We need a better definition of anti-Semitism

People visit the Yad Vashem museum on Jan. 27, 2019, in Jerusalem. (photo: Ilia Yefimovich / Getty Images)
A popular working definition adopted by the U.S. government is overly broad and politicized.

By Joshua Shanes and Dov Waxman | Slate | Mar 26, 2021

Scholars, students, activists, and even artists have been branded anti-Semites (even when they are Jewish) for opposing Zionism, advocating for a Palestinian right of return, or promoting the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign against Israel.

During a period when far-right, white nationalist, and anti-Semitic extremists have been parading and brawling on the streets of American cities, storming and looting the U.S. Capitol, and even murdering Jews in their places of worship, debating the definition of anti-Semitism might seem to be a trivial and pedantic academic exercise. Yet it has become a hotly contested, politically controversial issue, not only in the United States, but also in other Western democracies, including Germany and the United Kingdom.

The focus of the controversy is a brief “working definition” of anti-Semitism, initially published by a European Union agency in 2005 for the purpose of classifying and tracking incidents of anti-Semitism in EU countries. The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, an intergovernmental body, formally adopted this working definition in 2016. Since then, the IHRA definition, as it has become known, has been officially adopted or endorsed by more than 30 governments, including the United States. When President Trump issued an executive order on combating anti-Semitism in December 2019, it explicitly directed all U.S. federal agencies to “consider” this definition, particularly when enforcing anti-discrimination laws, such as Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. There have also been bills introduced in Congress seeking to codify the IHRA definition into U.S. law, which the American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights organizations have so far succeeded in blocking due to their concern that the definition could be used to censor or chill free speech.

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