George Kalman combats antisemitism where he can.
An 86-year-old Holocaust survivor, Kalman has been active in Holocaust education for over 25 years, speaking with a variety of men’s clubs, senior groups and students who want to learn about the past, he said.
“Instead of giving a prepared talk, I conduct my meetings as a one-on-one Q&A format,” he said. “I tell them that I like hostile questions like, ‘I hear frequently that the Holocaust never happened, why?’ Excellent question, let’s talk about it in detail.”
Talking about antisemitism can be difficult, however. Not everybody knows what it looks like. “I would like to have some definition, because otherwise we don’t know what we are talking about,” Kalman said. “It’s very hard to explain.”
But it turns out agreeing on a definition of antisemitism — and how to use it — is messy. It’s a debate that has touched college campuses and state legislatures across the country, including in Arizona.
What is IHRA?
The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, or IHRA (pronounced “Ira”) created a definition of antisemitism in 2016: “A certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”
That definition is accompanied by 11 examples intent on making it more accessible, especially when it comes to explaining anti-Israel speech.
Two examples are: “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,” and “applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.”
IHRA’s definition is almost identical to one drafted in 2004 for the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia. Antisemitism expert Kenneth Stern helped to draft that definition, which was “created primarily so that European data collectors could know what to include and exclude. That way antisemitism could be monitored better over time and across borders.”
And it has now been adopted by dozens of countries, including the United States, as well as private and public institutions.
What endorsing or adopting the definition actually means, however, varies from helping Jews feel supported to using it as a tool “for hunting speech,” Stern said.
Beginning in 2010, some American Jewish organizations began a push to use the IHRA definition to counter speech on college campuses, including Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel campaigns.
The definition, Stern said, was never intended to be used as a campus hate speech code. Expressing pro-BDS sentiments, while troubling, is not necessarily anti-Semitic under the IHRA definition, he said.
According to the American Jewish Committee, 28 student governments of colleges and universities have passed legislation endorsing the definition.
“In most, if not all cases, the adoption is tied to BDS issues,” said Richard Hirschhaut, Los Angeles Director of the AJC.
IHRA in Arizona
That’s what happened at Arizona State University when the student government passed a resolution in September 2020 that condemned antisemitism and called for institutional representation for Jewish students. It also recommended the university administration adopt the IHRA definition as ASU’s official definition of antisemitism.
“Every year there comes a time where a resolution comes up, namely the BDS movement resolution, that just seeks to exclude students on campus,” said Cameron Decker, who finished a two-year term as student senator in May. He and a coalition of other students wanted to pass a resolution to show support for Jewish students.
There wasn’t debate or discussion about the IHRA language in the student senate, he said. A Jewish student had authored the majority of the resolution with the input of other Jewish students and leaders on campus, and “we were all in agreement,” said Decker, who is not Jewish.
ASU’s administration has not adoped the language, however. That is in line with most universities as “only a handful of university administrations have acted on student legislation,” said Mark Rotenberg, vice president of university initiatives and legal affairs for Hillel International.
Some students with University of Arizona Hillel were working on a draft resolution to adopt the IHRA definition earlier this year to share with the student government. But the effort tapered off.
“The reality with the pandemic is that it just became hard to communicate with people, and more importantly, people communicating back,” said Michelle Blumenberg, outgoing executive director of the university’s Hillel Foundation. “I think that will be on the agenda in the fall, perhaps.”
The state’s government is also running into hiccups with IHRA. A proposed amendment adding the definition to Arizona’s long-awaited Holocaust education bill has stalled the legislation.
Last year, a Senate bill would have adopted the IHRA definition as well as added new antisemitism language to the criminal code. When the bill didn’t pass both chambers, a couple of legislators pushed to amend the Holocaust education bill. The amendment would have codified the IHRA definition into Arizona law, directing state officials to consider the definition when investigating and tracking crime and discrimination.
“They were trying to modify the criminal statute,” said Michael Beller, co-founder of Arizona Teaching the Holocaust, an initiative founded with the purpose of passing a bill in the state legislature to mandate Holocaust education in Arizona.
The pandemic stopped the legislation, and when Rep. Alma Hernandez (LD-3 ) reintroduced the Holocaust education bill this year, the IHRA definition was not included.
Republican Sen. Paul Boyer (LD-20), however, is pushing to amend the bill with language that would mandate teachers use the IHRA definition of antisemitism.
Adding an amendment to the Holocaust education bill, which also includes teaching about other genocides, threatens assurances made to the interfaith coalition built to ensure the bill’s broad support, Beller said.
“The second that you make it about a specific religious group, then other groups want that representation as well,” he said.
IHRA in national politics
The controversy over IHRA looks different on the national stage. In October 2020, Politico first reported the U.S. Department of State was planning to label three global human rights groups — Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Oxfam — as antisemitic under the auspices of the IHRA definition of antisemitism. The plan was to declare that it is U.S. policy not to support such groups, including financially, and urge other governments to cease their support.
That didn’t end up happening. A State Department spokesperson did not tell Jewish News what stalled those plans, but said the Biden-Harris Administration categorically condemns antisemitism and is not considering designations of organizations as being antisemitic.
Bills have also been introduced in Congress seeking to codify the IHRA definition into U.S. law, further prompting debate on the national stage as Jewish groups choose whether to support those efforts and/or to endorse them.
The AJC and Hillel International are among the 51 members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organization that have endorsed the definition.
“It provides a common lexicon and vocabulary for understanding antisemitism, for recognizing antisemitism, and where Jew-hatred fits in the larger scheme of hate and bigotry,” Hirschhaut said, but noted the AJC does not have a desire to see the definition codified into law.
Rotenberg agreed the definition provides a useful framework for understanding antisemitism in today’s world.
“Many people hear the word antisemitism, they imagine Nazis, and they imagine Hitler, and they imagine concentration camps, but they’re less able to appreciate the many different faces of antisemitism in 2021,” he said. But Hillel is not insisting or campaigning to have every university in America adopt the IHRA definition, he noted. “Each university needs to examine its campus climate and figure out what steps are necessary to address antisemitism on their campus.”
But other groups, including Americans for Peace Now, the Workers Circle, J Street, the New Israel Fund and T’ruah, have spoken out against IHRA’s definition and its potentially overly-broad applications.
“IHRA should not be adopted and enacted as policy on the federal level or any other level,” said Hadar Susskind, president and CEO of APN. He fears it will “shut down any criticism of Israeli policy” by immediately equating that with antisemitism.
Logan Bayroff, vice president of communications at J Street, said the group has concerns about any federal, state or local government or institution adopting any one definition of antisemitism. “It’s a complicated issue, there are obviously a lot of opinions about it among the Jewish community, among scholars, among activist groups,” he said. No one definition should be taken as the “end-all be-all,” he said.
He also fears the definition could be used to label people or groups as antisemites when they are not, as almost happened with the Oxfam and others, he said.
In recent weeks, progressive groups have introduced two other definitions in response to the vague language and applications of the IHRA definition: the Nexus document and the Jerusalem Declaration. Critics contend, however, that these definitions would allow anti-Zionists to advocate for the elimination of Israel without being accused of antisemitism.
Stern said the debate over the IHRA definition highlights a debate inside the Jewish community: “Are certain views required to be considered inside the Jewish tent?”
Adopting or endorsing a definition has become a “symbolic issue,” Stern said. “The insanity of it, to me, is that everybody’s talking about how to use a definition of antisemitism, as opposed to how to really combat antisemitism.”
Whether the definition will reach a level of general accessibility and usefulness remains an open question. Kalman, for example, has his doubts.
“Searching the web about the IHRA definition did not help me,” Kalman said. “What I found were examples, explanations and double talk: ‘certain perception,’ and ‘may be expressed’ to me is not a definition. If a student asks me about IHRA, I will tell them that I do not understand what it says.” JN