that anyone who protests Israeli human rights violations without equal attention to other countries has a “double standard” and is therefore presumed guilty of antisemitism. It opens up almost any criticism of Israel to that charge. 

The JDA addresses this and other problems with specific examples of common anti-Israel rhetoric that crosses the line to antisemitism and specific examples of common rhetoric or actions (e.g. boycott) that do not. The list of signatures and subsequent endorsements is impressive, although there has been heated pushback by those who insist that the IHRA definition must be maintained. Indeed, one respondent—David Hirsh, author of Contemporary Leftwing Antisemitism (the focus of his activism)—accused the authors and supporters of the JDA of composing the definition not to fight antisemitism but to “fight efforts to fight antisemitism”; of standing with antisemites to protect them!

This is an outrageous attack against some of the most respected scholars and Jewish leaders in the world. In fact, the JDA is committed to fighting antisemitism while also preserving free discourse about Israel/Palestine, arguing that its clearer language accomplishes both more successfully. It lowers the ability of activists and lawmakers to silence political voices favoring Palestinian rights while also raising the ability of Jews to build critical alliances with other vulnerable minorities. 

While advocates of the JDA hold a wide variety of beliefs about the future of Israel/Palestine—whether two states, a binational state, or some sort of confederation—all are committed to equality for everyone who currently lives “between the river and the sea.” This means that Jewish security cannot justify Jewish supremacy or Palestinian suffering, and that arguments against Jewish supremacy are certainly not antisemitic. Thus the debate ultimately hinges on whether or not calls for an end to Jewish supremacy—even while insisting that equality means Jewish equality as well—are antisemitic. 

And this, in turn, reflects a fundamental transformation in American Judaism over the past half century. 

In my youth, American Jews forged (in both senses of the word) a pluralist community through Holocaust commemoration and Israel celebration and worship. I don’t use that word worship lightly. Many of us were raised to worship Israel, and we manifested that devotion through innovative myths and rituals, from dance to liturgy and beyond. This was a core of the curriculum of the Jewish day school I attended for nine years, for example, far more than textual fluency or law. Jewish denominations struggled to respect each other as authentic or even legitimate, but with few exceptions they could commemorate the Holocaust and “walk with Israel” together, both literally and metaphorically. 

Today, the Holocaust and Israel are precisely the wedges that most divide Jews, and their roles have grown clearer in the last few years as a result of the rise of global fascism (including Trumpism) and the move of Israel towards apartheid, with the entrenchment of the occupation and land appropriations, passage of legislation like the nation-state law, and the legitimization of open kahanists now entering knesset and possibly the government. 

For some, the lesson of the Holocaust is “never again to us”; “never again” as Meir Kahane meant it when he popularized the phrase in the title of his famous book. It means a justification and even celebration of violence and oppression if deemed necessary tools in service of Jewish power. For others, the lesson is universal, “never again to anyone,” with a particularly keen awareness that Jews are no different than anyone else and are therefore just as likely to abuse their power in the name of nationalism and “self-defense” as anyone else. 

This division has serious ramifications in terms of Jewish political choices. For the universalists, the key moral choice—and the choice that will best protect Jewish lives—is intersectional alliances with other minorities, since antisemitism exists as part of a worldview connected to defenses of hierarchy and oppression that affect us all, though some more than others. (American Jews are hardly as vulnerable to discrimination and violence as African Americans, for example, nor do they suffer from the legacy of four centuries of enslavement, expropriation and discrimination.) Political differences about Israel within this camp are far less important than the shared goal of defeating a worldview that seeks our joint oppression. 

For those following Kahane’s meaning, the key alliance is with power, including (perhaps especially) authoritarian power that backs Jews, or at least pretends to do so. Of course, it’s not really backing all Jews. The key question is who or what it’s backing, which brings us back to the elephant in the discussion: Israel. Donald Trump, Victor Orban and the other despots with fascist tendencies aren’t backing Jews qua Jews. They’re backing Jewish supremacy in Israel/Palestine while stoking antisemitic mythology at home as part of a racist worldview. 

This returns us to the division between these two definitions of antisemitism and the two competing paradigms in Jewish approaches to Israel. One is based on the fundamental assumption of the need to preserve Jewish supremacy. In this vision, the spectrum of “legitimate” (and thus “not antisemitic”) discourse on Israel runs from “two states someday” (i.e. de facto apartheid “for now,” but “someday,” based on Israeli standards, there can exist an eviscerated, non-sovereign Palestinian entity subject to Israeli incursion and rules) to Kahanism, whether implied in Netanyahu or explicit in his “Religious Zionist” allies, none of whom are even condemned anymore by mainstream American Jewish organizations, as they were two years ago.

The Israeli writer and public intellectual Yossi Klein Halevi made this clear to me in a recent interview, insisting that those like Naftali Bennett who advocate formal annexation without extending democracy (although he opposes them) constitute a legitimate part of the conversation, while Peter Beinart, who wrote a widely circulated article calling for a single bi-national state, does not. Other colleagues have said the same.

This is the division: equality vs. Jewish supremacy as the fundamental axiom of legitimacy.
Advocating for the right of return for Palestinian refugees (even as something that must be negotiated), or even for Palestinian equality in all the land Israel now controls, is called “antisemitic,” “liquidationist” and is explicitly equated with the “call for Israel’s destruction” in this worldview. Only solutions that advocate Jewish supremacy are legitimate in this mindset. These are Orwellian distortions that obfuscate the distinction between a call for equality and the most extreme rhetoric of Hamas, and responds to any call for human rights with reference to security threats or whataboutisms—or they call themselves moderate because they lament Palestinian treatment and hope for two states “some day.” 

A second approach to Israel is based on the fundamental right of equality. There are some in this camp who still advocate two states—two truly sovereign states based on a recognition of the extensive de facto annexation that’s already happened and must be reversed—though most tend to suggest some sort of confederation or binational entity is necessary. Others, like myself, avoid promoting any particular solution and simply want to describe the reality on the ground (i.e. de facto apartheid in a one-state reality) while pushing for true equality to replace Jewish supremacy as the fundamental value guiding future solutions.

This is the division: equality vs. Jewish supremacy as the fundamental axiom of legitimacy. And this is why Israel is not only the dividing point of Jews today, but also sits at the heart of conversations about antisemitism like IHRA and the JDA. The debate ultimately comes down to Israel and whether discourse that calls for an end to Jewish supremacy—even while insisting that equality means Jewish equality too—is antisemitic. IHRA can be easily used to make that case and the JDA cannot. Those in the camp of Jewish power must cling to the IHRA “working definition” as God’s final word on antisemitism in order to use the charge to suppress challenges to that power. 

It’s heating up now not principally because antisemitism is getting worse, though it is, but because Israel is growing increasingly committed to its apartheid occupation of the West Bank and deepening discrimination against Palestinian citizens through legislation like the nation-state law. Israel’s choices—at the ballot box and beyond—are making the case for Israel harder to make. 

Criticism of Israel and accusations of apartheid thus resonate more forcefully and, for some, more dangerously. This creates a state of anxiety whereby boundaries of critique must be limited, managed, even curtailed, and the accusation of ‘antisemitism’ is one way to do it. But this comes at a cost, not only the moral cost of using this charge to suppress legitimate political advocacy, but also at the practical cost of undermining the struggle against actual antisemitism by inflating its use and undermining vital alliances. 

Correction: An earlier version of this essay noted that Yossi Klein Halevi recognized Itamar Ben Gvir in an interview as a legitimate part of the political conversation. In fact, he only mentioned annexationists generally and has on other occasions condemned Ben Gvir. The author regrets the error.