In his first month in office, President Joe Biden has taken welcome steps to reverse some of the damage done by the Trump administration to U.S.-Palestine policy. However, the Biden administration’s apparent decision to endorse the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s IHRA) working definition of anti-Semitism is a worrying move that could squash productive dialogue and silence legitimate critiques of Israeli government policies.
The new administration has said that it will reinstate critical humanitarian aid to Palestinians and reopen the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s diplomatic mission in Washington, D.C. It also announced that it will rejoin the United Nations Human Rights Council, from which the previous administration withdrew (mainly to protest the council’s scrutiny of Israel’s human rights practices). We welcome these reversals of harmful policies. However, this is not enough to change the oppressive status quo, and in fact new steps are now being taken to suppress valid criticism of Israeli government actions that violate international law and universal human rights standards.
Seven of the 11 accompanying illustrative examples in the IHRA definition pertain to Israel and could result in people conflating criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. This conflation would signal a dangerous trend toward stifling Palestinian advocacy and curtailing public debate. The author of the definition, U.S. attorney Kenneth Stern, has stated that it was never intended to curb political free speech. In a Jan. 12 statement, 10 pro-Israel Jewish groups called on federal, state and university authorities to refrain from adopting the IHRA definition, saying its adoption is “primarily aimed at shielding the present Israeli government and its occupation from all criticism. … We insist that activists, academics and all citizens must have the right to express a wide range of political opinions without fear of being suppressed or smeared by the government.”
During a time of terrifying and violent anti-Semitism across this country, when just six weeks ago white supremacists and neo-Nazis raged through the U.S. Capitol, it is more important than ever that we work to challenge anti-Semitism in all its forms. But criticism of Israeli government policies cannot be considered hate speech. Rather than preventing hate speech against Jews, the IHRA definition is being misused as a weapon to silence activists and further polarize conversation about policies and practices of the Israeli government.
Even as they endorsed the IHRA definition “as a tool for monitoring and raising awareness,” Reform Jewish groups last month expressed concerns “that the examples appended to the definition were drafted in a time and context different from the one before us today and can obscure even as they strive to illuminate. … [S]everal of the definition’s examples involve protected speech. … The definition should not be codified into policy that would trigger potentially problematic punitive action to circumscribe speech, efforts which have been particularly aimed at college students and human rights activists.”
Tell President Biden: Holding Israel accountable for human rights abuses is not anti-Semitism. All people should have the right to speak out against Israel’s illegal occupation without fear.
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