Why I signed the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism

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(photo: Mark Kerrison / Alamy Live News
The damage done by the IHRA definition of antisemitism is profound.

By Barry Trachtenberg | Jewish Currents | Mar 26, 2021

Although I remain apprehensive about inadvertently reinforcing beliefs in Jewish exceptionalism, the widespread adoption and abuse of the flawed IHRA definition has convinced me that it needs outright replacement

In the fall of 2017, in my capacity as a scholar of Jewish history, I advised the US House Judiciary Committee to reject codifying into law definitions of antisemitism such as those that were contained in the “Anti-Semitism Awareness Act,” which was then under consideration by Congress. I objected to the language of the bill, which was based on the definition of antisemitism adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA)—a definition that equates valid criticism of Israel and Zionism with antisemitism and has thus become a tool for the suppression of protected speech. But I was also concerned with the possibility that the legislation would inadvertently reinforce perceptions of Jewish exceptionalism: By claiming that there was a need for a set of standards that was distinct from existing civil rights legislation and which defined what could and couldn’t be said about Jews, I argued, Congress not only risked putting unconstitutional limits on free speech, but also risked reinforcing the idea that Jews are a people for whom special rules need to be made. I testified that at the core of anti-Jewish hatred rests the belief that Jews are exceptionally unique in the world, and that by making legislation that was focused exclusively on antisemitism rather than religious, racial, and ethnic hatred more broadly, Congress would be singling out Jews in a way that would run contrary to the stated goals of the legislation.

Yet now, in spite of this concern, I am a signatory to the newly released Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism (JDA), which puts forth its own definition of antisemitism and a set of guidelines for how to identify what is and is not antisemitism. Furthermore, I was active in the scholarly conversations that resulted in its drafting. Like many of my colleagues, I participated in the effort to produce the JDA to curb the growing momentum by the state of Israel and many of its supporters to wield the IHRA definition to restrict valid criticisms of the state, often in the form of political organizing that targets it. Although I remain apprehensive about inadvertently reinforcing beliefs in Jewish exceptionalism, the widespread adoption and abuse of the flawed IHRA definition has convinced me that it needs outright replacement. As the result of more than a year of conversations by an international group of scholars from the fields of antisemitism, Jewish, Holocaust, and Middle East studies, the JDA is a vast improvement on the IHRA definition. While it is not a perfect document, and has indeed already been subject to important criticisms from those who argue, among other points, that it doesn’t go far enough to unseat the IHRA definition, the JDA has the potential to make a significant impact both in countering antisemitism and in preventing critics of Israel and Zionism from being smeared as antisemites.

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