Misdirecting the Fight Against Anti-Semitism

Embracing the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance document on anti-Semitism was a mistake by the Biden administration, writes Lawrence Davidson, a mistake likely made with eyes wide open. 

U.S. President Joe Biden signing guestbook at the Israeli president’s residence in Jerusalem in 2022.  (White House, Adam Schultz)

By Lawrence Davidson

In late May, the Biden administration released a 60-page plan for combating domestic anti-Semitism. Generally, anti-Semitism is but one, albeit an historically significant one, of many violent racial and ethnic biases.

In recent decades there has been an outburst of such hate and bias that is doing harm to many groups worldwide. It appears to be part of a resurgent fascism which, in turn, appears to be a backlash against liberal trends.

This reactionary process has hit the United States and no one should doubt the seriousness of the problem of ethnic hatred here in the “land of the free.” Every minority group in the country suffers from it.

Jewish Voice for Peace has correctly contextualized the struggle against anti-Semitism when it tells us that “at a time when the dangers of white nationalism, including racism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, are all too apparent, the need to build safety for all people has never been greater.”

The safety of Jews is linked to the safety of others.

Nonetheless, anti-Semitism in the U.S. has earned special attention from the federal government because (1) Jews can muster the horrors of the past along with the hate-filled outbursts of the present, and (2) bring to bear the political clout of a well-honed lobby — hence the recent report that calls for a full-court press against anti-Semitism at just about every level of society.

It may therefore come as a surprise that the main controversy flowing from the Biden plan is just how to define anti-Semitism. For instance, though addressing the issue in only one paragraph, the administration report acknowledges that the definition is in dispute.

There are several definitions of anti-Semitism ….The most prominent is the non-legally binding ‘working definition’ of anti-Semitism adopted in 2016 by the 31-member states of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), which the United States has embraced. In addition, the Administration welcomes and appreciates the Nexus Document and notes other such efforts.”

To clarify the issue, the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism reads as follows:

“Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

This is standard as far as it goes. Problems start to appear when the Alliance lists examples that it considers anti-Semitic — specifically, “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.”

Not coincidentally, most older, established Jewish organizations with close ties to Israel have latched on to this example and used it as a weapon against those critical of the policies and practices of the Zionist state toward non-Jewish citizens and subjects, particularly Palestinians. 

Mentioning the IHRA document on anti-Semitism, much less calling it “the most prominent” and the one that the U.S. “has embraced” was a mistake on the part of the Biden administration. This is so for several reasons:

(1) It immediately shifted attention from the report and its goals to the controversy over definition.

(2) It confirmed that the government had taken sides in this controversy.

(3) It complicated the fight against anti-Semitism by publicly announcing that the administration was willing to ignore the prima facie fact that Israel has been documented to in fact be “a racist endeavor.”

Every well respected human rights organization in the West such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the United Nations Office of Human Rights, and B’Tselem, among many others, has laid out this indictment in detail.

Israeli military forces arriving to demolish the Palestinian community of Khirbet Ein Karzaliyah on Jan. 8, 2014. (B’Tselem, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 4.0)

It is probable that the Biden administration made this mistake with eyes wide-open. And, it is probably President Joe Biden’s own self-confessed Zionism that dictated it doing so.

As a bone thrown to those who own the facts, the administration also mentioned that there exists other definitions of anti-Semitism that it “welcomes and appreciates” such as the Nexus definition.

This definition reads,

“Anti-Semitism consists of anti-Jewish beliefs, attitudes, actions or systemic conditions. It includes negative beliefs and feelings about Jews, hostile behavior directed against Jews (because they are Jews), and conditions that discriminate against Jews and significantly impede their ability to participate as equals in political, religious, cultural, economic, or social life.”

The Nexus document recognizes that those who hate Jews “because they are Jews” may well hate Israel too. However, it contains a list of actions which cannot be judged anti-Semitic. For instance, “criticism of Zionism and Israel, opposition to Israel’s policies, or nonviolent political action directed at the State of Israel and/or its policies should not, as such, be deemed anti-Semitic.” This approach is nuanced to fit well within U.S. principle of free speech and avoids the problem at the heart of the IHRA statement. 

The IHRA’s Category Mistake 

A rally In Solidarity with the Jewish people in Washington, D.C., July 2021. (Ted Eytan, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

The controversy over definition has focused not on traditional sociopathic traits such as hatred of Jews. Everyone agrees that such an outlook and its associated behavior is anti-Semitic. Rather, the debate focuses on what is, in essence, a political question: whether there can be such a thing as legitimate criticism of Israel’s Zionist project. If you think this might reflect a category mistake, you are right.

Israel is a nation state (one category) with leaders who have made an arbitrary claim to represent all the Jews worldwide (a qualitatively different category). For instance, the published aims of the Permanent Mission of Israel to the United Nations says it “represents the State of Israel, its citizens and the Jewish people on the global stage.”

This claim cannot be substantiated for two reasons (1) there are tens of thousands (the number is growing all the time) of Jews outsider of Israel who do not want to be represented by that state. Many are neutral as regards Israel and many others are appalled by Israel’s Zionist ideology and the racist behavior it has generated, and (2) the claim of representation is called into question by the positions taken by the rabbinical officialdom controlling religious practices in Israel. These are orthodox and ultra-orthodox rabbis who believe that Jews who do not practice the religion as they do — which happens to be most Jews in the U.S. and Europe — are not real Jews. Thus, Israeli leaders are caught in a dilemma. They claim to represent a diaspora community of Jews, many of whom their “official” rabbis say are not really Jews. 

Leaving aside the “who is a Jew” problem, Israel implements policies and practices that have produced institutional and legal discrimination against non-Jews. This is perhaps an inevitable result of designing a state for one group in territory awash with many groups.

The effort has progressed so far that it is now factually accurate to call Israel an apartheid state. Is criticism of such policies and practices the same as anti-Semitism? Do those critical of Israel’s official racism hate Jews? Again, part of the problem with the Zionist argument is that many of the critics are Jews (despite what antiquarian Rabbis might say). In response, the boosters of Israel, the descriptive term here is “political Zionists,” have, once more arbitrarily, invented a class of people they call the self-hating Jew — this is supposed to account for Jewish opposition to Zionist Israel. 

The Case of Jonathan Greenblatt

Jonathan Greenblatt in 2017. (Gage Skidmore, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)

One such political Zionist, who claims that he and his organization had a lot to do with the Biden plan, is Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). Greenblatt asserts that the administration’s effort draws “heavily from our plans and our recommendations. My team was collaborating actively with the interagency policy committee that staffed and led this.”

This might be the case, for there has been no public recognition by the U.S. government of just how radical the ADL and most other traditional Jewish American organizations have become in defense of Israel. Thus, Greenblatt is convinced that the Biden administration is now fully on board with the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism. “The White House plan elevates and embraces IHRA as the preeminent definition that it is now using to understand anti-Semitism in all its forms.” He dismisses the Nexus paper as a “supplementary document.”

One should be very suspicious of Greenblatt’s ability to access, much less analyze, the rapidly evolving American culture and politics as regards Zionist Israel. As I have noted previously, he offers a remarkably inaccurate picture of Israel’s official ideology. He tells us “Zionism isn’t just a light for the Jewish people, it’s a liberation movement for all people. We should take strength in it, we should find inspiration in it, and we should share it with the world.”

This same skewed argument was used by the Zionists in the mid-1940s — while they promoted a colonial-settler project during a period marked by decolonization. Somehow, Greenblatt has also got it into his head that “Palestinians should embrace Zionism.” As utterly delusional as this sounds, Greenblatt is again reviving an earlier ploy. 

The New York Times reported in early April of 1921 that Winston Churchill (then colonial secretary) had travelled to Jerusalem and met with local Palestinian leaders. He told them that creating a Jewish national home in Palestine would be “good for the Arabs dwelling in Palestine” because they would “share in the benefits and progress of Zionism.” At the time this was known as “the full-belly theory of imperialism.” In 1921, the real impact of Zionism in Palestine was in the future. Today, Greenblatt’s apparent disregard of that history is unforgivable.  

Nonetheless, that ignorance, real or fabricated, is necessary if one is to adopt the IHRA statement as the “preeminent definition that is now used to understand anti-Semitism in all its forms.”

What is the dark logic in all of this? The progressive Israeli news site +972 explains,

“what the IHRA definition does is provide Israel and the wider hasbara apparatus with a highly effective tool for bashing Palestinians and the Palestinian liberation movement, and grant the global far right an equally effective tool for whitewashing its own antisemitism .… allowing antisemites to propose that the absence of criticism of Israel indicates a lack of animus toward Jews …. lobbying for the universal adoption of a definition of antisemitism based on this inner logic is terribly bad for Jews around the world.”

On June 5, the European Legal Support Center (ELSC) released a report on the impact of the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism on the rights of free speech and assembly in the European Union and United Kingdom. It came as no great surprise that this case-based assessment showed that the IHRA definition was quickly weaponized in order to stifle criticism of Zionist Israel. The ELSC report documents 53 such cases. All of them targeted groups or individuals expressing criticism of Israeli policies and practices toward Palestinians.

There can be little doubt that this weaponization of the IHRA definition is what Jonathan Greenblatt and the ADL have in mind. Likewise, it is probably a safe bet that many in the Biden administration, including the president himself, will go along with this distorting practice unless they are confronted both in the streets and the courts to the point that they are publicly embarrassed by their own hypocrisy. It is only by ending this illegitimate misdirection that any real fight against anti-Semitism can progress. The struggle to do so is already ongoing.

Lawrence Davidson is professor of history emeritus at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He has been publishing his analyses of topics in U.S. domestic and foreign policy, international and humanitarian law and Israel/Zionist practices and policies since 2010.

This article is from the authors site, TothePointAnalysis.com.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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11 comments for “Misdirecting the Fight Against Anti-Semitism

  1. Mark J Oetting
    June 30, 2023 at 21:24

    A good example of this thinking is the unjust rabid ostracism of rock musician Roger Waters for his criticism of Israeli policy toward Palestinians and opposition to The NATO proxy war in Ukraine

  2. Helga I. Fellay
    June 29, 2023 at 11:03

    Re: “Every well respected human rights organization in the West such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the United Nations Office of Human Rights, and B’Tselem, among many others, has laid out this indictment in detail.”

    I had no idea that “Human Rights Watch” and “Amnesty Inernational” were “well respected.” Well respected by whom? Certainly not people who believe in justice and equality.

  3. Peter Loeb
    June 29, 2023 at 11:01

    Thanks as always to professor Davidson.

    It is important to remember that the use of the anti-semitism slur hqas long been a powerful tool of the Jewish lobby and
    those that support. As James Bamford has pointed out (See for his recent “Spy/Fail”) this has been often used
    groups to protect Israel and prohibit crimes from being investigated. Following up on charges of treason such as with the theft of
    nuclear material from Altoona PA are stopped often by presidential power. There are many other examples documented
    by Bamford among others.

  4. Thot
    June 29, 2023 at 08:08

    Bonjour à tous ! comment expliquer l’horreur juive en Palestine occupée ? est-ce qu’un peuple qui aurait vécu autant d’horreur ferait pareil ou pire à des êtres humains ???? non, je pense que non ! Il n’y a pas de pays hors USA, aussi raciste et criminel que le régime israélien qui se cache derrière “les massacres” de la guerre pour en faire tout autant et même pire !à vomir en espérant que ce régime sera un jour traduit en justice dans un vrai tribunal, pas une fumisterie comme la CPI

  5. firstpersoninfinite
    June 28, 2023 at 23:54

    We have to assume that the “self-hating Jew” is, ipso facto, also anti-Semitic. Otherwise, what point is there in the definition? I’m sure that in English America, colonial America, there were self-hating Englishmen. So, by the logic of the Biden administration, the American Revolution should never have happened, and was itself nothing less than a crime in support of anti-British sentiment. Yet the US never follows British political ideals to the point of crimes against humanity. We simply tell them what to do, crimes or whatever else, leaving us innocent of the crimes themselves. That is the US relationship with Israel.

  6. robert e williamson jr
    June 28, 2023 at 19:28

    Hysterical, religious fanatics are what they, are, making irrational claims that Jews are hated because they are Jews is simply not what individuals such as I and millions of other Americans like me believe or think.

    Highly overstated, to the point of hysteria by religious fanatical lobbyists who get well rewarded by ADL and others.

    I understand the existence white supremacist and their beliefs, and am surrounded by bigots who are in denial of what they represent. The conflation of two or more sets of beliefs is all too often pushed by Jewish Israeli hardliners to garner publicity. One of many practices used by the ADL and their spokesmen to, in my humble opinion, rage about the mistreatment of Jews and Mother Israel. As a direct result I see these protestations as being disingenuous , irrational and over the top. I simply do not agree with their opinions or beliefs.

    The Israeli Defense Force and other defenders of the Israeli Party Line treat both their own citizens and the Palestinians horribly. I in now way agree with their methods or attitudes revealed on the world stage.

    I’ve been around long enough to have a solid rationale behind my beliefs, what I define as my personal right to construct my value system, i.e. beliefs of what is right and what is wrong. Again I believe that I have much in common with millions of other Americans. One of those being the author here Mr. Davidson. I could not agree more with his statement here which is a work of great clarity in these matters.

    The most recent leadership of the government of Israel is a perfect example of the huge problems I have always had with the manner in which this right wing government treats not only the Palestinians but it’s non-Palestinian population.

    The POTUS is way out of line with his open encouragement of the Israelis biased, I believe, by his own religious beliefs. The man is either totally confused or has been the recipient of horrific biased mindless enlightenment resulting from a bias formed from his personal religious beliefs.

    I’ve said this before here and not long ago. If I don’t trust my own country I will never trust the Israeli government. With all due respect the POTUS has no right to speak for me or any other American on these matters. He should not tell Americans what to believe or insinuate some blame placed on the individual for their beliefs. Joey is way out of line here, and so is Mr. Greenblatt , who is little more than a well paid lobbyist. Fanning the flames of hate himself by irrationally unfounded B.S.

    Now about that USS Liberty thing . . . . being settled. Vets never forget Joey, you pompous ass.

    Thanks to Mr. Davidson and CN

  7. John Manning
    June 28, 2023 at 16:21

    All European efforts at anti-semitism are simply a verbal smokescreen. I grew up amongst Jews because I was schooled alongside them. There are no Jewish schools in New Zealand so they attended classes along with everyone else. I had no idea they were Jewish and did not find this out until I was in my twenties and thirties.

    Like so many other Jews they were in reality European not semitic. Their families had lived in European countries for hundreds of years. These are the people who now emigrate to Israel. Europeans emigrating to a semitic land. When people question their colonisation of the Palestine (taking land from semitic Arabs) they get accused of anti-semitism.

    The ADL and others have redefined the word “semitic” but that cannot change the injustice and brutality of settler colonialism. Calling it Zionism is an insult to the Jewish people and identifies the true self hating Jew.

  8. Drew Hunkins
    June 28, 2023 at 13:35

    Greenblatt’s nothing more than a censoring, cancelling and deplatforming tyrant.

  9. June 28, 2023 at 13:04

    Is ‘resurgent fascism’ really a backlash against liberalism? If we accept Mussolini’s definituon of fascism (and he was the inventor of the vile creed), fascism and liberalism in its modern, neoliberal, form are the same thing: the merger of the state and the corporations, for the latter’s benefit.

    On this basis, most western (and non-western) states are already fascist. Hence NATO’s eager embrace of the Nazis in Ukraine.

    • John Corey
      June 28, 2023 at 15:54

      Good point, re NATO’s embrace of Ukraine’s Ukanian Nazi’s and their war against Russian speaking people in Eastern Ukraine

    • Lois Gagnon
      June 28, 2023 at 18:16

      Exactly! There is no mystery here. Those pushing this fascistic policy think they are cleverly disguising what their agenda is. It is becoming more and more obvious to the majority of the world’s population. The Russians certainly have no illusions.

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