Mondoweiss / April 27, 2023
Georgia’s General Assembly failed to pass a bill adopting the IHRA’s controversial working definition of antisemitism for the third time, but Israel lobby groups are continuing to push similar laws across the country.
The Georgia General Assembly neglected to pass legislation adopting the controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism last month. It’s the third time that such a bill has failed.
It’s expected to be reintroduced.
Activists, academics, and human rights groups have long warned that the definition can easily be used as a tool to stifle pro-Palestinian speech, as a result of its vague wording and contemporary examples related to Israel criticism.
“We are not worried about the use of the law to actually criminalize speech against Israel,” read an op-ed in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution from concerned Jewish residents leading up to the vote. “We are certain that it will be found unconstitutional should it ever be used in that way … What we are worried about is the charge of antisemitism that will be levied against folks who speak out against the human rights abuses of Israel, especially students and professors on college campuses who work for justice in Palestine.”
Despite this opposition, Georgia Democratic Rep. Esther Panitch (the only Jewish legislator in the state) framed the issue as a simple matter of cracking down on antisemitism.
“It was devastating to watch the Georgia Senate, for the second year in a row, ignore the cries of Georgia’s Jewish community for help amidst escalating antisemitism,” Panitch told the pro-Israel website The Algemeiner. “But if you think we are done, you are wrong. Those who seek to harm Jews always end up relegated to history’s dustbin, but we have to prevent the damage they cause on their way there. HB144 would have made identifying them easier, although more recently they have outed themselves. The far-right tell us to go back to Israel and the far left wants to destroy Israel. Neither will prevail. We will be back.”
IHRA bills across country
The Georgia bill died shortly after Virginia and Arkansas became the latest states to adopt the definition. According to the American Jewish Committee, 29 states plus the District of Columbia have adopted the definition through proclamation, executive order, or legislation.
These efforts have been pushed by pro-Israel groups like IAC for Action, the lobbying arm of the Israeli-American Council. IAC for Action Chairman Shawn Evenhaim, an LA real-estate mogul and former soldier in the Israeli army, spoke with The Jerusalem Post last year about the group’s IHRA campaign. Some of the definition’s supporters insist that it’s not a vehicle to shut down debate over Israel, but Evenhaim blatantly admits that is the goal. He even suggests that critics of the country should face criminal charges.
“In the US you can attack Israel and not be called an antisemite, which we know is not the case,” he told the Post. “If we want to define if this person is an antisemite or not, it is now very simple: we can go to the IHRA definition for antisemitism. It’s been used by many governments across the world and in the US, and now we need to make sure that it becomes part of the law in many states, as many states as possible, so they can use it to enforce the law and to prosecute people that violate it.”
“When we talk to politicians, we bring our personal story,” he added. “I don’t have to say ‘Hey, I care for my brother and sisters in Israel,’ just because it’s a given. Every time we speak to a politician, they tell us that they are listening because it’s an angle that they typically don’t hear.”
GOP State Rep. John Carson introduced the House version of Georgia’s IHRA bill. Carson’s financial reports show that individuals active in the Israeli-American Council (including Evenhaim) have donated roughly $10,000 to his campaign.
In remarks on the House floor Carson invited members of various pro-Israel groups to stand up and be acknowledged for their work on their bill, including a member of the Israeli-American Council and a member of the Anti-Defamation League. He then implied that Jews who opposed the measure weren’t authentically Jewish.
“There’s a large group quote, end quote ‘Jews’ opposing this because they support Palestine,” he told the chamber. “They do not support Israel and the Jewish people.”
IHRA working definition
The IHRA working definition, which was first developed in 2016, embraces a vague interpretation of antisemitism, describing it as “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”
It also contains a number of “antisemitism” examples, some of which include criticizing Israel. For instance, “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor” is regarded as antisemitic, as is “Applying double standards by requiring of [Israel] a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.”
Critics have long warned that the working definition can be used as a tool to suppress Palestine advocacy. This month more than 100 civil society organizations wrote United Nations secretary general António Guterres urging the UN against adopting the definition.
“Adoption of the definition by governments and institutions is often framed as an essential step in efforts to combat antisemitism,” reads the letter. “In practice, however, the IHRA definition has often been used to wrongly label criticism of Israel as antisemitic, and thus chill and sometimes suppress, non-violent protest, activism and speech critical of Israel and/or Zionism, including in the US and Europe.”
In 2019 former president Donald Trump signed an Executive Order mandating that federal agencies consider the IHRA definition while enforcing Title VI across schools. The move prompted a number of pro-Israel groups to use the decision as a means to launch discrimination lawsuits against universities. In an op-ed in The Guardian Kenneth Stern, the lead drafter of the working definition, criticized the chilling impact of the move.
“It was never intended to be a campus hate speech code, but that’s what Donald Trump’s executive order accomplished this week,” wrote Stern. “This order is an attack on academic freedom and free speech, and will harm not only pro-Palestinian advocates, but also Jewish students and faculty, and the academy itself.”
The Biden administration publicly stated that it would also implement Trump’s Executive Order, but they’ve already delayed the move twice and now say they won’t revisit the issue until December 2023.
Michael Arria is the U.S. correspondent for Mondoweiss