Why the fight over defining antisemitism is key to the future of BDS

Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream is boycotting Jewish settlements on the Palestinian West Bank (Pixabay)

Shane Burley

Waging Nonviolence  /  December 21, 2022

Despite conservatives in America feigning their undying support for “free speech,” those convictions often vanish when it comes to even mild criticism of Israel. A recent Texas state bill was introduced that, among other things, barred any worker or company on a public sector contract from supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, or BDS, movement’s efforts to confront Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. The Texas law was overturned after an engineering firm contracting with the City of Houston said that such a declaration violated its speech rights, but it was just one of dozens of bills across the country all meant to undermine the BDS movement. 

BDS is a nonviolent campaign started by Palestinian activists to pressure Israel into addressing the mistreatment of Palestinians and ending the occupation of the West Bank. BDS quickly became one of the most controversial issues on the American left as Palestinian solidarity activists began lobbying civic, religious and educational organizations to pass resolutions divesting from Israeli companies and endorsing the boycotts in the mid-2000s. Opponents of BDS say that this is the latest incarnation of an age-old antisemitic campaign against Jews (often termed “new antisemitism”), and they compare it to the Nazi boycotts of Jewish goods.

To many on the outside of the issue, it may seem hyperbolic to suggest that boycotting a sovereign state is akin to anti-Jewish prejudice, but anti-BDS organizations are pointing to a particular definition of antisemitism. Called the “Working Definition” for Antisemitism from the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, or IHRA, the definition proposes consensus language for what is, and is not, antisemitism. 

While the definition itself is relatively anodyne, the examples that fall below it have created controversy for Palestinian activists, who say that they codify the idea that criticism of Israel and anti-Zionism are synonymous with antisemitism. The IHRA definition gives as an example “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”. This suggests that those with a critique of Israeli nationalism and the foundational expulsion of Palestinians that underlined the formation of Israel are potentially motivated by antisemitic malice.

For Palestinian rights activists, the IHRA definition has become one of the most serious roadblocks to making gains in the fight for justice and, eventually, Palestinian sovereignty, because, as activists claim, their organizing and critique are now being redefined as antisemitism. How we define antisemitism has now become a central issue for a movement that would rather be working on effective tactics for ending the occupation. This is why opponents are hoping that by pushing back on the IHRA definition itself they will dislodge a tactic used by Israel’s defenders.

Jews supporting Palestinians

 Independent Jewish Voices, or IJV, is a Canadian Jewish organization that, in its Palestinian solidarity work, has made fighting the IHRA definition a key part of its strategy to expand BDS and fight for reforms on both sides of the Green Line — the border that divides the West Bank from the rest of Israel. Similar to groups like IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace in the United States, IJV mobilizes Jewish Palestinian supporters to take action, often leveraging the unique position that diaspora Jews have in this conflict. This has taken the form of public pressure tactics, like IJV’s campaign to push Canada to revoke the Jewish National Fund’s charitable status, partially because of the fund’s role in dispossessing Palestinians from their land.

Because questions of antisemitism have become a centrepiece of the fight for Palestinian rights — and a major weapon pro-Israel organizations use to delegitimize solidarity activists (both Jewish and non-Jewish) — IJV has taken a similar path to organizations like IfNotNow and made antisemitism a key part of their curriculum. This is not just to insulate their members from accusation, but to create a consensus understanding of what antisemitism is so that they can intervene in these discussions in an effort to counter their opponents’ claims.

“The pro-Israel lobby’s talking point is that IHRA is the ‘gold standard,’ and that there is unanimous support for IHRA within Jewish communities. This simply isn’t true,” said Aaron Lakoff, IJV’s communications lead. He says that they have gained traction by undermining the claim that the IHRA is the best option we have for effectively fighting antisemitism. 

“We’ve managed to stop the ubiquity of IHRA by pointing out how divisive it is, even within Jewish communities,” he added. “We’ve also built a very broad base of opposition that includes everything from labor unions to anti-poverty groups. People have gotten involved, especially at the municipal level, by sending emails to their mayors and city councillors, signing up to speak at public meetings, and promoting other tools for understanding and fighting antisemitism that don’t include IHRA.”

Just like BDS activists have done in lobbying organizations and political bodies to pass pro-BDS resolutions, IHRA advocates are pushing their definition in everything from religious congresses to city councils to labor unions. This means that opponents, like IJV, have become vigilant contenders, pro-actively challenging the IHRA in public and jumping into action when the definition is being considered by an organization.

Because the IHRA definition is used to identify Palestinian solidarity activists as antisemitic, this is the point that IJV strategizes around. The organization believes that if it can undermine the IHRA’s ubiquity across institutions then it will rob disingenuous actors of a tool they use to tarnish Palestinian rights organizers. “IJV has our own definition of antisemitism, and we often encourage local governments and organizations to use or draw from this rather than the toxic and divisive IHRA definition,” Lakoff said. “On the ground, the fact that we situate antisemitism as part of a broader fight against white supremacy has meant that we can build powerful anti-racist coalitions … In turn, we can also count on these organizations as allies in the fight against genuine antisemitism.”

If the IHRA is one of the main weapons that is making debate on Israel nearly impossible, then IJV is going to use multiple tactics to go after its legitimacy and, hopefully, create new space for a vibrant definition of antisemitism. Since IHRA has become the most common definition adopted by organizations and governments around the world, IJV must work to unpack for those less initiated on the topic why it is being used as a political weapon rather than a neutral tool for identifying antisemitism. Starting in 2019, IJV began a campaign against IHRA with a 23-page report explaining why it opposes IHRA’s definition. IJV followed this up with webinars, a website with resources and a growing list of coalition partners to help in the fight. 

“We started to see IHRA resolutions popping up places, different municipalities, in provincial legislatures, and we had to immediately go into action to try to stop that,” said Sheryl Nestel, a scholar who works with IJV. “So many of the people we talked to in the beginning were afraid of the attacks that they would get from Zionist organizations … and the accusations of antisemitism fly freely under these circumstances.” 

IJV offers trainings on antisemitism to overcome this fear, and it eventually were able to build a coalition of supporters to join this campaign. One of its biggest victories was when 70,000 members of the Canadian Association of University Teachers unanimously rejected the IHRA at their national meeting.

“All this work supports BDS because pro-Israel groups have been explicit that they want to use IHRA as a tool to crush BDS by falsely labelling the movement as antisemitic,” Lakoff said. “We create more space for BDS activism, and more space for robust debate on Israel-Palestine, when we reject IHRA and instead adopt other tools for understanding antisemitism.” Being a Jewish voice on the issue allowed the door to be opened for other leftist or progressive coalition partners to join the campaign, creating the density and leverage necessary to see wins. 

They recently compiled and released a report called “Unveiling the Chilly Climate: The Suppression of Speech on Palestine in Canada,” where two scholars from the organization interviewed 77 academics, students, activists and organizational leaders about their experience with the IHRA, and how it has been used to strategically silence their voices. What the report reveals is staggering: They spoke about various restrictions on academic freedom, interventions into hiring and other career consequences, self-censorship for fear of being alienated in professional circles (particularly among contingent faculty), university interference, harassment from pro-Israel groups, attacks from fellow academics and emotional turmoil experienced by those facing acute consequences for their pro-Palestinian views. 

“People are going after livelihoods and those foundations of life that people need to survive,” said Rowan Gaudet, an activist and scholar with IJV who co-authored the study. The report includes horrific stories such as when pro-Israel groups called an activist’s workplace, accusing them of being an antisemite, or when they interfered with another finding an apartment. Controversial anti-Palestinian websites like Canary Mission are infamous for efforts to permanently tarnish the reputation of activists erroneously labelled as antisemites for their criticisms of Israel. More than anything, people became scared, less likely to speak up and unwilling to continue the work because of the outsized consequences they might face. This is what has been referred to as a “chilling effect,” something that these activists share with those in other social movements who have been targeted for state or social repression.

While many of the cases documented in the report, such as scholars mentioning the colonial foundations of the state of Israel or using phrases like “from the river to the sea,” may seem absurd to call antisemitism, it is the broadness of the IHRA definition that has allowed the label to stick. “Mainstream public opinion is more and more recognizing the misuse of antisemitism, and the way it’s been weaponized,” Gaudet said.

The power of words

The widespread adoption of the IHRA definition has created an issue that is not easily remedied, even by the most robust activist strategy. As Nestel describes, they are often “playing whack-a-mole” in trying to confront particular instances of the adoption of IHRA’s  definition. The politicization of the IHRA has led to other attempts to define antisemitism in more academically robust ways, such as the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism, signed by 350 leaders (including Sheryl Nestel) in relevant fields and providing an alternative to the Israel-focused IHRA. These efforts are politically strategic as well, fighting a war for how to define oppression.

As Israel continues military actions directed at Gaza — and the 2022 elections reveal far-right “Kahanist” candidates like Itamar Ben-Gvir building a far-right coalition in the Knesset — these questions are becoming even more salient. If the IHRA is an effective weapon to marginalize BDS activism, to make criticism of Israel so untenable that it is nearly illegal in some contexts, then activists are going to have to address that foundational tool to make any other gains. The recent IJV report reveals exactly what IHRA’s defenders say is untrue — that IHRA is being used specifically to marginalize non-antisemitic criticism of Israel. 

On November 10, the Anti-Defamation League held it’s annual “Never Again is Now” summit, where they discussed the status of racist threats, including antisemitism. Speakers urged the mass adoption of the IHRA as a useful tool to fight antisemitism, something that mainstream Jewish and civic organizations have largely agreed with. This creates an uphill fight for groups like IJV who acknowledge the IHRA as a fundamental obstacle to maintaining an effective strategy to pressure for change in Israel-Palestine. This is part of what has created a rift between Jewish pro-Palestinian activists and the mainstream Jewish community. But these activists are committed to winning this fight because they see it as necessary to unlock further gains in the movement for Palestinian liberation.

Shane Burley is a writer and filmmaker based in Portland, Oregon