Prominent voices in the Jewish community confidently pronounce: “Only Jews get to define antisemitism.” Popular Jewish writer Sarah Tuttle-Singer, for example, tweeted (before later removing), “Here is a complete and comprehensive list of the people who get to decide what is or isn’t anti-Semitic: 1. Jews.”
In an article in the San Diego Union-Tribune titled “Jews get to Define Antisemitism,” Micha Danzig asserted that “what is surprising is how many people give credence to such arguments to those telling Jews they don’t get to define Jew-hatred … It would not be tolerated for anti-Asian hate, anti-Muslim hate or anti-Black hate. And it shouldn’t be tolerated for antisemitism.”
It’s legitimate for Jews to insist on a major role in defining antisemitism as a matter of government policy, and illegitimate for us to demand that everyone agree with us.
So do Jews really get to define antisemitism? Yes and no. In the immortal words of Bill Clinton, “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” Or in this case, it depends on what the meaning of the word “define” is. It’s legitimate for Jews to insist on a major role in defining antisemitism as a matter of government policy, and illegitimate for us to demand that everyone agree with us.
In one sense of the term “define,” Jews ought to have a major say in how government agencies define antisemitism. Originally adopted in a plenary in Bucharest, Romania in May 2016, the IHRA definition of antisemitism has become the dominant conception in much of the world and certainly the most widely held by Jewish institutions. IHRA holds that “antisemitism is 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.”
In its contemporary examples of antisemitism, the IHRA definition upholds Natan Sharansky’s three Ds: Demonization of, Delegitimization of and Double standards toward Israel, which can, taking into account the overall context, be deemed forms of antisemitism. Some progressive Jewish groups object to these examples and have offered up different definitions. They fear that hawkish Jews will use the globally accepted definition to shut down critiques of Israeli policy.
Indeed, some activists have applied the IHRA definition haphazardly, typically labeling any critique of Israeli policy as antisemitic because, the accuser determines, it represents a “double standard,” which IHRA suggests can, in extreme cases, be antisemitic. The authors of IHRA clearly have a high bar in mind for establishing a double standard. The definition explicitly states that criticism of Israeli policy is not antisemitic. Thus lambasting every critique of Israel as an antisemitic double standard is a distortion, not an application, of IHRA.
Certainly, the IHRA definition was developed not to regulate public discourse, but to track and monitor antisemitic acts. Indeed, it was devised in part because European governments often failed to treat horrendous and vicious acts of anti-Zionism, often directed at Jewish communities in their countries, as a form of antisemitism, and thus failed to protect their Jewish communities against violence.
Furthermore, governments need a definition for the purpose of determining the motives of hate crimes and systematic harassment of Jews on campus in line with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. Without a definition, the courts, for example, would not be able to determine if the antisemite who yelled “Zionists are pigs” when vandalizing a Jewish Community Center committed a hate crime punishable by enhanced penalties. Absent a clear understanding of what constitutes antisemitism, the courts would treat the hate crime against the JCC no more severely than spray painting “Johnny Loves Suzy” on the underside of a bridge.
One would think that the dominant if not unanimous view of the Jewish community would be factored in by governments seeking such a definition. And it’s perfectly legitimate for Jewish organizations to push their favored definition as long as it’s not used as a cudgel to silence dissent, a point I’ll return to shortly.
When some Jews make the claim that only Jews get to define antisemitism, however, they mean something entirely different than the adoption of an official government definition. They mean that no one else except Jews has standing to publicly air a perspective of what constitutes antisemitism. According to this line of thinking, non-Jews who have never experienced antisemitism should sit down and shut up, and allow Jews to school society on antisemitism. Such outlandish claims simply mimic the fashionable progressive discourse that insists that only oppressed groups with “lived experience” should be able to define the discourse on race in society.
As tempting as it may be to establish the same “right” for Jews, we should resist doing so. Insisting on such a prerogative to dictate how others think and talk is not only spurious and highly illiberal; it’s also dangerous for Jews because it reinforces a line of thinking that’s often weaponized against us. Once you stipulate that minority groups get to define the bigotry against them, what’s to stop radical voices from making absurd and incoherent demands at odds with Jewish interests and values?
For example, if only racialized minority groups (typically DEI professionals and political activists who often don’t represent a consensus in their own communities) get to define racism for society, and these voices claim that “Racism equals prejudice plus power,” a common refrain in progressive circles, then all those who accept the lived-experience-trumps-all philosophy must now defer to this definition of racism.
The prejudice plus power definition of racism would mean that Jews, a group deemed powerful, cannot be victims of racism, and groups deemed powerless cannot be guilty of racism. In this conception, Jews are a powerful group with no legitimate gripes. Acceding to such a definition of racism effectively marginalizes Jewish claims of antisemitism.
Moreover, why should anyone be expected to outsource their thinking to anyone else? We live in a free society where people are allowed to hold and articulate their own views and no one gets to define anything for others. We should not want to be bound by a discourse in which we must defer to others and others must defer to us.
While such thinking comes from the left, it’s frequently Jews on the political right who draw from the progressive playbook and weaponize IHRA to silence alternative views. Indeed, Jews who accuse IHRA’s opponents of antisemitism are engaging in a form of cancel culture, based precisely on the same suppositions that radical leftist voices use to silence opposition to their dogmas. Ironically, there’s nothing in IHRA itself that would justify calling anyone who disagrees with the definition an antisemite. Proponents of an alternative definition of antisemitism have every right to advocate for their position and should not be demonized for doing so.
There’s nothing remotely unfair or illiberal when the IHRA definition wins out, as it did in the recently released White House national antisemitism strategy.
By the same token — and a point often lost upon IHRA’s critics — Jews who do support the IHRA definition have every right to push vigorously for government adoption of their preferred definition of antisemitism and urge governments to ignore competing definitions. Government policy is not like public discourse with multiple voices. Very often contests to set government policy are winner-take-all: Only one definition of antisemitism will be adopted, and the others will be set aside. There’s nothing remotely unfair or illiberal when the IHRA definition wins out, as it did in the recently released White House national antisemitism strategy.
Nor does the IHRA definition, used properly, suppress free speech. Kenneth Marcus, who served as Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education and has done as much as anyone to advance IHRA on the American front, states in no uncertain terms that IHRA “does not generally ban, regulate, restrict or punish, all activities that may be described as anti-Semitic within the Definition’s meaning.” Marcus continues, “The E.O. (Executing Order issued by the Trump Administration invoking the use of IHRA in Title VI cases) protects free speech by directing its usage only as a means of discerning intent.”
In other words, the proper use of IHRA is not to prosecute those who engage in antisemitic speech or force everyone to sing from the same song sheet about antisemitism, as much as we might wish we all would, but to aid governments in determining antisemitic intent.
So, yes, Jews should have a major role in “defining” antisemitism as government policy, and no, we don’t get to insist that everyone accept our views.
David Bernstein is founder of the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values (JILV) and author of “Woke Antisemitism.”