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A defining moment for how the White House handles antisemitism

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Speaking at the first Jewish American Heritage Month reception at the White House last week, President Biden noted that antisemitic incidents are at a record high in the United States, calling the situation a “stain on the soul of America.”

The president’s remarks came ahead of the imminent release of a highly anticipated White House national strategy on combating antisemitism. Bewilderingly, the strategy has been delayed over contention as to how to define antisemitism.

That the Biden administration is only now attempting to define antisemitism is itself tremendously concerning, because you cannot fight what you cannot define. Regardless, now that officials are finally at the point of spelling out what constitutes prejudice against Jews, it is of paramount importance that they include the right definition and only the right definition.

In this regard, there should be no debate, because there is only one “gold standard” definition: the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism. It is the most widely endorsed, comprehensive and respected definition in the world, targeting the full cross-spectrum of antisemitism from the left and right.

Enacted in 2016, the IHRA definition was the culmination of a 15-year-long review process by a multitude of experts, lawmakers and civil society stakeholders to determine and describe what actually constitutes antisemitism. Today, it has been adopted by more than 40 countries, as well as the European Commission, the Latin American Parliament and over 1,100 institutions and governing bodies worldwide. Importantly, the overwhelming majority of the American mainstream Jewish community is fully unified behind it.

Simply put, no other definition has received even close to such widespread support. Nor does any other definition have years of demonstrated success at curbing anti-Jewish bigotry or hate.

In the U.S., the IHRA definition has been the pre-eminent and bipartisan source for defining modern antisemitism, serving as a guiding tool by the Department of State and Department of Education, and having also been adopted by over 30 states.

In March 2021, Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated that the Biden administration “enthusiastically embraces” the IHRA working definition. It has also been embraced by both current and past U.S. special envoys on antisemitism.

That being the case, one cannot help but ask what it is causing the hesitation among the members of the president’s task force.

The answer is that the Biden administration has been under relentless pressure from progressive elements within its own party to extricate or minimize any reference to Israel, to “allow more space for criticism of Israel.”

In fact, the IHRA definition does not chill, silence, censor or stifle criticism of Israel or advocacy for Palestinians. In fact, the IHRA definition explicitly states that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.” The definition also includes helpful examples, however, illustrating how, “taking into account the overall context,” purported criticism of Israel can sometimes evince antisemitism. This occurs, for example, when critics apply double standards against Israel that they would not apply to other democratic nations, “[draw] comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis,” or “[deny] the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.”

Ahead of the Biden administration’s unveiling of its national strategy to counter antisemitism, there are reports that, while it might highlight the IHRA definition, it may also reference “alternatives.” Doing so would be a terrible idea.

Not a single one of these alternatives has ever even been adopted by a government entity or major institution, and for good reason: They fail to identify some of the most common manifestations of modern anti-Jewish hate, including the targeting and vilification of Israel “conceived as a Jewish collectivity.”

With antisemitism surging to unprecedented levels across America, now is not the time to equivocate. If the Biden administration is serious about delivering the “most ambitious, comprehensive effort in our history to combat antisemitism in America,” it will not appease those seeking to undermine this effort. Rather, it will unequivocally endorse the IHRA working definition as the sole and indispensable definition of antisemitism.

Arsen Ostrovsky is a human rights attorney and CEO of The International Legal Forum. You can follow him on Twitter at @Ostrov_A. Mark Goldfeder is director of the National Jewish Advocacy Center (@MarkGoldfeder).

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