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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.
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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.  

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  • watermark0n
    Mar 22, 2021 at 1:17 pm

    The IHRA vaguely claims that not all critiscism of Israel is antisemitic. In practice this portion has no effect, and the examples are interpreted as broadly as possible without any good faith attempt at reading the context, to catch in as broad a brush as possible as many critics of Israel as it can. The IHRA statement in practice is disingenuous, it is meaningless legally and only placed there to mollify concerns.

    Right wing antisemitism is not a concern to the people who promote this definition because the people who do so are usually far right nationalists and islamophobes, who are only supportive of Israel due to its current control by far right nationalist populists which they see as harming the interests of Muslims whom the hate. Rather than any real love or support of the Jewish people themselves. Statements such as, “I hate Jews, but love Israel” are extremely common among American right wingers when talking in confidence. But of course that are never punished for statements like this, even though it’s clearly antisemitic, because the only concern is supporting the far right populist ideology in control of nations like Hungary, Poland, and Israel. Why would they attack their own? The Jewish people themselves, they could care less.

    We need to oppose all far right regimes that threaten democracy, and not give into the tricks of the far right nationalists and the lapdogs of Christian evangelicalis.

  • watermark0n
    Mar 22, 2021 at 1:35 pm

    The Jews are the descendants of Canaanites and the Palestinians are the descendants of Arabized Canaanites. Both have a valid claim to the land. People such as the far right populist nationalist prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, frequently spreads fake news and disinformation in order to deny their link to the land and claim that there was some massive colonization campaign from the Arabian penuinsala there is absolutely no record of.

    Outside of Judea the holy land has always been populated by other groups of Canaanites like the Samaritans, the Amonites, the Edomites, Moabites. It was never the case that the entire land was homogenously populated by just Jewish Canaanites. During the Macabees there were extensive efforts at forced conversion of the newly conquered populations, however many of these were weakly attached, and later converted to Christianity or Islam. Other Palestinians may have been Jewish converts to Islam.

    When the Jewish kingdom was destroyed by the Roman’s in a brutal genocide, the Jewish Canaanites were dispersed and left as a majority nowhere in the holy land. But the diaspora existed elsewhere.

    Because Judaism is an ethnoreligion though that have a valid claim to decent from the area. There are Jewish converts but it is a long a process that involves taking on Jewish culture yourself. If we are to accept that immigration flows in and out of Palestine did not invalidate the claim of the Arabized Canaanites to the land, we can’t either say that a flow is converts in and out somehow invalidate the Jews claim to the land. People who doubt the Jews descent from the region are deeply misguided, genetic studies show that the Jews and Palestinians have extremely similar DNA.

    If we were to take the extreme right Israeli prime ministers claim seriously though, these DNA studies would disprove the Jews own link to the land, and instead prove that the Jews were originated from Saudi Arabia apparently, since that’s where he says the Palestinians he shares DNA with come from. It is the extreme right prime Minister of Israel, not I, who is denying the Jews linkage to the land.

  • watermark0n
    Mar 22, 2021 at 1:05 pm

    The IHRA is not a definition, it’s a page length speech code buried within a definition. It is utterly unlike any other definition of hatred for any other group that exists.

    It also hilariously includes many attempts to downplay its effects within its text, such as saying its “not legally binding”, or that violation of the examples “is not necessarily antisemitism” and that that there only for elucidation. When in practice when adopted like this, they are legally binding of course. As well in practice the actual definition is never even cited by people when accusing, as it is vague and common sense. ONLY the examples are ever cited, and their meaning is eagerly stretched to almost absurd lengths to catch critiscism of Israel in as broad a brush as possible with practically no attempt at good faith interpretation of context.

    Every other definition of group hatred that exists, is more or less similar to the short actual definition. Which in the IHRA, in all practical respects, could be entirely removed from the text without substantially altering its effective use in practice.

  • watermark0n
    Mar 22, 2021 at 12:58 pm

    It seems you are critiscizing Iran, is this not anti Iranian racism by your logic? Does hatred of Muslims not include hatred of their countries for some reason? Do they have a separate definition of hatred against them that is less exhaustive than the one concerning Jewish people?

  • Lorensacho
    Mar 21, 2021 at 8:37 am

    Instead of wasting time debating the definition of what is hatred of Jews which would certainly include hatred of their country, we should consider the ramifications of this statement:
    “Muslims do not want democracy. Anyone who says democratic republic is an enemy of Islam. All our miseries are caused by those who demand freedom. They want to build a Western society for Muslims in which you are free and independent but without a God, a prophet, or Imam. Without prayers and without martyrdom which is the highest goal for us.” — Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, 1980.

  • Ms. Pinky Stanseski
    Mar 19, 2021 at 11:59 pm

    I’m a graduate of the university of Scranton. I too oppose the IHRA, and I hope the IHRA is struck down as 100% unconstitutional everywhere in America, for a lot of reasons.

  • Lee
    Mar 19, 2021 at 6:37 pm

    “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.”

    Overwhelming, “condemnation of structural racism and colonialism in Israel” IS an express of Jew hatred. Jews have a historical claim to Israel; they had a state there; to label Israel as ‘colonial’ is to deny this truth, and Jew haters do this all the time. Similarly, Israel is constantly labeled as ‘racist’ by antisemites,’ of course without any acknowledgement that half of Israelis are Jews who came – or their parents did – from Arab countries (people of color, if you will), that about 20% of Israel citizens are Arab (who vote, serve in the governments, are judges, lawyers, police officers, are treated in the same hospitals as Jews, etc.) Israel went out of its way to bring tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews – not easy or inexpensive. The Palesinian Authority wants their new country to have no Jews.

    This is poor opinion piece. If there is a good argument to be made against adopting the definition in question, the authors have failed to make it.

  • BHCh
    Mar 19, 2021 at 6:12 pm

    1. Criticism of Israel can be reasonable, like criticism of any other country. Such criticism is specifically protected under IHRA.
    2. Criticism of Israel can be Antisemitic and use anti-Jewish tropes. These are the examples listed in the IHRA definition.
    3. Neo-Nazi antisemitism is well understood by the public. There is no need in clarifying it. Far left brands of Soviet-style antisemitism are less well understood. That’s why they are the focus.
    4. The “Jewish” groups mentioned in the letter are tiny and unrepresentative of the Jewish community. Yes, USSR had “Yevselziya”, Nazi Germany had “Organization of National Jews” and 2021 USA has “Blacks for Trump”. No, reading the claims of these organizations isn’t going to provide any helpful insights into the views of Jewish and other minorities.