It is unquestionable that anti-Semitism exists today. We have seen neo-fascists in the past few years openly walk the streets of Charlottesville, where they chanted things like “Jews will not replace us,” in Washington, D.C. and in other places targeted by their rallies. They are an existential threat, not just to Jewish people, but to all marginalized people.
How, then, can the problem of anti-Semitism be mitigated? Some have suggested legal guidelines — specifically, definitions — for what constitutes anti-Semitism. Representatives Ted Deutch and Jerrold Nadler have introduced a bill formally titled the “Anti-Semitism Awareness Act of 2018,” which would introduce one such definition. The impetus for the act was anti-Semitism on college campuses.
Across the Atlantic, the leader of the U.K. Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, is under fire for, among other things, not adopting some examples of a formal definition of anti-Semitism that would preclude political criticism of Israel. I would argue that, as part of the Jewish community, formal definitions of anti-Semitism would not do much to mitigate that problem; indeed, such definitions may introduce other problems, such as the chilling of free speech.
The specific set of definitions in question is that put forth by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, on which, in part, the Anti-Semitic Awareness Act is modeled. Some of the examples listed are obvious instances of anti-Semitism, such as “calling for … the killing or harming of Jews,” along with the trope of a Jewish conspiracy and Holocaust denial.
Examples like these are not objectionable. But a reasonable person could lodge an argument against the listed examples of anti-Semitism that relate to Israel. Among them are drawing parallels of Israeli law and actions to that of Nazi Germany, requiring behavior of Israel that is not expected of other states and denying the Jewish people the right to self-determination.
These are problematic for a number of reasons, bearing in mind that I speak as but a part of the Jewish community, not for it. The first example, being crude on its own, does not necessarily constitute anti-Semitism because it does not necessarily involve a certain perception of Jews. It can be a considered a political opinion, however flawed its construction, that the treatment of Palestinians within Israel and Gaza — the blockade and the bombings alike — constitute the actions of an authoritarian state. The second can be described as sufficiently vague to fit any time when Israel commits some wrongdoing, by any person. And the third rings hollow when the state of Israel continually denies Palestinians the right to self-determination. Some of these examples are so broad that they encompass what in any other context would be considered free speech.
One of the architects of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition, Kenneth Stern, described such fears and how they came to light in the United Kingdom: “An off-campus group citing the definition called on a university to conduct an inquiry of a professor… for anti-Semitism, based on an article she had written years before. … And while it ultimately found no basis to discipline the professor, the exercise itself was chilling and McCarthy-like.”
Even now, without the passage of the Anti-Semitic Awareness Act, groups like Canary Mission target and publicly reveal the personal information of college students and professors with legitimate criticisms of Israel, including their names and faces, regardless of whether they spread anti-Semitic canards, or are themselves Jewish.
One could argue that the intentions behind the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition and the Anti-Semitic Awareness Act are good, but that’s irrelevant when they can be used as a weapon to create a hostile environment for demonstrators for Palestinian lives and human rights more generally. They are not valid ways to combat anti-Semitism on college campuses, especially considering Jewish students are often safer on campus than public sentiment would indicate. The mitigation of anti-Semitism cannot be achieved through a crackdown on the speech of those demonstrators. We have seen white supremacist propaganda and drawn swastikas on this campus before, as recently as last semester, in fact. In order to mitigate anti-Semitism, we must quell the plague of Naziism and neo-fascism as it manifests itself on this campus in particular, and stand for the rights of the oppressed everywhere.
Jacob Hanna is a junior majoring in economics.