Open Letter to President Biden

Mr. President, you have called antisemitism “a stain on the soul of America.” Please do not let that happen on your watch.
May 22, 2023
(Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Dear President Biden,

It is great that the White House is preparing to release its comprehensive national strategy to fight antisemitism. But your administration must ensure that their work does not end up accidentally giving comfort and cover to those who target Jews.

There are reports that the task force is hesitating on including a definition of antisemitism in their report. But you cannot fight what you cannot define, so it is crucial that they do—and even more important that they include only the right one. That is why they should not deviate from the United States’ (and your administration’s) longstanding practice of using the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism.

The IHRA definition has been embraced by the federal government since 2007, and was formally adopted by the State Department in 2016 (after its official acceptance by the then-31 countries, including the U.S., that are members of the IHRA). Since then, over 1100 separate governments, universities and other key institutions (including 30 U.S. States and the Departments of Education and Justice) have also embraced the definition, demonstrating a clear and substantial worldwide and national consensus.

There are three main reasons why the IHRA definition must be included in the White House plan:

First, because it is accurate. Antisemitism is a mutating virus, and Jews are hated for an ever-shifting array of reasons. A definition of antisemitism that can protect people in practice must cut through the timely rationales that might be offered for this timeless hatred, and focus instead on the actions taken by those expressing the hate: a praxeological definition. The IHRA definition does this well because it deals with the manifestations of antisemitism, i.e. what antisemites do, as opposed to why they do it.

Nor is IHRA merely academic. As David Hirsch has explained: a “definition does not come first out of thought but out of an understanding of, and an effort to describe, a thing which exists.” The IHRA definition does an excellent job of capturing the essence of antisemitism in many of its various forms—and regardless of its ideological source—while giving voice to the victims who have lived with it all their lives. That is why there exists a strong consensus among Jewish people, across all political divides and religious spectrums, representing all ages and backgrounds, that the IHRA definition best encapsulates their shared identity and reflects their lived experience.

Of course, Jews are not monolithic and some small (but very loud) fringe groups do oppose the definition. But they do not speak for the Jewish community. In the United States, for example, mainstream Jewish sentiment can be seen by the fact that in 2021 the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, an umbrella group that does represent most of the Jewish community, announced that 51 of its 53 member organizations had already adopted the definition. That is more than a consensus; that is a mandate.

Second, the IHRA definition is demonstrably effective at curbing antisemitism. Since 2016, it has proven to be an essential tool for identifying contemporary manifestations of anti-Jewish bigotry or hate around the world. Per the European Commission Handbook for the practical use of the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism, the definition has already successfully been used:

“to train police officers, prosecutors, judges, educators, state employees and human rights monitoring bodies to identify and track various manifestations of antisemitism; to categorize antisemitic incidents, as collected by police officers, interior and justice ministries, civil society organisations, hate crime monitoring bodies and academics; to support decision-making processes by states, human rights monitoring organisations, law enforcement agencies, the judiciary, municipal governments, educators, civil society organisations and Jewish communities; to identify aspects of antisemitism in court hearings, prosecutor actions, police recording, investigations and hate crime statistics and to help direct funding to civil society organisations and human rights organisations.”

As you know, critics challenge IHRA’s use in policy-making on two grounds:

First, they claim that the very act of defining antisemitism somehow stifles free expression, but that is patently false. The IHRA definition does not do anything to silence speech—even outright antisemitic speech. A definition (by definition) just allows people to label things correctly. People can say what they want, however abhorrent, about Jews and/or the Jewish state. And we, in turn, can call it hateful.

Next, they contend that IHRA conflates political speech against Israel with antisemitism because among the list of potentially antisemitic behavior provided there are some useful examples of discriminatory anti-Zionism that can, sometimes, cross the line into antisemitism. That critique is also not true; there is literally a safe harbor provision in IHRA itself specifying that “criticism for Israel similar to that leveled against any other country” is not antisemitism, as well as a second express caveat that all of the examples given, “could, taking into account the overall context,” be antisemitic. Context is crucial here, as it is in all instances of alleged discrimination, and the reason those examples are provided is not because all forms of criticism about Israel are antisemitic—as the definition takes pains to point out twice—but precisely because there are those who claim that nothing can ever cross the line.

The truth is that at least sometimes anti-Zionism is only an excuse for antisemitism, which brings us to the third reason why the White House must adopt the IHRA definition and take a definitive stand affirmatively identifying problematic anti-Zionist antisemitism: Because study after study has shown that the kind of inflammatory discriminatory anti-Zionist rhetoric that the IHRA definition describes inevitably leads directly to violent antisemitic action.  The IHRA definition helps protect American Jews from these types of very real attacks, and a White House report that leaves any room for debate about this topic would be a positive boon to those antisemites who routinely exploit this “ambiguity.”

Despite the overwhelming position of mainstream Jewish groups, reports say that the administration is considering including no definition at all, or mentioning IHRA alongside other inaccurate, problematic definitions that have never been accepted and were specifically designed to dangerously weaken the IHRA consensus and undermine a near-universal understanding that is finally raising awareness of the problem’s many manifestations, in order to placate the extremists at the table and “make everybody … as happy as possible.” Please remind the task force members that “happiness” is not the goal or their objective; protecting Jewish people is. The only definition that demonstrably does this is the IHRA definition, and so that is the only definition their report should use. Anything more or less would become the story, and antisemites would see the shift in policy as a positive carve out excepting their behavior and giving them continued license to hide their antisemitism behind the thinnest of anti-Zionist veils.

Mr. President, you have called antisemitism “a stain on the soul of America.” Please do not let that happen on your watch.

Dr. Mark Goldfeder is Director of the National Jewish Advocacy Center.

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