As Jewish students and anti-Zionist organizers, we know that it is in no way antisemitic to support the fight for Palestinian liberation. False accusations of such should not be used to silence Palestinian solidarity activists. That’s why we were glad to see the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights ditch a misleading and discredited definition of antisemitism in its recent fact sheet on protecting students from discrimination.
While the Office for Civil Rights decision marked an important victory, the Biden administration is currently leaving the International Holocaust Remembrance Association (IHRA) definition of antisemitism on the table for potential adoption in December 2023. The struggle is not over yet.
The Office for Civil Rights decision came after anti-Palestinian lobby groups pressed for the Department of Education to formalize Donald Trump’s 2019 executive order, which asks government agencies to consider the discredited and disputed definition of antisemitism promoted by the IHRA when assessing discrimination charges at public schools and universities.
Thankfully, the Office for Civil Rights declined to adopt the IHRA definition in its most recent fact sheet, which outlines protections for Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu and Buddhist students, without suppressing the Palestinian liberation movement.
Adopting the IHRA definition would have been harmful because rather than addressing the roots of antisemitism in Christian hegemony and white supremacy, the definition acts as though criticism of Israel is the source of antisemitism. In fact, 6 out of 10 examples of antisemitism offered within the IHRA definition involve speech that is critical of Israel. For instance, it suggests that a primary example of antisemitism involves “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.”
The IHRA definition’s harm is twofold: First, it weaponizes the idea of antisemitism as a tool for criminalizing the speech and advocacy of Palestinians and those working in solidarity with them; and second, it obscures what actual antisemitism is actually about. And in doing so, it wrongly and dangerously pits Palestinian liberation against Jewish safety.
Defenders of the Israeli government have already weaponized the IHRA definition to legally target or threaten classroom discussions, guest lecturers, film screenings and student organizing in support of Palestinian freedom. These attacks threaten the core mission of universities: to promote critical inquiry and freedom of expression in order for us to learn. The IHRA definition has been used to attempt to shut down educational events, and some have even suggested attaching criminal penalties to it — all for trying to confront Israel’s historical and ongoing practices of settler colonialism, ethnic cleansing and land dispossession.
The IHRA definition also obscures the identities of anti-Zionist Jews such as ourselves, who reject the idea of a Jewish nation-state. With a long history of Jewish opposition to Zionism, we see anti-Zionism as an essential part of our Jewish values and central to our Jewish identities. As such, we refuse to allow the willful misrepresentation of our Judaism in order to target our Palestinian peers. The IHRA definition is a prime example of how this misrepresentation has been disseminated into institutions. This is a reality that we have witnessed firsthand on our campuses.
In three years of organizing with The George Washington University’s chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, we have witnessed and been directly implicated in our university’s intentional conflation of anti-Zionism with antisemitism.
This past fall, George Washington University professor Lara Sheehi was baselessly accused of antisemitism by StandWithUs, a notoriously anti-Palestinian and right-wing activist group, for voicing political opinions that critiqued Zionism when discussing Israel with a class of doctoral students. StandWithUs filed the legal complaint directly with the Department of Education. This is a foremost example of why the Office for Civil Rights decision to reject the IHRA definition is vital; had it been institutionalized, the claims against Sheehi would have legal standing. Despite this, the school’s administration has legitimized the targeting of Sheehi by conducting an independent investigation, deviating from their standard of internal processes and thus, directly discriminating against Sheehi.
This is just one example of George Washington University’s incessant pattern of anti-Palestinian discrimination, much of which operates under the guise of fighting antisemitism and protecting Jewish students. What is dishearteningly ironic about George Washington University’s involvement in this case is that it does not protect anyone. Instead, the university’s permittance of a nonaffiliated right-wing organization to target one of their own professors further perpetuates anti-Arab discrimination, suppresses academic freedom, and makes their students and faculty more vulnerable to external threats.
At Berkeley, Law Students for Justice in Palestine invited student organizations to adopt a bylaw against hosting Zionist speakers in solidarity with the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. The ensuing backlash was intense. Media outlets parroted false narratives that the boycott was inherently antisemitic, leading to doxxing, harassment and targeted threats against primarily students of color. In fact, Ken Marcus, a Trump Office for Civil Rights appointee and major proponent of the IHRA definition, was responsible for fabricating a claim that the bylaw led to “Jewish-free zones” at Berkeley Law. After Marcus’s article went viral, multiple organizations sent trucks to our campus that blasted students’ names and branded them as antisemites. Drivers of the trucks harassed Muslim students walking to class and even followed members of Law Students for Justice in Palestine to their homes. Faculty canceled classes to protect students’ safety.
Like at George Washington University, this harassment unsurprisingly did not make Jewish students feel any safer. It only incited violence against our peers. If adopted, the IHRA definition would provide legal credibility to the targeted harassment faced by Palestine solidarity organizers at campuses like Berkeley and George Washington University. Anti-Zionist Jewish students could potentially be liable for “discriminating” against our own community. Even Kenneth Stern, the key architect of IHRA, opposed its adoption by federal agencies, emphasizing that IHRA is only a working definition that was “never intended” to restrict campus speech.
More broadly, the IHRA definition misrepresents and fails to combat the roots of antisemitism. It overwhelmingly defines antisemitism as mere individual prejudice — “hatred toward Jews” — which obfuscates how antisemitism is fueled by white nationalism and global capitalism. Isolating antisemitism, rather than understanding its place in the same systems that uphold racism and xenophobia, will only place both Palestinian and Jewish students in more danger.
This intentional deviation from the collective fight against institutional oppression will inherently leave other communities of students — students of color, disabled students, queer students — behind. In order to ensure Jewish students’ safety, we have to fight for all students’ safety. This is a principal belief that is integral to political struggles at universities across the country, which include the ones we organize with on our respective campuses. In order to dismantle antisemitism, we need to build safety through solidarity with movements on and off campus that are resisting white supremacy, capitalism, policing, settler colonialism and militarism.
While we celebrate the Office for Civil Rights decision against codifying the IHRA definition into law as a movement victory, the fight isn’t over yet. Zionist organizations will continue to pressure the Office for Civil Rights to make IHRA into law under the guise of fighting antisemitism. While the Biden administration considers the IHRA definition, it is more critical than ever to maintain collective pressure across all levels. This includes holding individual campus administrators accountable, petitioning your university student associations and calling for fellow organizers to publicly resist efforts to silence the Palestinian freedom movement. At George Washington University, Berkeley, and all universities across the United States, it’s crucial that we as Jews, as students, and as organizers in the collective fight toward liberation, continue to challenge the marginalization of students.
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