Calling Campuses to Adopt IHRA’s Definition of Antisemitism

The SSI movement has set itself an important goal this academic year. The national movement and its chapters are working on promoting the official adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism by student governments, academic departments, and school deans. For years, our community has been struggling to come up with ways to combat the rising antisemitism on campuses. At SSI, we believe that a proactive approach to fighting antisemitism is crucial, and so SSI’s campaign #DEFINEittoFIGHTit was born. We begin with asking academic institutions to formally define antisemitism.

IHRA, an intergovernmental organization founded in 1998, developed a working definition of antisemitism and formally adopted its definition in 2016. Since then it has been adopted by The United States Department of State, 29 countries, and various international bodies. According to IHRA’s website, in attempting to take a leading role in combatting the rise in antisemitism, the organization’s experts realized that, “first there must be clarity about what antisemitism is.” We at SSI, unequivocally agree with this statement.

The IHRA working definition describes antisemitism as “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.” In addition to the definition itself, IHRA goes into listing multiple examples of situations that can be considered antisemitic and fall under its definition, which is a very helpful way to increase understanding and create a consensus about what is or is not antisemitic.

From the perspective of SSI, one of the most important things within the IHRA definition is its inclusion of the targeting of the State of Israel as a Jewish entity as a form of antisemitism, targeting that crosses the line from a legitimate criticism of the country to blatant antisemitism. On campuses, we have seen this line crossed multiple times. For the past several years, since the founding of SSI, our movement’s leaders expressed concern that on campuses antisemitism is often disguised as criticism of Israel and the Zionist movement.

Certain anti-Israel chants that call to cleanse the State of Israel of it’s Jewish population, the demonization of IDF reservists speakers on campus, the denial of Israel’s Jewish identity, are all examples of voices we have encountered on campuses that go way beyond legitimate criticism of Israeli policies and government, but rather question the right of the Jewish people to even have a country of their own. All these expressions that sound like camouflaged antisemitic rhetoric, but are commonly encountered on college campuses, often make Jewish students, the majority of whom according to any poll feel connected to Israel, unwelcomed and unsafe.

Indeed, in 2015, just a year before IHRA adopted its working definition of antisemitism, The Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University published a report titled “Antisemitism and the College Campus: Perceptions and Realities.” In this report, about a third of college undergraduate respondents stated they have been verbally harassed during the past year because they were Jewish. However, an even more interesting finding was that “connection to Israel is the strongest predictor of perceiving a hostile environment” and that “it is likely that those who are highly connected to Israel become a target of antisemitic or anti-Israel sentiment.” Also, according to the report, “nearly one quarter of respondents report having been blamed during the past year for the actions of Israel because they were Jewish.” Nevertheless, the report says, “despite a significant number perceiving their campus environment to be hostile to Israel and Jews, students report high levels of connection to Israel.”

Since 2015, the situation has only gotten worse. A quick online search will reveal many articles, mostly reported by local newspaper and Jewish outlets, telling stories of antisemitism masked as anti-Israel criticism. For example, a University of Southern California Jewish student government leader was harassed to the point of resignation simply for openly supporting Israel. NYU settled a lawsuit with the Department of Education for failing to protect Jewish students from harassment, some of which happened at an event connected to Israel’s Independence Day celebration. These examples are only two out of many from the past few months, and these are just the ones that were reported. In SSI, and in other organizations who follow the situation on campuses, we hear of many more incidents of antisemitism, far too frequently. A report issued by an organization called AMCHA Initiative just this year, in 2020, described how “although 2019 saw a continued downward trend in so called “classic” antisemitic attacks of 49 percent… it also saw a 60 percent increase in Israel-related antisemitic incidents from 2018.”

Despite this major problem that Jewish students and Israel supporters on campus are facing, many universities’ reactions to incidents or pro-active steps aim to protecting the students were slow and ineffective at best, to non-existent at worst. The SSI national team and chapters were personally involved in multiple attempts to get university administrations sanction antisemitic harassers on campus, only to receive predictable excuses of how the administration’s hands are tied because such manifestations of antisemitism can just be allowed as academic freedom of speech. On occasions, our efforts to work with the administration led to results, like the sanctioning of a group named Students for Justice in Palestine with disciplinary probation for two academic years in UC Irvine after a violent disruption of an SSI-hosted event, or a reversal of a decision not to allow an SSI chapter on campus in a small private Midwest college simple because our group’s mission is about supporting Israel. However, these results, that often also follow the mobilization of pressure on the administration from a coalition of community organizations, are a notable exception to the usual responses.

While we stand strongly behind the belief that freedom of speech, especially on campuses, should be safeguarded and honored, even freedom of speech has limits when it crosses the line to become hate speech. Antisemitism is one of the oldest forms of hate, and after many other ways to solve the problem of antisemitic manifestation on campuses did not work, we firmly believe that pushing for all campuses to officially adopt guidelines that will make antisemitic hate speech unwelcomed and sanctioned is the best way to attempt making campuses a better and safer place for all.

The IHRA definition, thus, is exactly the right tool to propose to every academic institution to adopt and honor. This definition helps make it very clear what is antisemitic and what is not. There is classic antisemitism that is more religious based, but today there is also modern antisemitism, targeting not only Jewish students for simply being Jewish, but also students who identify as Zionists or are open about their support of the Jewish State. Modern antisemitism demonizes and singles out the State of Israel for its Jewish character, crossing the line from valid criticism to antisemitism.

In the 2020/21 academic year, as of the moment of writing these words, the SSI movement has already successfully pushed for the official adoption of the IHRA definition of antisemitism at Arizona State University, Foothill College, and Pace University in the USA, and Buenos Aires University in Argentina where the movement has a newly formed chapter. Additional SSI chapters are currently working on promoting the adoption of IHRA definition of antisemitism around the USA and Canada within their universities.

We call on all students and organizations who are interested in joining SSI to contact us for more information and partner with us in the efforts to have the IHRA definition of antisemitism adopted by all academic institutions. Adopting the definition leaves no room for debate on what can be considered as antisemitic and what not, as it provides detailed examples and explanations of instances that can be considered antisemitic. Officially adopting the IHRA definition on campuses is a proactive way to protect Jewish and Zionist students’ rights and ensure their safety.

Students Supporting Israel (SSI) is a pro-Israel international campus movement that supports the State of Israel.

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