The Existence of JDA Only Serves to Bolster the Argument for IHRA

But JDA goes further, dispensing with language fundamental to any understanding of antisemitism.
April 6, 2021
Photo by tzahiV/Getty Images

Last week, we celebrated Passover, commemorating the first time the Jewish people fled persecution and found refuge in Zion. For 3000 years, we have celebrated this first Zionist voyage with cries of “Next Year in Jerusalem!”

Three weeks ago, a Jewish congressional staffer found a U.S. Capitol officer reading the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” on the job — just two months after neo-Nazis stormed the epicenter of American democracy. This reemergence of the “Protocols” reminded us that the demonization of Jews as “Zionists” (“Elders of Zion”) long predates the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the establishment of the modern State of Israel.

Paradoxically, two weeks ago, 200 academics, some Jewish and some not, signed a declaration denying that “anti-Zionism” is explicitly anti-Jewish. The goal of the new “Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism” (JDA) is to undermine overwhelming support for the globally-established International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, or at least to muddy the waters enough that application of IHRA’s definition becomes taboo.

Ironically, though, by its very existence, JDA clearly demonstrates why IHRA is not only important, but also entirely appropriate — and why certain criticisms of IHRA leveled by some of JDA’s signatories have always been somewhere between confused and intellectually dishonest.

JDA claims it exists to answer one urgent question: “When does political speech about Israel or Zionism cross the line into antisemitism and when should it be protected?” But if this is JDA’s primary raison d’être, it was all for naught, as this question is itself a false choice, a manufactured binary.

Any American lawyer could have told JDA’s drafters that all political speech about Israel or Zionism is protected — even when it crosses the line into antisemitism. That’s why neither JDA’s nor IHRA’s definition could possibly criminalize or ban any speech, antisemitic or not. Antisemitic speech, like all hate speech, is quintessentially protected in the United States, unless it incites imminent lawless action. Whether certain speech was identified as antisemitic under IHRA or JDA (or both), it would remain constitutionally protected. This tells us that the histrionics about IHRA “violating free speech” were always a pretext, and that JDA’s proponents have no problem with “policing speech” — just as long as they are the ones wearing the badge and drawing the lines.

The problem with the lines that JDA aims to draw is that they seem significantly more concerned with protecting accused antisemites than protecting victimized Jews. While IHRA describes scenarios that “could, taking into account the overall context,”be antisemitic, JDA dedicates ample space to “examples that, on the face of it, are not antisemitic.” IHRA warns us to proceed with caution after entering potentially antisemitic territory, while JDA provides cover for anyone approaching the danger zone unless and until they pass a threshold of gross bigotry. In creating a bright-line rule about what is not antisemitic, JDA deflects from the most common — antisemitic — manifestations of the issues it addresses to intellectually rationalize the liquidation of the Jewish state.

Moreover, the IHRA definition already incorporates examples that, on their face, are not antisemitic. By describing scenarios that could be antisemitic, IHRA necessarily confirms that these examples are not antisemitic per se. So why did JDA’s drafters consider it necessary to, quite literally, flip the script? Ostensibly, to define antisemitism in a way that’s comfortable for people who hold clear anti-Jewish prejudices, like disgraced UN rapporteur Richard Falk, who signed the JDA, and Linda Sarsour, who appeared on a panel championing it.

Is it possible to gaslight Jews more cynically or to a greater extent than this? But JDA goes further, dispensing with language fundamental to any understanding of antisemitism, relating to the double standards to which Jews are constantly held. The definition of a “double standard” is unfairly holding one group to a different standard from another in a discriminatory fashion, and the double standards applied to Israel are arguably the most commonplace, institutionalized, politically correct manifestations of antisemitism that exist today. Exclusively criticizing Israel is not necessarily antisemitic, but JDA is silent on a phenomenon that can only be called an obsession with the Jewish state as compared to every other state on earth. Take, for example, the fact that, in 2020, the United Nations General Assembly condemned Israel 17 times, while issuing only six resolutions condemning the rest of the world, combined.

But JDA goes further, dispensing with language fundamental to any understanding of antisemitism.

It isn’t a coincidence that removing references to the double standard is the only way that JDA could deny that it is antisemitic to be “anti-Israel” — rejecting the legitimate existence of one state on earth — or claim it’s appropriate to argue against “Zionism as a form of nationalism” — despite the fact that the vast majority of those making that argument are, in the same breath, arguing for Palestinian nationalism. Their problem with Zionism is not nationalism, it’s Jewish nationalism.

It is understandable that the signatories of the JDA want to stand in solidarity with Palestinians facing a devastating reality in Israel-Palestine; they could even be called well-intentioned. It is also true that for some Palestinians, opposition to Israel is not antisemitic per se, but is a product of their lived experience. But it is undeniable that most people who will use JDA as a shield against claims of antisemitism are not Palestinian and know next to nothing about the actual history or complexities of the Middle East. This is the difference between an idealistic and a realistic definition of antisemitism — only the latter of which stands a chance at protecting Jews.

Intentions aside, the JDA is wildly out of touch — about what antisemitism actually is, how American Jews report experiencing it, and how it has always appeared in the world: as an attack not just on individual Jews or Jewish religious observance, but on Jewish peoplehood and the Jewish collective. There is nothing more representative of that than the Jewish movement for liberation — Zionism — and the sovereign Jewish state it ultimately (re)produced — Israel.

Anti-Jewish bigotry is not abstract, philosophical or academic; it is tangible, visceral and dangerous, and it appears at times and in spaces where Jews who live it do not have the luxury of nuanced academic parsing. For some, the creation of JDA is yet another chapter in the interminable story of the Jewish people: In any given room of Jews, there are more opinions than there are bodies. But for many, this new intellectual definition of antisemitism is an affront to their actual, real-life experiences of antisemitism on their campuses, in their workplaces, in their social lives and in the justice movements to which they commit time, resources and heart.

While the IHRA definition of antisemitism is imperfect, the gaslighting effect of JDA only affirms to thousands of American Jews who actually experience contemporary antisemitism how important IHRA really is. By exposing that the claims about IHRA violating free speech were always mendacious, JDA reinforces that IHRA is wholly appropriate as a non-legally binding reference. And by comparing IHRA to JDA, any observer who cares principally about protecting Jews will know which definition is more likely to accomplish that imperative.

Perhaps if, in the past, we had a global consensus on antisemitism as powerful as the one supporting IHRA, Jewish lives would have been spared. The only guarantee stronger for those Jewish lives would have been — to the great frustration of the JDA authors — the State of Israel itself.

Amanda Berman, Esq. is the founder and executive director of Zioness.

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