3rd Thursday Alert: Tell President Biden: Holding the Government of Israel accountable for human rights abuses is not antisemitism
In his first month in office, President Joe Biden has taken several welcome steps to reverse some of the damage done by the Trump administration to U.S.-Palestine policy. However, the Biden administration’s apparent decision to endorse the IHRA’s working definition of antisemitism is a worrying move that could work to silence legitimate critique of Israeli government policies and squash productive dialogue.
The new administration has said that it will reinstate critical humanitarian aid to Palestinians and reopen the PLO’s diplomatic mission in Washington, D.C. It also announced that it will rejoin the UN Human Rights Council, from which the previous administration withdrew mostly in protest of its scrutiny of Israel. These steps are welcome reversals of harmful policies. However, this is not enough to change the oppressive status quo, and new steps are now being taken to suppress valid criticism of Israeli government actions taken in violation of international law and universal human rights standards.
Seven of the eleven accompanying illustrative examples in the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition pertain to Israel and could result in conflating criticism of Israel with antisemitism. The State Department announcement signals a dangerous trend toward stifling Palestinian advocacy and curtailing public debate. The author of the definition, US Attorney Kenneth Stern, has stated that the definition was never intended to curb political free speech. In a Jan 12 statement, ten pro-Israel Jewish groups “that care deeply about the State of Israel” called on federal, state, and university authorities to refrain from adopting the IHRA definition, saying its adoption is “primarily aimed at shielding the present Israeli government and its occupation from all criticism.” Allen Brownfield, of the American Council for Judaism, has distinguished between criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism as well.
“We insist that activists, academics and all citizens must have the right to express a wide range of political opinions without fear of being suppressed or smeared by the government,” said the group.
During a time of terrifying and violent antisemitism across this country, when just one month ago white supremacists and Nazis raged through the US Capitol bearing Confederate flags and Nazi gear, it is more important than ever that we work to challenge antisemitism in all its forms. But criticism of Israeli government policies cannot be considered hate speech. Rather than preventing hate speech against Jews, the IHRA definition is to be misused as a weapon to silence activists and further polarize conversation about policies and practices of the Israeli government.
The United Church of Christ has spoken out clearly in condemning anti-Semitism, “confess[ing] the sin of anti-Semitism and renounc[ing] it” in a General Synod resolution. Both the UCC and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) continue to oppose antisemitism and actively work against discrimination and hatred based on identity, including religious identity.