The Weaponization of Zionism and the IHRA Definition

Those perpetuating antisemitic language and tropes, such as the authors of the first draft of California’s Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum, are the last individuals who should be tasked with defining antisemitism, yet they are demanding to do so.
October 27, 2023
Photo by nurulanga/Getty Images

After the founding of Israel in 1948, many Middle East and North Africa nations enacted laws criminalizing “Zionism.” Zionism was rarely defined by those countries, creating an intended ambiguity that ushered in a surge of state-sanctioned antisemitism, resulting in widespread human rights violations against Jews throughout the region.

These camouflaged anti-Jewish campaigns were not merely institutional; they manifested in public spaces with frequent violent outbursts and subtler forms of discrimination against Jewish individuals. Jewish students, in particular, were no longer safe in public classrooms or welcomed in social spaces they once frequented. Bullying, harassment, and the alienation of Jewish children became routine, and in extreme cases, Jewish men, women, and children were scapegoated for local frustrations.

A poignant example is a Libyan law[1] passed in 1961, which stipulated that “any person deemed to have acted morally or materially in favor of Israeli interests” would lose their Libyan nationality. Six years later, during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, some Muslim Libyan residents turned against their Jewish neighbors, setting synagogues ablaze, destroying businesses, and tragically separating families. All this occurred even though the conflict, for which these innocent Jews were being blamed, was happening over 1,000 miles away.

Country after country in the Middle East and North Africa passed similar laws, criminalizing perceived and/or tangible relationships with Israel. The term “Zionist” was often used by Arab governments as a coded, all-encompassing reference for any Jewish individual. By the end of that 20th century, nearly one million “Zionist” Jews in the Middle East fled state-sanctioned oppression, expulsion, and dispossession.

A similar weaponization of the word “Zionist” and targeting of Jewish individuals and organizations supporting Jews’ indigenous rights in Israel is occurring in the USA today. From the thousands of Hamas sympathizers marching on our streets calling for “resistance by any means,[2]” to public school boards contracting with anti-Zionist organizations, in the last week Jewish communities across America have woken up to this insidious form of  antisemitism, that unfortunately is known well by Jewish refugees from Libya and other Middle East and North African countries.

Make no mistake, when modern-day activist-educators, particularly those within the discipline of Ethnic Studies, mention “Zionist influence[3],” “Zionist forces[4],” and “Zionist attacks” on education and society, they are referring to Jews. These activist-educators often cherry-pick specific anti-Zionist Jewish voices[5] and organizations to bolster their claims and further their antisemitic agendas. If they were genuinely committed to combating all forms of bigotry, including antisemitism, they would refrain from such cherry-picking and consider various data points on Jewish Americans’ relationships with Israel. This includes the 2020 PEW study of Jewish Americans[6], which reported that over 80% of Jewish Americans believe that “caring about Israel is an essential part of what being Jewish means to them.”

The most fertile and unsettling new breeding ground for these anti-Zionist campaigns is America’s K-12 schools. Policies embracing “liberated” Ethnic Studies try to marginalize and undermine a wide-swath of mainstream Jewish organizations, pointing to their “Zionist” attacks keep antisemitic content out of the classroom.

So, what can we do?

Though the U.S. Constitution protects Jewish Americans from laws criminalizing Zionism, like those in Arab nations, we are witnessing anti-Zionist antisemitism creeping into government spending as anti-Israel educational activists work overtime[7] to influence educational policies and land contracts in order to shape classroom curriculum and so hearts and minds..

Unlike Jews in the Arab world, helpless in the face of state-sanctioned discrimination, Jews in the United States have a tool to combat this form of antisemitism – the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA)[8] working definition of antisemitism.

We should not assume our elected officials can identify and understand antisemitism in all its nuances and we should use this definition when in dialogue with them. That is why my organization, JIMENA, is leading a state-wide effort asking Governor Newsom to adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism.

If the state of California had adopted the IHRA definition in 2019 when the first draft of the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum was being drafted, the project might have proceeded without controversy, saving the state millions of dollars and avoiding numerous controversies. Instead, the California Department of Education was unable to recognize the anti-Zionist antisemitism embedded in it by K-12 Liberated Ethnic Studies activist-scholars on the writing team. Educational agencies can prevent similar errors in the future by using the IHRA definition as a guide to discern when educational materials include antisemitic content.

Critics have raised several concerns about the IHRA definition and its examples, mostly related to the belief that it will suppress free speech. However, time and again, interfaith legal scholars, educators, and political leaders from around the globe have established that the IHRA definition is not a tool to stifle free speech. Instead, its primary value is to help society identify, prevent, and combat antisemitism. This is why over 1,000 entities worldwide, including more than 30 US states, have adopted the definition.

Unsurprisingly, the most vocal critics of the IHRA definition are those who use the term “Zionist” pejoratively and conspiratorially when Jews oppose antisemitism in classrooms and public spaces. Those perpetuating antisemitic language and tropes, such as the authors of the first draft of California’s Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum, are the last individuals who should be tasked with defining antisemitism or influencing the definitions adopted by public agencies, especially our schools, yet they are demanding to do so.

It falls upon us, Jewish leaders and concerned parents to educate our civic leaders and public educators about antisemitism. We should unite in encouraging the State of California to formally adopt the IHRA definition as other states, like New York, Vermont, Washington State, Florida, and New Mexico have done.

And finally, we should proudly use the word “Zionist” to describe our people’s liberation and reject it being weaponized against us. As the IHRA definition models — denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination is antisemitism, and we should be unafraid to express support for our own Zionist liberation and a world free from double standards and hatred of Jews.

[1] http://www.justiceforjews.com/libya.html

[2] https://nationalpost.com/news/hamas-support-students-justice-in-palestine

[3] [3] https://teachpalestine.org/defend-crt-and-ethnic-studies/

[4] https://convergencemag.com/articles/fight-for-ethnic-studies-moves-to-k-12-classrooms/

[5] https://www.jimena.org/sephardic-and-mizrahi-communal-response-to-jewish-voice-for-peace/

[6] https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2021/05/11/u-s-jews-connections-with-and-attitudes-toward-israel/

[7] https://ethnicstudies-coalition.org/

[8] [8] https://www.holocaustremembrance.com/resources/working-definitions-charters/working-definition-antisemitism

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