Last week the Trump administration announced that it has decided to adopt the broader definition of anti-Semitism already employed by the State Department under President Obama and the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. The new definition has the power to seemingly change how the Department of Education investigates allegations of discrimination against Jewish students. The definition includes arguments against the existence of the Israeli state or double standards applied to Israel “not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation” as examples of potential anti-Semitism. The new approach is evidently favored by pro-Israel groups but has critics concerned over whether it will lead to the suppression of free speech and criticism of Israel on campus.

Pro-Palestine groups and journalists were quick to criticize the move as an attack on free speech, and as an attempt by Israel advocates to stifle opposition. The New York Times came out with an extended article on the matter contending that the decision has led the Department of Education to adopt a “hotly contested definition of anti-Semitism” that includes: denying Jews “the right to self-determination” and/or claiming that the State of Israel is a “racist endeavor.” The article further mentioned that this new definition for anti-Semitism has, according to Arab–American activists, declared “the Palestinian cause anti-Semitic.” The Los Angeles Times added that it finds this new approach “dangerous,” reasoning that “colleges and universities should be open to robust political discussion, even if it offends the deepest beliefs of students” — thus, according to The Los Angeles Times, colleges should rebuff demands that declare anti-Zionism as a form of discrimination.

The reaction surrounding the decision appears to be part of a long dispute in which harsh criticism of Israel’s actions leads to allegations of bias against Jews and to what has been called “the new anti-Semitism.” As much as articles like the aforementioned pieces make it seem that the new definition is just another attack against the Palestinian cause made by the Trump administration, adopting this rhetoric detracts from fully understanding the justification for reevaluating our perception on anti-Semitism.

It is true that some pro-Israel institutions have turned to using a debate strategy of debunking all attacks on Israel as hate speech. Various Knesset members have also used similar tactics when criticizing institutions such as the UN, including the Security Council whenever they condemn the IDF and Israel for its activities in Gaza, calling out their fixation on Israel as discriminatory or even anti-Semitic. Such loose and common use of the accusation “anti-Semitic” whenever criticism of Israel appears certainly does not help Israel’s cause, and more importantly, it can strip all meaning from the term, seriously diminishing its value.

Despite what these pro-Israel organizations and certain Knesset members might think, not all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic. One should be allowed to protest the use of live fire on protesters, the blockade on Gaza, or the current right-wing Israeli government’s attacks on democracy without being accused of acting out of anti-Semitic beliefs. But many times, the critique does seem to cross a line. Nearly any Jew will tell you that some protests against Israel tend to leave behind a bad taste in their mouth. So how can one determine when the criticism goes too far?

The “working definition” offers a clear and comprehensive description of anti-Semitism in its various forms, including hatred and discrimination against Jews, Holocaust denial, and, of particular note, anti-Semitism as it can sometimes relate to Israel. Multiple countries and international organizations, including ones that are harsh critics of Israel, such as Sweden and Ireland, have adopted this so-called “hotly contested definition” of anti-Semitism. This new approach was well thought out and researched, having brought together academics and organizations from different countries in order to make a new and more detailed definition for anti-Semitism. The new proposition was meant to address a real problem: a sharp rise in the number of anti-Semitic incidents. The State Department and the Trump administration adopted the same definition. Furthermore, they have embraced what they call the “three D’s test” of anti-Semitism: delegitimization, demonization, and double standards toward the State of Israel. This set of criteria is intended to help distinguish between legitimate criticism of the State of Israel and anti-Semitism.

The first D — delegitimization — can come in many forms. The most popular in this space is the denial of the right of the Jewish people to self-determination, embodied by arguments that claim that Israel is racist by its very existence. This argument is usually made by reducing Judaism to a religion and comparing it to Christianity or Islam, thus failing to acknowledge the complicated way Jews understand themselves, as a people with a history and land and cultural practices distinct from religious ones. Furthermore, many critics resort to asserting that the Jews have no  connection to the land at all, denying millennia of history by claiming that they are nothing more than European colonizers.

The Jewish connection to Israel goes back more than 2000 years. After being exiled from Israel twice, Jews scattered  around the world continued to pray for a return to Zion and mourned their expulsion from their homeland. Zionism can be seen as a modern Jewish revolution, indicating that a return to Israel could be possible through political means, rather than by waiting for the messiah. In this way it acknowledged the Jews’ right and ability to take a stance and act towards the change they wished to see, rather than sit and wait for the unknown. The Holocaust further enhanced this belief and affirmed to many that a change will only come by actively coming together and rejecting the Jews’ status as permanently in diaspora. Dismissing Zionism as a racist endeavor delegitimizes the political movement as a whole, failing to realize the existence of many different variations of this vision that differ widely in their religious, cultural, and political emphasis.

The second D is for demonization, describing a particular group as evil, inhuman, or demonic. For example, the description of the Jews as harming humanity and responsible for all evil in the world. Demonization is applied tos Israel by dismissing any presence of humanity in Israelis. Calling all Israelis “Zionist baby killers,” rejecting the term terrorist for anyone who acts against Israelis, and failing to condemn Hamas for launching rockets against civilians all show a lack of concern for Israeli lives. A movement concerned for human rights should require caring about the well-being and self-determination of all people and thus condemn both sides when human rights violations appear.

The last D refers to the application of different sets of principles to similar situations. If a person criticizes Israel and only Israel on certain issues, but chooses to ignore identical actions conducted by other countries, they are performing a double standard policy against Israel. Many have accused the United Nations Human Rights Council as guilty of enacting such a double standards practice against Israel. In the past Britain has stated that “nowhere is the disproportionate focus on Israel starker and more absurd than in the case of the resolution on the occupation of Syria’s Golan,” seeing as how “Syria’s regime butchers and murders its people on a daily basis.” The American delegation has gone so far as to remove itself from the council, accusing it of being a “cesspool of political bias.”

The criteria of demonization, delegitimization, and double standards for understanding when criticism of Israel becomes anti-Semitism are a useful beginning, but they can still pose problems. Like all countries, Israel has a duty to uphold human right laws and to protect the rights of those living under its control. Any suppression of free speech in general and on university campuses in particular must always be questioned, and anyone should be free to criticize Israeli government policies. However, this doesn’t mean that activists are right when attacking this “working definition” of anti-Semitism, simply by arguing that it is a way for the Trump administration or the Israeli government to trample the Palestinian cause. Such accusations should be challenged, as they clearly ignore the real threat imposed by anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism can never be beneficial, and given the history of Jewish persecution, this is an area where an abundance of caution is supremely warranted.  

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