Home News Universities need to define antisemitism. Here’s how

Universities need to define antisemitism. Here’s how


Is anti-Israel sentiment a form of antisemitism? The question poses a political, legal and practical conundrum for universities like Columbia, Stanford and Harvard (where I teach), all of which currently have committees studying antisemitism. All these and other schools have been struggling with how to define and combat antisemitism while protecting academic freedom and freedom of speech.

The best answer, it turns out, is that criticizing Israel or even opposing its existence isn’t inherently antisemitic as a matter of theory — but in practice, attacks on Israel can certainly become antisemitic when they cross over into bias against Jews as Jews.

That’s why the argument about the definition of antisemitism is so difficult to resolve: It requires nuanced, case-by-case consideration of specific attitudes expressed in specific words. And in our current moment, nuance and specificity are in short supply, especially when it comes to Israel and its war in Gaza, fought in response to Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel.

Having just published a book about Jews and Israel called “To Be A Jew Today,” I can tell you firsthand that emotions are running high about these issues.

Yet the issue is too important to leave to partisans. And for the universities, thrust into the middle of the Middle East conflict by students, faculty, university administrators, and even Congress, avoiding the problem isn’t an option. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act requires universities to create an environment where students can study without interference on the basis of their religion or race. That means universities have an obligation to protect students against antisemitism and also against Islamophobia or hatred of Arabs. Universities like Harvard are being sued for violating both of these. They have to get the definitions right to satisfy their legal obligations to students on both sides of the debate.

Debate over definitions

The political version of the fight centers on which of several possible definitions proffered by different organizations the University should adopt. The most contentious debate involves the definition adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, one favored by the State Department under former President Donald Trump. It starts off in unobjectionable if vague terms, stating that “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews.”

No one is much troubled by that first part of the IHRA definition. And indeed, no one seems bothered that the IHRA goes on to say that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.” That is, the IHRA acknowledges the point I made earlier, namely that not all criticism of Israel is automatically antisemitic.

The controversy arises with the examples of antisemitism that the IHRA then provides. One is “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.” Another is “Applying double standards by requiring of (Israel) a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.”

Critics of the IHRA definition argue that denying Jews a right to self-determination might be based on the view that the Jews are not a nation but a religious or ethnic group, a view held over the decades by many non-Zionists, including Jewish non-Zionists. Other critics say that calling Israel “a racist endeavor” is not antisemitic because it could be based on the claim that, as a Jewish state, Israel necessarily discriminates against non-Jews who live there. In their view, there is nothing inherently antisemitic about asserting that the project of a Jewish state entails racism against Palestinian Arabs whose families lived in the region before Israel came into existence in 1948.

Careful analysis needed

As for applying a double standard by demanding that Israel act better than other democracies, that, too, might not be antisemitic, critics of the IHRA definition point out. Imagine you believe that God holds Israel to a unique standard as “a light unto the nations,” as the Bible puts it. Or perhaps you think that, because the United Nations blessed the creation of the Jewish state partly in moral recompense for the Holocaust, Israel should be required to be more moral than other democracies without a similar history. Either of these views, religious or secular, might be reasons to impose a higher standard of behavior on Israel without being antisemitic.

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