Opinion: Oppose Minnesota Hillel’s referendum to adopt the IHRA’s working definition of antisemitism

For an educational institution that prides itself on free intellectual exchange, the referendum’s proposed adoption of the IHRA definition is extremely problematic and effectively shuts down free speech and academic freedom.


Image by Sarah Mai

We are a group of Jewish and allied students, faculty and alumni who care deeply about the Jewish community. We write in opposition to Minnesota Hillel’s referendum for the upcoming campus elections, which encourages the University of Minnesota to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism. Antisemitism is an increasingly dangerous threat to Jews and democratic values worldwide and should be taken seriously. However, the IHRA definition does not lessen the threat of antisemitism and, concerningly, has been used to conflate legitimate criticism of Israel with antisemitism, obstructing political and academic freedom.

For an educational institution that prides itself on free intellectual exchange, the referendum’s proposed adoption of the IHRA definition is extremely problematic and effectively shuts down free speech and academic freedom. We join hundreds of academics, (including more than 50 academics specializing in antisemitism, Jewish and Holocaust history), Jewish, civil rights and academic organizations, and the Union of Reform Judaism in opposing the IHRA definition’s legal use and codification. Although Minnesota Hillel’s referendum is nonbinding, we believe the IHRA definition has no place at the University since it has already been wielded against free speech at other universities to distressing effects. 

In spaces where the IHRA definition has been codified, it has been used to silence those, especially Palestinians, who are critical of Israeli human rights abuses and violations of international law. Independent Jewish Voices Canada documented 38 instances of the IHRA definition being used to criminalize criticism of Israel in North America and western Europe. In addition, under former President Trump, the State Department weaponized the IHRA definition to declare the groups Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch as “antisemitic.” The danger of the referendum lies in the broad nature of the IHRA definition, as well as a clause that defines antisemitism as “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of the State of Israel is a racist endeavor.” While individuals who support oppressive policies toward Palestinians may feel uncomfortable listening to condemnations of structural racism and colonialism in Israel, to say that such speech is antisemitic is outrageous. Since more than half of the 11 examples of antisemitism in the IHRA definition are about Israel, we remain concerned that it will be used to silence all criticism of Israel — not just in regards to its treatment of Palestinians, but also in regards to its asylum policies, arms sales and the fact that, under international law, the current state of Israel has been an occupying power for over half a century.

The IHRA definition suppresses free speech, a First Amendment right. The lead author of the IHRA working definition, Kenneth Stern, has stated publicly in multiple op-eds and testified in Congress that it was not written to be an official hate speech code and that its use as such by the Trump administration and campus groups “is an attack on academic freedom and free speech, and will harm not only pro-Palestinian advocates, but also Jewish students and faculty, and the academy itself.” After Florida State University adopted the IHRA definition of antisemitism, one professor reportedly stopped teaching about Israel-Palestine for fear of repercussions. We are concerned about a similar muting of academic discourse at the University of Minnesota. Where the IHRA definition is codified into policy, it discourages students and professors from discussing Israel and Palestine, and from investigating issues of nationalism and world conflict more broadly. Former President Trump’s Executive Order 13899, based on the IHRA definition, prompted condemnation from the editorial boards of three major newspapers, showing this issue has repercussions beyond the academy.

The IHRA definition also ignores threats to Jewish safety, historically and structurally posed by white supremacy, which are of urgent concern. According to renowned Jewish-American scholar Judith Butler, “if the charge of antisemitism is used to defend Israel at all costs, then its power when used against those who do discriminate against Jews — who do violence to synagogues in Europe, wave Nazi flags or support anti-semitic organizations — is radically diluted. The IHRA definition fails to specifically focus on white supremacists, even though they are some of the largest sources of antisemitic threats and violence in most recent years. By making criticisms of Israel a focal point instead, it does not effectively protect the safety of Jews or our allies. After the events of January 6 at the Capitol and the recent upswing in anti-Asian violence, it is more important than ever to address antisemitism in a way that clearly connects with all other forms of racism, oppression and discrimination.

Regardless of Minnesota Hillel’s intentions in introducing this referendum, the IHRA working definition will cause more harm than good and not alleviate antisemitism. Students should vote against this referendum.

The authors of this OpEd submission include Kenza El Abdallaoui, a CLA undergraduate student; Tamara Walsky, a MS Water Resources Science candidate; Mikaela Ziegler, a Master of Public Policy candidate; Josie Slovut, a CFANS undergraduate student; and Josh Spitzer-Resnick, a CLA undergraduate student.

Note: As of 4:47 p.m. on March 19, this open letter was signed by at least 182 University of Minnesota community members. The full list of signatories and original OpEd can be found here.