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Who’s Behind Push for States to Codify Weaponized Definition of Antisemitism?

At least eight states are pursuing new legislation as part of a coordinated push by a notorious right-wing group.

Highlighted English word "antisemitism" and its definition in the dictionary.

On January 31, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed House Bill 30, codifying the definition of antisemitism, as formulated by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), into state law. According to the legislation, law enforcement agencies in the state must consider the definition in the course of their enforcement. As the definition explicitly references criticism of Israel, pro-Palestinian activists fear it may open them up to prosecution, and even hate crimes charges, simply for organizing against the ongoing Israeli genocide in Gaza or occupation of Palestine in general.

“This is a desperate attempt to discredit criticism of Israel,” Sandra Tamari of the Adalah Justice Project told Truthout. “The Palestine movement is demanding an end to genocide and calling for freedom and equality.”

HB 30 makes no direct mention of Israel, but in remarks at its signing, Governor Kemp tied the bill’s passage to “the horrific terrorist attacks in Israel on October 7 that claimed the lives of over 1,200 Israelis.” In contrast, he made no mention of the ongoing Israeli genocide in Gaza, which has claimed the lives of at least 27,968 Palestinians, according to Al Jazeera at the time of this writing. Kemp couldn’t have mentioned the genocide at all — unless he wanted to be charged with antisemitism.

In a growing attempt to repress criticism of Israel, Georgia is the latest of 10 states to adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism into law. Although many of the states that have recently adopted, or are considering adopting, the IHRA definition are doing so in the aftermath of October 7, the Israeli government and pro-Israel organizations in the United States have been working with lobbyists to silence Israel’s critics for years.

“The Working Definition of Antisemitism”

Bills like HB 30 do not explicitly reference Israel. They reference “the working definition of antisemitism and the contemporary examples of antisemitism adopted by the [IHRA]” — which does explicitly reference Israel.

The IHRA is a Swedish-founded inter-governmental agency, which now includes 35 member countries, including Israel, and nine observer countries. Although the IHRA was ostensibly founded to combat Holocaust denialism, its definition of antisemitism was in fact a response to the Second Intifada, an uprising by Palestinians against the ongoing Israeli occupation, as Lara Friedman of the Foundation for Middle East Peace (FMEP) points out. Organizations committed to Zionism, or Jewish nationalism, like the American Jewish Committee, expressly sought a definition of antisemitism that would include anti-Zionism, and the IHRA’s working definition gave it to them in 2016.

Although the IHRA’s “Working Definition of Antisemitism” concedes that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic,” it goes on to list specific examples of criticism often leveled by anti-Zionists that it defines as antisemitic. These examples are broad enough to include any criticism of Israel’s well-documented apartheid regime in the West Bank (“claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor”) to opposition of its ongoing genocide in Gaza (“drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis”).

The IHRA describes its definition of antisemitism as “non-legally binding” — but that hasn’t stopped Israel and its lobbyists from trying to make it into law.

“The Right Legislation in Place”

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is a notorious right-wing “bill mill” that brings together special interests and politicians to craft “model legislation” to lobby for in federal and state legislatures. Documents obtained by the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) reveal that ALEC charges special interest groups up to $60,000 to sponsor various events during its annual meetings, which it boasts are attended by “state and local elected officials from across the country.” Presumably, ALEC also charges for development of model resolutions, such as its recent “Resolution to Affirm Support for Israel and to Condemn Hamas,” as well as its lobbying, like its recent letter to President Joe Biden demanding support for Israel, which was signed by 120 legislators.

While ALEC pitches “sponsorships” primarily to business interests, David Armiak of CMD notes that the lobbyists appear to have a unique relationship with the Israeli government. CMD has been unable to uncover the standard Foreign Agents Registration Act disclosure that would be required of Israeli representatives involved in political activities in the U.S., as with ALEC, but Armiak points out that Israel has long circumvented such regulations — for example, when advancing laws curbing the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which endorses economic opposition to the Israeli occupation of Palestine, as detailed in the documentary Boycott.

“ALEC has been captured by the Israeli government,” Armiak told Truthout, “There is no other country that ALEC goes out on a limb for like they do for Israel.”

Armiak sees ALEC’s fingerprints all over the recent wave of laws adopting the IHRA definition of antisemitism, not only because many of the sponsors are politicians tied to the organization but because ALEC itself has endorsed them.

In 2021, ALEC hosted two panels related to Israel during its “States and Nation Policy Summit” in San Diego, California, one of which was billed as a workshop for legislators on “how to recognize antisemitism in all its modern devastation.” CMD was able to obtain audio of the panel, which included Elise Steinberg of the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles, Utah Senate President and ALEC Board Member Stuart Adams and Elan Carr of the Israeli American Council. The panel is extraordinary, as it features a representative of a foreign government, Steinberg, and legislators like Adams explicitly discussing how to curtail the freedom of U.S. citizens to criticize said foreign government.

“The scourge of antisemitism in the United States, one of its latest manifestations, has been in the form of what’s called anti-Zionism,” Steinberg said on the panel. She went on to say that:

Anti-Zionism is a fancy intellectual debate on the campuses of the United States which seeks to delegitimize the State of Israel. But what it does, in a sense, is actually seek to delegitimize the Jewish people in the United States and throughout the world — and to that end, delegitimize America and democracy and freedom.… We need to have the discussion about what it does to the morals of both of our countries but also to ensure that we have the right legislation in place.

In response, Carr refers to the IHRA definition of antisemitism, acknowledges that some states have already adopted it and advocates for more to do so:

The good news here is that we’ve got a template, a vehicle for defining antisemitism, and it’s called the [IHRA] working definition of antisemitism.… We’re seeing a lot of states, through executive order or proclamation by governors, endorse and adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism.… Every day, more states are doing it. And how powerful would it be if representatives, the voice of the people, adopt this legislatively?

Steinberg concludes by saying that, “As a consulate, I hope that all legislators can count on us as a resource in terms of any assistance that we can provide in implementing these laws. The definition of the IHRA really brings the antisemitism that we are seeing up to date.”

More recently, CMD obtained an email from ALEC advertising another panel, on February 3, about adopting the IHRA definition of antisemitism. This one was organized by ALEC’s Karla Jones and led by the Combat Antisemitism Movement, which includes Carr and former Israeli politicians, such as Natan Sharansky and Danny Danon, as well as lobbyists like Jerami Schecter.

Prior to October 7, the Israeli government and ALEC had limited success in pushing states to adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism. From 2018 to 2023, only nine states — Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas — passed laws adopting the definition, according to FMEP. Since October 7, Georgia joined that list; seven more states — Indiana, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Pennsylvania and South Dakota — are considering similar legislation. No less than 15 related bills are before Congress.

“In the Course of Such Enforcement”

As Carr alluded to during the ALEC event in 2021, the means by which states are adopting the IHRA definition of antisemitism vary. While 15 states and Washington, D.C., have adopted it by proclamation or executive order, giving it less than the full weight of law, the ones listed above have enshrined it, or are considering enshrining it, in legislation.

Even then, there remains some variety among the laws in regard to how, or against whom, the IHRA definition will be used. South Carolina, the first state to adopt the definition in legislation, did so in its state budget for 2018. The IHRA definition is nested in a subsection on higher education, instructing all state colleges and universities to consider it in prohibiting discriminatory practices. Clearly, the inclusion of the IHRA definition here is intended to be wielded against students, faculty and administrators in academia — where antisemitism is “orthodoxy,” claims Carr.

Even more troubling, however, is the application of the IHRA definition in the context of law enforcement. This is the case with HB 30 in Georgia, which instructs all state law enforcement agencies to “consider the definition of antisemitism in the course of such enforcement.” It takes very little imagination to see how routine expressions of anti-Zionism — such as chants, literature or artwork — may now be considered evidence of hate crimes in Georgia, as well as the other states that have adopted, or may soon adopt, similar legislation.

In contrast to Kemp’s statement upon his signing of HB 30, anti-Zionists see the proliferation of such laws as an attempt to quash the growing movement against the Israeli genocide in Gaza, as well as its occupation of Palestine in general.

“Millions of people across the U.S. have taken to the streets to demand a ceasefire in Gaza and hold our government accountable for its role in Israel’s ongoing genocide,” said Tamari of the Adalah Justice Project. “As more and more Americans wake up to the realities of Israel’s violent apartheid regime, pro-Israel lobby groups are openly revealing their disregard for democracy and free speech by working hand-in-hand with right-wing forces like ALEC.”

“Dark efforts to smear and silence our demands for freedom, if successful, will set a dangerous precedent for stifling First Amendment rights in the future.”

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