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Taylie Kawakami

Last November, the Northeastern Student Government Association (SGA) passed a resolution condemning anti-Semitism in a form similar to previous resolutions condemning racism and white supremacy. But unlike other SGA resolutions that are largely performative and accomplish nothing, the passage of this one was misguided and actively destructive, for it adopted the controversial IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) definition of antisemitism. 

Of course, one would not know just how controversial it is based on the word of Senator Josh Glickman, who claimed the resolution, which was accompanied by a petition signed by less than 300 Jewish students, represented “the unanimous backing of the Jewish community.” Even so, the resolution acknowledges that the Northeastern Jewish community numbers nearly 1,200 students. The backing Glickman speaks of is a far cry from unanimous.

The IHRA definition has been rejected by Jewish organizations IfNotNow and Jewish Voices for Peace, which recognize it as a political tool for stifling criticism of Israel. Greater Boston Area Judaism On Our Own Terms recently published an op-ed in the Huntington News that criticizes Northeastern Hillel’s Standards of Partnership, which heavily promote IHRA. The very man who drafted it, Kenneth Stern, stated “it was never intended to be a campus hate speech code.” But SGA senators were not made aware of any of this when voting; they were simply led to believe that any opposition, any questioning of the motives of the bill sponsors, was secret bigotry. 

But with this context in mind, our scorn should primarily be directed towards the definition in question. The IHRA working definition reads as follows:

“Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

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Confused? Don’t be. The vagueness is intentional: one cannot walk away with a better understanding of anti-Semitism after having read this definition. Considering the fact that the SGA resolution criticizes a past condemnation of white supremacy for not delineating its component of anti-Semitism, it's strange to see this ambiguity replicated. The IHRA definition does nothing to recognize how antisemitism is intrinsically linked with racism and white supremacy.

The only form of speech the IHRA definition is concerned with is that surrounding Israel. When it comes to that, the utmost care is taken to shut down free speech and protect the country from even the slightest of critique. Out of the eleven examples of anti-Semitism the definition provides, seven of them mention Israel. Because the working definition is so nebulous, it allows it the examples to do the heavy lifting of determining what is or isn’t anti-Semitic. Even if one does not wish to be critical of Israel, one should reject a definition that diminishes a plague that faces 7.1 million Americans to criticism of a foreign state. 

Rather, the definition is intended to be used as a weapon against criticism of Israel and to silence pro-Palestinian activism and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. But don’t take my word for it. Again, we can appeal to the words of the definition’s author, decrying its adoption by the Trump administration: “This order is an attack on academic freedom and free speech, and will harm not only pro-Palestinian advocates, but also Jewish students and faculty.” Independent Jewish Voices Canada has already documented 38 instances of the definition being used in such a way.

It is worth considering how unique and odious such a definition is. There is not one other definition of racism against a particular group that is codified in Title VI law, as Donald Trump’s 2019 executive order created. Anti-Black racism, anti-Asian racism, and Islamophobia have no working definitions recognized by the government. 

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One example IHRA gives is “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.” The inclusion of this example makes it clear that under the IHRA, all anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism—an absurd proposition. Though the United Nations recognizes that all people have the right to self-determination, it has never stated that this equates to statehood and manufactured political hegemony. If it had, we’d see claims that those who do not recognize the legitimacy of Catalonia, Kurdistan or any of the over 60 active secessionist movements are racist. 

Zionism holds that there is a unique right to a Jewish state, with a Jewish majority. To maintain this goal, it is acceptable, even necessary, for 20% of its citizens, Palestinian and Arab-Israelis, to be kept as second-class citizens, and for an even larger population to be kept entirely dispossessed, unable to vote or exercise its own self-determination. To be kept under conditions the United Nations has deemed “unlivable,” by an occupying power that would like nothing more than to see them “sink into the sea.” Interestingly enough, America is familiar with this principle in its own history, through Jim Crow. White supremacists in the South maintained political control where they could not prevail by disenfranchising Black voters through legal and extralegal means. We have no trouble recognizing this practice as racist and wrong. Yet under the IHRA definition, it is anti-Semitic to apply this same logic to the Israeli occupation and apartheid.

The calculus that holds that self-determination for Jews can only mean the right to a state that privileges them is flawed. All people have the right to determine their own identity, but Zionism is not an identity; it is an ideology that affects more than just Israelis. Palestinians have an equal right to self-determination, but IHRA holds that Israeli supremacy supersedes it.

By making speech surrounding Israel their primary focus, IHRA’s proponents reveal they are not at all concerned with combating the very real and rising threat of anti-Semitism. It refuses to acknowledge the fact that the greatest threats to the Jewish people come not from the anti-Zionists, but the growing far-right in America and Europe. The adoption of the IHRA definition has done nothing to curb the resurgent far-right in Germany, which is responsible for 90% of anti-Semitic hate crimes. 

The ridiculousness of equating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism can be seen in the fact that many anti-Semites themselves are Zionists! Donald Trump, Viktor Orban and Richard Spencer, all men who have openly telegraphed their anti-Semitism, count themselves as Zionists. This has been so since the beginning of the Zionist movement, as anti-Semites have supported a Jewish state for the explicit reason that they did not like having Jews in their own state. 

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Yet under the IHRA definition, these individuals are not classified as anti-Semites. Instead, anyone who opposes violent occupation and settler colonialism that violates our most basic beliefs about democracy is labeled as the real bigot. We should reject any such supposition. 

For these reasons, and countless more, the SGA must repeal its resolution adopting the IHRA definition. It was wrong to push it through with minimal student input—in a year where awareness of campus affairs is at an all-time low due to COVID-19— while silencing the voices of the advocates for Palestine the definition is intended to target. 

The SGA need not turn its back on the very real problem of anti-Semitism; it can adopt the recently released Jerusalem Declaration, signed by over 200 esteemed scholars on anti-Semitism, which removes the elements of the IHRA definition that are intended to stifle Palestinian voices. But there can be no excuse for tone policing and repressing Palestinian cries for liberation. By repealing this disgraceful resolution, the SGA would take the necessary steps towards creating a campus atmosphere where activism is not only permitted but encouraged. At the nation’s second most “liberal” university, we cannot render advocacy for Palestine as the only exception.