What U.S. senators’ new definition of antisemitism could mean for UNLV

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Photo by Matthew Mondschein

American policymakers introduced the Stop Anti-Semitism on College Campuses Act in response to a reported rise in antisemitism. Helmed by U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, the proposed bill directs the Department of Education to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism when investigating antisemitic acts on campus.

The bill also dictates that institutions participating in federal student loan and grant programs must not “authorize, facilitate, provide funding for, or otherwise support any event promoting Anti-semitism [sic].” Alone, the testament seems reasonable, but recent controversy surrounding the IHRA definition leave many wondering how this may affect freedom of speech on campus.

Citing the Anti-Defamation League Center on Extremism’s (ADL) report of antisemitic incidents jumping nearly 400% after the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks, politicians across the world have rallied efforts to combat antisemitism. Many of these efforts are armed with the IHRA definition to define the fight, being adopted by 43 countries on a national level (including the U.S.) along with countless political entities on varying levels (including the ADL).

The IHRA definition states: “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.”

Along with this definition, the definition provides 11 examples to help guide judgment of antisemitism.

While efforts to combat antisemitism are essential, many find the adoption of the IHRA definition problematic, claiming it could suppress freedom of speech. A coalition of 104 civil society organizations led by the Human Rights Watch sent a letter to the U.N. urging them not to adopt the IHRA working definition of antisemitism. 

The coalition claims: “the IHRA definition has often been used to wrongly label criticism of Israel as antisemitic, and thus chill and sometimes suppress, non-violent protest, activism and speech critical of Israel and/or Zionism, including in the U.S. and Europe.” 

Former U.N. Special Rapporteur on Racism E. Tendayi Achiume has shared similar concerns. In a 2022 report on contemporary forms of racism and related intolerance, Achiume cautions the U.N. against reliance upon the IHRA definition, calling it “unclear in key respects and widely open to different interpretations” and susceptible “to being politically instrumentalized.” 

Even the working definition’s original writer Kenneth Stern has publicly denounced its use to inform public policy, stating, “It was never intended to be a campus hate speech code.” 

Against aforementioned criticism, the IHRA website states “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.” In an article addressing common questions about the IHRA definition, the American Jewish Committee elaborates that “criticizing national policies [is] (totally acceptable) and denying the Jewish people’s right to self-determination [is] (not acceptable).” 

While this testament may be given in theory, there have been recorded cases where the definition was used to obstruct freedom of speech. Even if the IHRA considers criticism of Israeli national policies acceptable, the clause prohibiting the denial of self-determination works against many pro-Palestinian movements. 

Many campus pro-Palestinian advocates have rallied behind the slogan “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” By the IHRA definition, this could be considered a denial of self-determination and thus antisemitic, which is exactly how the ADL categorizes the slogan. Similarly, the ADL also categorizes any references to “Israeli acts of genocide” as false and antisemitic as well.

In their in-depth dissent of the definition, the organization Independent Jewish Voices Canada provides examples where the IHRA definition was used to suppress speech and activity in support of Palestine. These include Rep. Paul Gosar calling to cut University of Arizona’s federal funding due to existing pro-Palestinian student organizations and the U.S. State Department labeling international humanitarian organizations “antisemitic.”

It should be noted the Nevada System of Higher Education already adopted it last year, though it was only applied to internal anti-discrimination training; campus freedom of speech was still ensured at the time. However, the Stop Anti-Semitism on College Campuses Act would go a step further, pushing UNLV to strictly enforce the new definition, at risk of losing federal funding. And as the aforementioned incidents have shown, strict enforcement of the IHRA definition could stifle pro-Palestinian speech.

Determining a set definition is crucial to combating antisemitism, but should the definition threaten freedom of speech to this extent?

In response to this dilemma, a group of scholars created the Jewish Declaration of Antisemitism (JDA), seeking to provide a clear definition while also aiming to “protect a space for an open debate about the vexed question of the future of Israel/Palestine.” The JDA provides a general definition for antisemitism, as well as numerous in-depth examples of Israel-Palestine discourse, labeling each as antisemitic or not. 

The aforementioned civil society coalition, Achiume and International Jewish Voices Canada all advocate for the JDA definition of antisemitism, while the Anti-Defamation League and American Jewish Committee are speaking against it. 

Furthermore, efforts to implement the JDA in the U.S. have failed. A group of U.S. representatives led by Rep. Jan Schakowsky advocated for the adoption of the JDA definition on a national level in 2021

In a State Department response obtained by Haaretz, Acting Assistant Secretary Naz Durakoğlu wrote: “The Biden Administration embraces and champions the IHRA non-legally binding working definition of antisemitism [sic] in its entirety, including its examples.” 

For now, it looks like the U.S. will be standing by the IHRA definition, and with the Stop Antisemitism on College Campuses Act pending, campus pro-Palestinian advocates will have to wait and see what it means.

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