The IHRA Definition of Anti-Semitism Needs Updating, Not Replacing

It’s already the best of the several definitions out there. And, by offering yet clearer guidance on the question of Zionism, it could get even stronger.

The Star of David surrounded by graffiti on an iron door in Krakow on April 8, 2020. Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images.

The Star of David surrounded by graffiti on an iron door in Krakow on April 8, 2020. Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images.

July 26 2021
About the author

Ben Cohen, a New York-based writer, has contributed essays on anti-Semitism and related issues to Mosaic and other publications.

Many readers of Mosaic will be familiar with the old joke about the Jew stranded on a desert island who builds two synagogues: one where he will worship, and the other where he will never set foot under any circumstances. The joke is a gently self-deprecating reflection on the image—and in the wrong hands, unpleasant stereotype—of Jews as a quarrelsome people who will take their disputes to the most absurd degrees.

Something similar is happening regarding the real, and not especially funny, conversation about anti-Semitism. As Joshua Muravchik explains in his eloquent, persuasive essay, there are two competing definitions of anti-Semitism currently in circulation: the working definition of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), adopted in recent years by dozens of governments, voluntary associations, sports clubs, and other civic institutions, and its would-be rival, the Jerusalem Declaration on Anti-Semitism (JDA), penned by a group of left-wing and liberal Jewish academics who have declared “war,” as Muravchik puts it, on what they see as the IHRA definition’s overindulgence of Zionist and pro-Israel sensitivities.

If neither of those definitions appeals, there is a third, less well-known summation of what constitutes anti-Semitism currently doing the rounds. Drafted earlier this year by a committee of progressive Jews that includes the Obama administration’s former anti-Semitism envoy, Hannah Rosenthal, the Nexus Document on Israel and Anti-Semitism is divided into two sections—what is anti-Semitic and what isn’t—and it amounts to a wholly dissatisfying compromise between the IHRA and JDA definitions. The Nexus Document’s definition of what qualifies as anti-Semitic overlaps considerably with IHRA’s, listing as examples of anti-Semitism, inter alia, “indiscriminately blaming suffering and injustices around the world on a hidden Jewish conspiracy or of being the maligning hand of Israel or Zionism” and using “symbols and images that present all Jews as collectively guilty for the actions of the state of Israel.”

But when it comes to what isn’t anti-Semitic, the Nexus Document is much closer in spirit and letter to the JDA, counseling that “contentious, strident, or harsh criticism of Israel for its policies and actions, including those that led to the creation of Israel, is not per se illegitimate or anti-Semitic,” and that “opposition to Zionism and/or Israel does not necessarily reflect specific anti-Jewish animus nor purposefully lead to anti-Semitic behaviors and conditions.”

Reading the Nexus Document as a whole, rather than as two separate sections, perfectly encapsulates the contradictory, muddled thinking behind so much of the criticism leveled at the IHRA definition’s focus on Israel-related anti-Semitism. Let’s say there is a police officer on duty at a pro-Palestinian demonstration. An upset Jewish onlooker alerts his attention to a banner equating the Star of David with a swastika, and complains of feeling threatened by this public display of virulent anti-Semitism. (For the purpose of this thought experiment let’s assume the demonstration is in a country with hate-speech laws, like Canada or the nations of the EU.) With only the Nexus Document as a guide, the officer would have little idea of how to respond. Section one says that “all claims of anti-Semitism made by Jews . . . should be given serious attention,” but section two posits that the person wielding the offending banner may be someone opposed to “the principle of nationalism or ethnonationalist ideology” or someone “whose personal or national experience may have been adversely affected by the creation of the state of Israel” and therefore not an anti-Semite. As regards the specific invocation of the main Nazi symbol as a stick with which to beat Jews, neither the JDA nor the Nexus Document address this phenomenon, despite the regrettable frequency with which it appears, especially on social media.

By contrast, the IHRA definition is explicit that comparing “Israeli policy to that of the Nazis” is anti-Semitic, alongside three further examples of anti-Zionist inflected anti-Semitism. However, writes Muravchik, “only the fifth of the Jerusalem Declaration’s examples of anti-Semitism addresses hostile things that are said about Israel, to wit, ‘applying the symbols, images, and negative stereotypes of classical anti-Semitism . . . to the state of Israel.’” Muravchik then mentions two outlandish anti-Semitic charges—blaming “the Jews” for the COVID-19 pandemic, as many Islamists and neo-Nazis have done, and repeating the calumny that the Jews are responsible for the death of Jesus at Roman hands, as the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad did—remarking astutely that while these ugly falsehoods “constitute at most an obscure corner of the universe of rhetoric against Israel,” they nevertheless represent “the only point on which the Jerusalem Declaration would clearly grant that an attack on Israel is anti-Semitic. Nearly anything else would be fair game.”

That is because the overriding goal of the JDA as well as the Nexus Declaration is to seal off anti-Zionism from the charge that it is a mutation of anti-Semitism. Operating on the presumption that the Palestinian struggle against Israel is a just struggle for national self-determination and equality, these two documents overlook some of the crudest assaults on Israel’s legitimacy. As Muravchik indicates, several of the JDA’s signatories are themselves guilty of anti-Semitism, at least under the IHRA framework: calling for the end of Israel, comparing the Palestinian flight of 1948 to the Holocaust, tweeting anti-Israel venom during the recent Hamas offensive, and so forth. Advocating the removal of Israel from the map is the same as wishing for the extinction of the Jews, Muravchik asserts, and therefore the “meaning of anti-Zionism today.” If that isn’t anti-Semitic, he concludes, “then the term has little meaning.”


Indeed, the cumulative effect of this entire debate has been to obfuscate, rather than to clarify, the nature of anti-Semitism at a time when the problem can be soberly judged to have reached crisis levels all over the world. In Germany, the crucible of the Holocaust, well over 2,000 anti-Semitic outrages were registered in 2020, including 55 assaults—one per week, more or less. In France, the lockdown brought on by the coronavirus pandemic did not lead to a decline in violence against Jews: 44 assaults were recorded in 2020, compared to 45 the previous year, among nearly 400 incidents, well over one per day. (In fact, the true figure is higher; as organizations monitoring anti-Semitic crimes constantly point out, victims’ reticence to report their ordeals to the authorities means that the real number goes undocumented.)

Turning to this year, the renewed hostilities in May between Israel and Hamas led to a doubling of anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S., according to data compiled by the Anti-Defamation League, and introduced for the first time the worrying spectacle of young Arab-American males carrying out violent assaults on unsuspecting Jews as an act of solidarity with Palestinians fighting Israel. Again, where both the JDA and the Nexus Definition would, at best, dance around the question of anti-Semitism in relation to these attacks, perhaps depicting them as misguided expressions of anti-Zionism, the IHRA definition is crystal clear that such violence is anti-Semitic.

Yet not all of the JDA’s endorsers are uncompromising anti-Zionists, as Muravchik takes care to clarify. As one of them, Michael Walzer, argues in his own response, it makes it possible to combat anti-Zionism without agonizing over whether the intentions of its adherents are anti-Semitic. Muravchik also admits that the JDA is “in some places . . . more precise,” even if that is hardly reason enough to “justify its existence” or to outweigh its merits.

Taking this last statement of Muravchik’s as a point of departure, I want to suggest that if the IHRA definition were more precise in its own contentions the impetus for rival definitions might be less intense. I would go so far as to contend that it insufficiently addresses the question of anti-Semitism connected to Israel, and neglects to mention other common forms of anti-Semitism. To begin with, the words “Zionism” and “Zionist” are entirely absent from the text, almost as if the original authors of the definition wanted to avoid this knotty question by pretending it doesn’t exist. If that was their goal, then they failed, as the IHRA definition is questioned and even vilified by its adversaries who claim it is a “Zionist” document and part of the Jewish state’s propaganda arsenal in its bid to deflect international attention from the sufferings of the Palestinians—”the anti-Semitism melodrama,” as one Palestinian journalist put it on her Twitter feed, which also included multiple postings affirming that “Hitler was right.”

More fundamentally, a serious understanding of Jewish history over the last century would cogently demonstrate why ignoring the issue of Zionism weakens the IHRA definition. One key omission from the definition is the use of the term “Zionist” as a code word for “Jew.” This was standard practice in the post-war Soviet Union and its satellite states, as well as in the internationally-facing statements of the PLO and the Arab states, who were content to reserve the word “Jew” for domestic audiences. An additional or amended clause in the definition could make the much-needed point that Zionism is not a conspiracy against the Palestinians or anyone else, but a Jewish national movement, while deeming as anti-Semitic those who pejoratively substitute “Jew” with “Zionist.” One does not have to be a Zionist to reach these conclusions, merely someone who recognizes the preposterous character of the claim that “Zionists” are the determining influence in world affairs. As the late scholar of anti-Semitism, Robert Wistrich, wrote in an essay published in 1990, in becoming “a code word for the forces of reaction in general,” Zionism assumed a global significance for the left that not even Marx or Lenin could have foreseen.


As to the other forms of anti-Semitism I mentioned, a detailed exposition of these would require far more space than is available here. There are two key areas though that deserve mention. Firstly, there is the challenge in East European countries of “Holocaust relativization.” This is not the same as denial or distortion: it doesn’t cast doubt upon the extermination of the Jews but it does question—and in the case of Poland, allow for legal prosecutions of—those scholars who document the copious levels of collaboration with the Nazis on the part of occupied populations. The purpose of this exercise is partly narrative and symbolic, seeking to puncture the belief that it was the Jews who suffered most under the Nazi yoke, as well to promote the idea that the prevalence of Jews in the Communist movement meant that they were somewhat responsible for the atrocities that befell them—another libel that ultranationalists in Lithuania, Ukraine, Hungary, and other countries are only too keen to proffer. Its purpose is partly financial as well; in breach of its international commitments, Poland recently passed a law that effectively closes off the restitution claims of Holocaust survivors, sending a dangerous signal to the rest of the region that the matter of property stolen from murdered Jews by the Nazis and then nationalized by successor Communist regimes can be consigned to history’s garbage can.

The other area of concern neglected by the IHRA definition is the effort in Europe and the U.S. to ban, on human- and animal-rights grounds, core Jewish rituals like circumcision and kosher slaughter. Without these practices, observant Jewish communities cannot be sustained in any country. That fact is at least worthy of a sentence in the IHRA definition and, for that matter, the JDA as well. Indeed, it’s ironic that the JDA’s authors, in seeking to unite the fight against anti-Semitism with that against other forms of bigotry, did not realize that defense of Jewish ritual would provide them with a common platform to campaign alongside Muslim communities, who face similar threats when it comes to the circumcision of boys and the halal slaughter of animals.

What we need then, is not an alternative definition designed to give cover to anti-Zionists, but an updated version of the IHRA definition, which, after all, is nearly two decades old. As a protean phenomenon that moves with remarkable adroitness from one ideology, political movement, or society to another, anti-Semitism requires that its opponents, like modern militaries, regularly modernize their arsenal. We need a definition of anti-Semitism that accounts for those shifts, while explaining—as the IHRA definition does, in the main, rather well—those features that render it the world’s most enduring hatred.

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