March 30, 2021
Israel, Palestine, and the charge of Antisemitism
In the 1970s, as awareness grew of Israel's human rights violations, neoconservatives in the United States introduced the idea that anti-Zionism was the "new antisemitism." These writers and political figures attempted to associate criticism of Israel with the political left. For them, any attack on the carefully burnished image of Israel as a democratic paradise not only threatened political and financial support for Israel, but challenged the image of America as a defender of equality and freedom at home and abroad. Since that time, the charge of antisemitism, veiled or explicit, has become all too familiar to anyone, Jewish or not, who has raised questions about Israel's human rights violations. The charge has come not only from the right but from even the most progressive camps.
The struggle for Palestinian rights has surfaced important issues regarding Jewish identity and Christian-Jewish relations. As awareness of Israel's human rights crimes increases, the emptiness of the promise of a Palestinian state becomes apparent, and international support grows for the Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, the weaponization of the charge of antisemitism has reached a new level. Christians in particular have been pressured to conflate criticism of the State of Israel with supporting antisemitism. The 2020 "Cry for Hope: A call for Decisive Action" issued by Kairos Palestine and the Global Kairos for Justice coalition raises the issue directly. It calls on churches to "Oppose antisemitism by working for justice against anti-Judaism, racism and xenophobia; oppose the equating of criticism of Israel’s unjust actions with antisemitism."
In the ensuing months, the controversy over what antisemitism is and what it has to do with Israel and Palestine has intensified, in particular over the adoption of the Working Definition of anti-semitism of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). Ratified in 2016 by the 31 countries of the IHRA and adopted or recognized by 18 countries, including the US State Department, Germany, France, Israel, Cyprus and other European nations, the IHRA definition has been criticized for conflating anti-Zionism with antisemitism and for being used as a tool to muzzle criticism of Israel.
In December we reported on a letter from a group of 122 Palestinian intellectuals, academics and journalists protesting how "the fight against antisemitism has been increasingly instrumentalized by the Israeli government and its supporters in an effort to delegitimize the Palestinian cause and silence defenders of Palestinian rights." The letter provides an excellent overview of the issues and powerful articulation of the human rights principles, for Jews as well as Palestinians, that are at stake with the adoption of the IHRA definition.
Recently, group of Jewish scholars at the University of Southern California who have been studying the charge of antisemitism on campuses have come out in criticism of the IHRA definition. Their report describes “a disturbing trend to politicize and exploit antisemitism and Israel [that] is growing in conservative and right-wing political circles.”

Philip Weiss of Mondoweiss describes how pro-Israel interests in the U.S. seek to extend the IHRA definition even further in response to voices in the U.S. Congress that are calling attention to Israel's human rights violations.
As we were preparing this newsletter, an important document has appeared. ""Because the IHRA Definition is unclear in key respects and widely open to different interpretations, it has caused confusion and generated controversy, hence weakening the fight against antisemitism.” So reads The Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism. Developed by an international group of scholars, the JDA is a response to the Working Definition of Antisemitism adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). It states its goals as "(1) to strengthen the fight against antisemitism by clarifying what it is and how it is manifested, (2) to protect a space for an open debate about the vexed question of the future of Israel/Palestine."

Signed by over 240 prominent scholars and clergy from all over the world, including Israel, The JDA website explains: “The IHRA Definition” (including its “examples”) is neither clear nor coherent. Whatever the intentions of its proponents, it blurs the difference between antisemitic speech and legitimate criticism of Israel and Zionism. This causes confusion, while delegitimizing the voices of Palestinians and others, including Jews, who hold views that are sharply critical of Israel and Zionism. None of this helps combat antisemitism."

Finally, here is the appeal of Robert Cohen to the Jewish Board of Deputies of the UK -- an organization, with counterparts in the U.S, Canada, Germany, South Africa and other countries, which purports to speak for the entire Jewish community and is a fierce defender of Israel and Zionism. Cohen urges the Board of Deputies to reject the IHRA definition.

"I’ve reluctantly come to the conclusion," writes Cohen, "that those who have been promoting the IHRA don’t really care about Jews, Judaism or our current and future relationship with other ethnic/religious minority groups, in particular the Palestinian people. If I’m right, this is a state of affairs which suggests a mighty failure at the heart of Jewish communal leadership".

"Decolonizing antisemitism," explains Cohen, begins by decolonizing Jewish identity: "The situation in Israel/Palestine creates a profound ethical problem for anyone who cares about justice, fairness and equality; anyone who cares about Jewish history; anyone who cares about the Jewish ethical tradition." And so, he concludes, "if you want a constructive and unifying debate about antisemitism; if you want to decolonise Jewish identity; and if you want to chart a route to a reconciled Israel/Palestine, then for the love of God, ditch the IHRA!"

See Robert Cohen interviewed by the Indiana Center for Middle East Peace on Wednesday, March 31, 2:00pm ET  
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