Progressive Jews were deeply concerned that it would endorse the deeply flawed IHRA “definition” of anti-Semitism, which labels criticism of Israel as anti-Semitism. The actual 60-page National Strategy document does “embrace” IHRA, which is disappointing. But it does single out the far-better Nexus Document: Understanding Antisemitism At Its Nexus With Israel And Zionism, created originally by a task force at the USC Annenberg School of Journalism. Here is the Strategy statement on the subject:
There are several definitions of antisemitism, which serve as valuable tools to raise awareness and increase understanding of antisemitism. The most prominent is the non-legally binding “working definition” of antisemitism 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.
This actually makes for a real mess. What does it mean that the “United States has embraced” IHRA? In what sense? Because Trump signed a Presidential Order endorsing it? Such Orders are only in effect as long as the signer is president. The State Department has officially endorsed it? It only holds sway over US foreign policy. Nor does it represent the US except in international affairs. Finally, the US Congress has taken no position on the issue, despite repeated attempts by the Lobby to bring the matter to a vote.
The National Strategy’s numerous examples of purported anti-Semitism seem lifted from the IHRA playbook:
Jewish students and educators are targeted for derision and exclusion on college campuses, often because of their real or perceived views about the State of Israel.
No source, evidence or even specific examples are offered in this passage. Thus, it’s impossible to make any judgment on these claims. But the term “derision” is a loaded one. A pro-Israel student or professor would certainly feel someone attacking their views was expressing “derision.” But how is this anti-Semitism? If this statement added that the derision attacked the victim’s Jewish identity, then that would certainly make for a much stronger case. But this passage makes no such connection and therefore is hopelessly vague.
The Strategy also endorses yet another problematic position regarding Israel:
The U.S. Government, led by the Department of State, will continue to combat antisemitism…including efforts to delegitimize the State of Israel.
The term ‘delegitimization’ was invented by the Israeli government as yet another way to smear its critics. It has been embraced by the Israel Lobby as well.
In fact, the biggest delegitmizer of all is not anti-Semites, Arab states or even Palestinian militant groups. It is Israel itself. Its mass violence, flagrant disregard for international law, ethnic cleansing and apartheid system all contribute to the world’s disdain. Israeli crimes against Palestinians fuel hatred. Israeli pogroms evoke disgust in the world. All of which delegitimize it on the world stage.
Further, why should it be the role of the US government to combat the delegitimacy of any state? Do we do so on behalf of Nigeria combatting Boko Haram, which seeks to overthrow its government and replace it with an Islamist state? Or a number of other African states facing rebel insurgencies seeking to overthrow their governments? Even in the case of the Taliban, which overthrew the Afghan government in order to install an Islamist state, we recognized that we could not stop the disintegration of that government and withdrew our forces.
It is the role of each individual state itself to earn its legitimacy. No other state can grant it. If Israel wants legitimacy it should earn it by ceasing its egregious policies. As long as it doesn’t it deserves delegitimacy.
The Strategy statement implicitly endorses the Israel Lobby’s war on higher education, which the latter views as a hotbed of anti-Zionism (aka anti-Semitism):
A 2022 survey found that over 50% of Jewish students worry that people make unfair judgments about them because they are Jewish, and that over 50% of Jewish students feel they pay a social cost if they support the existence of Israel as a Jewish state.
These sorts of findings sound ominous at first glance. But it’s important to examine the survey sponsor, survey director, survey questions and level of accuracy (margin or error). The study quoted was funded by the pro-Israel, Jim Joseph Foundation. Much of its grantmaking regarding Jewish issues is directed to Israel Lobby or pro-Israel non-profits including Hillel, Jewish federations, yeshivas, pro-Israel media, etc.
The full response to the first finding mentioned above, found 15% of respondents answered the first question saying they didn’t know. It is misleading to omit this cohort when quoting the result. Of the remainder, 49% agreed that unfair judgments were made about them because they are Jewish; not “over 50%.” Further, almost as many disagreed with the statement. But you won’t find that result highlighted either in the survey results or in this quote.
The second finding quoted above is also problematic. Any polling question about Israel which presumes it is a “Jewish state,” automatically excludes any student who does not believe Israel is, or should be a Jewish state. And there are many such Jewish students on campuses throughout the country. The result quoted also neglects to note that 39% of respondents answered “I don’t know” to the question. So a plurality of respondents did not express any opinion on the subject. Of those who did have an opinion, 54% agreed. That’s a far cry from the claim that “over 50% of Jewish students” agreed that they paid a price.
Finally, the survey does not offer any margin of error. Even assuming the number is small, this should be mentioned in order to judge the overall accuracy of the results.
To muddy the waters even further, the Nexus Document rejects virtually all of the IHRA. The phenomena it declares are not anti-Semitic reads like a direct refutation of IHRA. In fact, Nexus is now affiliated with the Bard College Center for the Study of Hate. Its director is Kenneth Stern. He was the lead author of the original IHRA statement when he worked for the American Jewish Committee. He is now deeply critical of its current misuse. In effect, Nexus is meant to supersede IHRA. Hopefully, in time it will:
What Is Not Antisemitic?
As a general rule, 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 antisemitic.
Even contentious, strident, or harsh criticism of Israel for its policies and actions, including those that led to the creation of Israel, is not per se illegitimate or antisemitic.
Opposition to Zionism and/or Israel does not necessarily reflect specific anti-Jewish animus nor purposefully lead to antisemitic behaviors and conditions. (For example, someone might oppose the principle of nationalism or ethnonationalist ideology. Similarly, someone’s personal or national experience may have been adversely affected by the creation of the State of Israel. These motivations or attitudes towards Israel and/or Zionism do not necessarily constitute antisemitic behavior.)
Paying disproportionate attention to Israel and treating Israel differently than other countries is not prima facie proof of antisemitism. (There are numerous reasons for devoting special attention to Israel and treating Israel differently, e.g., some people care about Israel more; others may pay more attention because Israel has a special relationship with the United States and receives $4 billion in American aid).
Nexus carves out an important space for Palestinians in the debate about Israel by acknowledging that their “national experience” has been “adversely affected…by the State of Israel.” In other words, Palestinians who have suffered at the hands of Israeli oppression may not be considered anti-Semitic for criticizing Israel. The next time any Palestinian is targeted by the ADL, StatewithUs or any other pro-Israel group, remember this passage and use it.
Nexus also offers support to progressive Jews who are regularly attacked by hasbara warriors using terms like ‘self-hating Jews,’ ‘Kapo,’ or genetically Jewish.’ In fact, it calls such attacks anti-Semitic:
It is antisemitic to…denigrate or deny the Jewish identity of certain Jews because they are perceived as holding the “wrong” position…on Israel.
In essence, the National Strategy has given the pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian camps what they wanted. But in the process, it has created a muddy document that means essentially whatever the reader wants it to mean.
There is one saving grace: the introduction makes clear that the Strategy is not a legal document and its contents may not be used to imply that it represents federal policy. Laws may not be passed using it as a binding legal precedent. Thus, whatever use the Israel Lobby seeks to make of it, they cannot legitimately claim that it serves as a basis for federal or state legislation. That doesn’t mean they won’t do this. But it means that they can and should be called out for it.