ICAN News & Information - The Next Generation of Israel Advocacy

Rabbis urge Biden to adopt disputed definition of antisemitism

More than 550 rabbis from across the U.S. have called on the Biden administration to include a controversial definition of antisemitism in its forthcoming strategy to combat anti-Jewish bigotry, amid a heated debate over how to address criticism of Israel.1

Why it matters: The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism, which was adopted by the Trump administration in 20182, has been praised by many Jewish groups as a useful tool to identify and counter antisemitism. But some progressive groups and human rights advocates have warned that the definition could stifle free speech and legitimate criticism of Israel’s policies and actions.

Driving the news: In a letter sent to the White House on Friday via the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations3, the rabbis said that the IHRA definition is “critically important for helping to educate and protect our congregants in the face of this rising hate.”

  • They urged the administration to “formally embrace the IHRA Working Definition as the official and only definition used by the United States government” and to use it as a “training and educational tool” for federal agencies and officials.
  • The letter’s signatories include rabbis from all three major Jewish denominations, though few leaders of the movements. Among them are rabbis known to be close to President Biden, such as Michael Beals, a Delaware rabbi who campaigned for him in 20204, and Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, who protected his congregants during a hostage crisis at a Texas synagogue last year5.

The other side: Some progressive Jewish groups, such as J Street and IfNotNow, have opposed the IHRA definition and urged the administration not to adopt it6.

  • They argue that the definition, which consists of a two-sentence description of antisemitism followed by 11 examples of how it may manifest7, is too vague and broad, and that some of the examples conflate antisemitism with criticism of Israel.
  • For instance, they object to the examples that label as antisemitic “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination” by claiming that Israel is a racist endeavor8, or “applying double standards” to Israel that are not expected of other democratic nations9.
  • They say that these examples could be used to silence dissenting voices and suppress advocacy for Palestinian rights.

What they’re saying: A senior State Department official told The Jerusalem Post in February that the Biden administration supports the IHRA definition and considers it a “gold standard” for combating antisemitism10.

  • However, he also said that the administration would not attempt to criminalize free speech or challenge anyone’s right to express their views.
  • ““This, however, does not mean we let anti-Semitic speech and other forms of hate speech go unchallenged,” he added.

The big picture: The debate over the IHRA definition reflects the broader tensions within the American Jewish community over how to relate to Israel and its policies, especially amid rising incidents of antisemitism in the U.S. and around the world.

  • These tensions have fractured friendships and split families11, as well as influenced political preferences and affiliations.
  • The Biden administration has tried to balance its support for Israel’s security and right to defend itself with its commitment to advancing human rights and democracy in the region.

What’s next: The administration is expected to release its national strategy to combat antisemitism in the coming months12, following an executive order signed by Biden in December.

  • The strategy will outline how the federal government will coordinate its efforts to prevent and respond to antisemitism at home and abroad.

Dig Deeper:

1 Defining Anti-Semitism | U.S. Department of State

2 Over 500 rabbis say Biden’s antisemitism plan should embrace disputed IHRA definition | The Times of Israel

3 How a Delaware rabbi became one of Joe Biden’s biggest defenders on the campaign trail | Jewish Telegraphic Agency

4 Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, the Texas synagogue hostage crisis, and the power of prayer | Jewish Telegraphic Agency

5 J Street IHRA Statement

6 Working Definition of Antisemitism | International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance

7 Is it inherently antisemitic to criticise Israel? It may depend on who you ask | The Guardian 8 Israeli Government Must Repudiate US Anti-Boycott Measures | Human Rights Watch

9 US accepts IHRA’s definition of antisemitism, Biden official says | The Jerusalem Post

10 Israel-Gaza Conflict Divides Jewish Families | The New York Times

11 Executive Order on Combating Anti-Semitism | The White House

12 Statement by President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. on the Nomination of Deborah Lipstadt as Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism | The White House

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Posts