With attacks targeting Jews now exceeding record levels, President Trump’s executive order implementing an internationally accepted definition of anti-Semitism is crucial in the overall efforts to protect Jewish students from on-campus discrimination.
Before anti-Semitism can be effectively dealt with, it must first be clearly and concisely defined.
The executive order defines anti-Semitism in accordance with the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance working definition. IHRA membership consists of 34 countries. On its founding in 1998, its mandate was to research and counter the growing phenomenon of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial. In 2016, the organization formulated an objective definition of anti-Semitism, which was then officially adopted by the European Union and the U.S. Department of State. President Trump’s executive order instructs the U.S. Department of Education and Department of Justice to use IHRA’s definition of anti-Semitism when evaluating claims of discrimination. IHRA’s objective definition is now the consensus international standard, in part because it can be effectively utilized to assess all ideological forms of anti-Semitism.
The adoption of IHRA’s working definition of anti-Semitism represents an important development among world leadership, enabling assessment and monitoring of modern-day anti-Semitism and the effectiveness of deterrence efforts. Several clauses of the working definition specifically address contemporary anti-Israel sentiment, such as holding Israel to a double standard, denying the Jewish right to self-determination by claiming that Israel should not exist as the Jewish homeland, or drawing comparisons between Nazi and Israeli policies. These are examples of classic anti-Semitic canards in the guise of anti-Israel or anti-Zionist political views. Contemporary anti-Semitism has the dangerous potential to be every bit as corrosive and deadly, and requires updated definitional and public policy tools in order to defeat this scourge, particularly at educational institutions as President Trump’s executive order highlights.
There are cynics who oppose the IHRA’s definition, particularly its recognition that anti-Israel and anti-Zionist messages can cross the line from legitimate criticism of Israel into the realm of anti-Semitism. Their primary tactic is promoting false concerns that defining anti-Semitism for the purpose of combating crime and discrimination will ultimately violate the principles of free speech.
Criminal and discriminatory activity are not protected by the First Amendment. By definition, the laws of discrimination governed by Title VI of the Civil Rights Act necessarily curtail unlimited free speech. There are countless existing federal and state laws targeting discrimination based upon such characteristics as gender, race, or disability. Each of these laws delineates what is prohibited; oftentimes the parameters of the discriminatory conduct relate to speech. President Trump’s executive order delivered nothing new whatsoever in relation to free speech.
The bone of contention among many of the vehement opponents of this executive order is that its protections are being extended to Jews in a particularly objective and effective way. The obvious double standard is that if these same protections were applied to any other identity group, these critics would likely stand as proponents.
Why is defining anti-Semitism so critical to law enforcement today?
As reported in a 2019 Amcha Initiative report, anti-Semitism on university campuses is skyrocketing:
Without the accurate definition of contemporary anti-Semitism set forth in the executive order, discrimination against Jewish students on university campuses would continue to be overwhelmingly unaddressed. Today, the ever-present dilemma faced by university presidents is whether to acknowledge anti-Semitism or downplay it as a matter of protected criticism of Israel. Too often, the subjective biases and self-interests of university administrations become controlling factors. Sadly, the majority of cases are thus swept under the rug, with no actions taken to protect victimized students and prevent such events from recurring, and eventually leading to an atmosphere of fear and intimidation for Jews.
This executive order defining anti-Semitism using the internationally accepted definition addresses the reality of discrimination on college campuses today. Quick and full adoption will enable Jewish students to live and study in a safe environment free of harassment.
Joseph Sabag is Executive Director of IAC for Action. Ron Machol is the COO of Zachor Legal Institute (www.zachorlegal.org). Both are organizations that use law and public policy to combat anti-Semitism.