The Politics of Defining Anti-Semitism

Along with anti-critical race theory and “Don’t Say Gay” legislation, bills targeting anti-Semitism are part of a larger agenda to control what is taught in K-12 schools and universities, therefore redefining social justice concepts.

Participants lay candles by the Auschwitz Memorial at the former Nazi German Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp on Holocaust Remembrance Day in Brzezinka, Poland, on Jan. 27, 2024. (Beata Zawrzel / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

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On Oct. 31, a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers introduced a new version of the Antisemitism Awareness Act. The act would “require” the Department of Education to use the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism “when enforcing federal anti-discrimination laws,” according to its sponsors. At face value, this appears to be a positive bipartisan action against discrimination. However, a closer look at the definition reveals that codification of the definition, intentional or not, will be used to not only silence but criminalize critiques of the state of Israel, including in institutions of higher education where academic freedom should guarantee the right to open debate and dissent.

I am named after my great grandfather, Siegmund, who died in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in 1942. My grandparents, the only surviving members of their families, met the next year in Theresienstadt, a concentration camp in what was Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. It should go without saying that understanding and fighting anti-Semitism is close to my heart.

The definition adopted by IHRA in 2016 is short and focused on anti-Semitism as “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews.” The definition itself says so little that questions have arisen as to why it is necessary to adopt such a vague statement and why anti-Semitism would be defined separate from other ideas of prejudice, stereotypes and racism. Along with the IHRA’s definition, there are 11 examples to help “guide” IHRA’s work. It is not until we read these examples of anti-Semitism that we begin to understand the specificity and purpose of the definition. More than half of the examples have to do with Israel. Even as the IHRA website states that some critique of Israel is not anti-Semitic, the examples set very narrow boundaries of acceptable critique. 

Lawmakers rightly feel compelled to stand firmly against anti-Semitism, as well as other forms of hateful speech. But adopting this highly detailed definition of anti-Semitism, which adds nothing to our ability to identify or respond to anti-Semitic speech or attacks, is the wrong approach. 

Suzanne Nossel, PEN America CEO

While it is not new to use charges of anti-Semitism to silence critique of Israel, over the last several years there have been coordinated efforts to codify the IHRA’s definition of anti-Semitism for these purposes. This strategy centers on pressuring educational institutions and governmental bodies to adopt the IHRA’s definition of anti-Semitism. Organizations such as the American Association of University Professors and PEN America point to the chilling effect this has on freedom of speech and academic freedom. Anti-racist scholars and activists argue the negative impact of these bills will fall on Israel’s critics who are speaking up for themselves and their allies, including Palestinian people and numerous Jewish people like me. In practice, the definition has already been used to sanction critics of Israel.

These bills along with anti-critical race theory (CRT) and “Don’t Say Gay” legislation are part of a larger agenda to control what is taught in K-12 schools and universities, therefore redefining social justice concepts. However, many who have fought against the former bills seem to be unaware of this copycat legislation. Anti-CRT advocates argue that we should not teach racism as central to the founding of the U.S. nor interrogate ongoing structural racism teachings based on CRT. Those supporting the IHRA’s definition similarly argue that we cannot question the project of Zionism by discussing racism as foundational to the forming of the state of Israel. Whether or not one agrees with these analyses, these bills hold in common a prohibition on engaging with these ideas in educational settings. 

While progressives for the most part seem to have become well-versed in how reverse racism against white people does not make sense under structurally analytic definitions of racism, many seem stuck on how to respond to and understand debates over defining anti-Semitism. This is precisely why we need to keep teaching critical race studies.

The term anti-Semitism can be traced back to a Jewish historian and bibliographer, Moritz Steinshneider, who used it in 1860 to describe the disturbing move to attack Jews as a “race.” Interestingly, Steinshneider was against Zionism and more generally against nationalism. A couple decades later, non-Jewish Germans espousing theories that Jewish people were biologically dangerous and needed to be eliminated began to self-identify as anti-Semites (antisemiten in German). These self-defined anti-Semites are often credited with coining the term, disregarding its first recorded usage by Steinschneider. Regardless, in each case the definition described anti-Jewish ideologies based on the idea that Jews represented a biological race. The idea that race was a biological trait undergirded the law and philosophies that allowed for my grandparents to meet in a concentration camp in Terezin and the murder of their families.

This etymological skimming should bring up some questions. The term anti-Semitism was coined to call attention to the racialization of Jewish people in Germany. But when Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), who proudly has denounced Black studies and LGBTQ curriculum, rushes to define anti-Semitism to ostensibly protect Jewish people, it may be prudent to ask why.

Historical lessons come from pattern recognition. Understanding how racializing groups of people continues to allow for widespread violence is the lesson I believe we should be taking here. Focusing on anti-Semitism separately from other forms of racism is not the way to do this; instead protecting free speech in colleges and other spaces of education is needed for us to learn these lessons.

In recent months, claims of anti-Semitism have been used at an alarming rate to limit free speech in educational settings, including the censure of student groups on college campuses, the suspension of a Palestinian-American faculty member for social media posts, and the mid-semester firing of an adjunct professor for teaching about Palestine. Those seeking to further codify the IHRA’s definition have explicitly called for using it in these moments, pointing to them as evidence of a rise in anti-Semitism on campuses. 

Dealing with racism in all its forms is urgent and important work that cannot be done through laws alone. After all, my grandparents’ families were all legally arrested and transported to concentration camps and ghettoes before being killed. Let’s not rely on the law to save us. Instead, critical theories and debates in schools, on campuses, and in the general public are crucial to our mutual survival and protection.

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Sig/Sara Giordano is an associate professor of interdisciplinary studies at Kennesaw State University.