Opinion: Adopting the IHRA working definition of antisemitism would be a step toward curbing hate on campus

A couple of weeks ago, I completed the Student Experience in the Research University (SERU) survey for the fourth time during my undergraduate career at the University of Minnesota. And for the fourth time, I reported that I do not feel comfortable with my identity on campus.

Oren Rosenberg

Before I step outside on campus, I always make sure to tuck my Star of David necklace into my shirt in order to conceal an aspect of my identity of which I should be publicly proud. A couple of weeks ago, I completed the Student Experience in the Research University (SERU) survey for the fourth time during my undergraduate career at the University of Minnesota. And for the fourth time, I reported that I do not feel comfortable with my identity on campus. While I share in the outrage and collaborate with others to rectify the injustice and hate experienced by many minority communities on campus and throughout the country, I am often left to feel that my own community is neglected.

Jews comprise just 2% of the United States population, but according to the FBI, 60.3% of documented hate crimes in 2019 motivated by religious bias were anti-Jewish, up from 57.8% the year before. In 2020, the world was struck with an epidemic in the form of COVID-19 — but the epidemic of antisemitism is one that every Jew has lived with for thousands of years. Antisemitism, like a virus or pathogen, mutates over time: It may present as an inquisition, a holocaust, the cartoonization of Jews in media or the sign on an apartment complex that says “No Jews Allowed.” Today, the most dangerous strain of antisemitism is the anti-Israel variant.

On Friday, an open letter was published to the Minnesota Daily arguing that legitimate criticism of the Israeli government is not antisemitic. Their argument is correct — it is not antisemitic to criticize the Israeli government for its policies, and it is also a vital part of Israel’s democracy. Just as the policies of one presidential administration in the United States do not speak for the character of the American people, the actions of the Israeli government do not speak for the character of the Israeli people or the entire Jewish community. Furthermore, it must be stressed that the demonization of Israelis is in fact the demonization of the Jewish people, and is therefore antisemitic. Israel, as the sole Jewish homeland, comprises nearly half of the world’s Jewry. Israel, as the sole Jewish homeland, is a lifeline for the Jewish people. An attack on the existence of Israel, on Israelis as a people or on the right for Jews to self-determination is an attack on the lifeline of all Jews. 

This is the reason why the anti-Israel variant of antisemitism is so dangerous: It is difficult to detect, difficult to combat and difficult for many Jews to effectively articulate. It is much easier to point to a neo-Nazi or white supremacist and classify their actions as antisemitic. And while these forms of antisemitism are frightening, brutal and prevalent, you don’t see your friends rooting for their success. But regardless of its form, the age-old epidemic of antisemitism remains.

Fortunately, there is a vaccine.

In 2016, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) adopted the following working definition of antisemitism: “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.” The IHRA definition has since been adopted and recognized by 31 countries (including the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Guatemala, Argentina and Greece), 51 major national Jewish organizations (including the Union for Reform Judaism, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the Jewish National Fund and the American Jewish Congress), at least 22 universities in the United States and at least 77 universities in the United Kingdom, including the University of Oxford. This definition allows Jews to define what constitutes hate toward their community, a right every minority community should be allowed. How can we stop antisemitism if those perpetrating the antisemitic acts have a different definition than that of the Jewish people? And this is the will of the Jewish people. As referenced previously, the vast majority of national Jewish organizations and all of the Jewish or Israel-related organizations on campus, including Chabad, Hillel, AEPi, ΣΑΜ, GopherIsrael and Students Supporting Israel (which I lead) support this definition. 

This week, the University of Minnesota will be voting on a referendum on whether to adopt this definition. Although I am a senior and will be graduating this spring, I have Jewish friends and family who are only finishing their first year. I can only hope that by the time they reach their senior year, they can proudly display their Jewish identity on campus — that when they participate in the SERU survey, they will not hesitate to report that they feel at home at the University of Minnesota. Please vote “YES” for IHRA and help to make this possible.

This OpEd essay was submitted by Oren Rosenberg, a fourth-year Jewish student and the current president of Students Supporting Israel at the University of Minnesota. 

This letter has been lightly edited for style and clarity.