Weaponizing Anti-Semitism, State Department Delegitimizes Human Rights Groups


Analysis by FMEP’s Lara Friedman, published at the American Prospect on November 12, 2020

Weaponizing Anti-Semitism, State Department Delegitimizes Human Rights Groups

Authoritarian regimes and illiberal forces will exploit the new U.S. policy.

Amidst the hullabaloo around last week’s U.S. elections, most people probably forgot the recent shocking news that the U.S. Department of State plans to label three leading global human rights groups—Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Oxfam—“anti-Semitic.” They shouldn’t have. A new report today suggests that the plans will not only move forward, but will be geared to have even broader impact than originally suggested. With the victory of President-elect Biden, some might now be tempted to dismiss all of this as a desperate, partisan gambit that, if implemented, will be easily undone by a new Biden administration. In reality, the labeling of humanitarian and civil society groups as “anti-Semitic” looms as an inexorable outcome, now or in the future, of an ongoing and escalating campaign, embraced by Democrats and Republicans alike, which has weaponized combating anti-Semitism to quash criticism of Israel, attack progressive political actors and movements, and delegitimize civil society organizations.

At the core of this campaign is the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) “working definition of antisemitism,” which, in a memo explaining the targeting of Amnesty and friends, the State Department contends the groups are violating. The IHRA was established in 1998 to “strengthen, advance and promote Holocaust education, research and remembrance.” Over time, it increasingly focused on anti-Semitism, and today positions itself as the international body with responsibility for fighting—and authoritatively defining—anti-Semitism. Herein lies the controversy.

There appears to be bipartisan support around making the IHRA definition the official U.S. tool for rooting out alleged anti-Semitism.

Traditionally, “anti-Semitism” means hostility and prejudice toward Jews because they are Jews—a scourge that has imperiled Jews throughout history, and is a source of resurgent threats to Jews today. The IHRA definition, in contrast, is explicitly politicized, refocusing the term to encompass not only hatred of Jews, but also hostility toward and criticism of the modern state of Israel. For example, it labels as anti-Semitic “applying double standards” to Israel or requiring of Israel “behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.” While it notes that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic,” in practice this “double standard” language has paved the way for attacking virtually all criticism of Israel as prima facie anti-Semitic, based on the simplistic argument that focusing criticism on Israel, when other nations are guilty of similarly bad behavior, can only reflect animus against Jews.

According to this logic, it is anti-Semitic to challenge Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands—unless one is equally challenging occupation anywhere. Likewise, boycotting or calling to boycott Israel or settlements to protest violations of Palestinian rights is considered anti-Semitic—unless one is similarly boycotting every country guilty of violating the rights of any people, anywhere.

The IHRA definition also stipulates that it is anti-Semitic to 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”—notwithstanding the fact that other peoples, including Palestinians, are denied self-determination, and other nations have their existence challenged, including, for example, by Israelis who argue that the state of Jordan should be replaced with Palestine. Yet, this line has become the basis for indicting anyone who identifies as anti-Zionist, or who supports boycotts of Israel or settlements, as anti-Semitic, irrespective of their reasoning and absent evidence that their views are grounded in hostility toward not Israel, but Jews.

In December 2019, President Donald Trump was applauded by members of both parties for his Executive Order on Combating Anti-Semitism, in which he gave the IHRA definition and its Israel-focused examples the weight of U.S. law. Since then, that order has been the basis for a flood of complaints and investigations targeting U.S. campuses, based on allegations related to criticism of Zionism and Israel. Separately, there have been efforts to incorporate the IHRA definition and its examples into laws dealing with hate crimes and discrimination in U.S. states. There is also an ongoing campaign pressing Facebook and other social media platforms to adopt and enforce the IHRA definition and its examples, with the key backers making clear that their target is not anti-Semitism as it is traditionally defined, but anti-Zionism and criticism of Israel.

In September 2020, the State Department promised a “whole-of-government” approach to the issue of fighting the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement; the department’s targeting of human rights groups, based on tying the IHRA definition to BDS to allege anti-Semitism, makes clear what this approach, if implemented before Trump leaves office, will be about. The threat, however, is not just from the Trump administration. The call to use the IHRA definition in a “whole-of-government” approach to fight anti-Semitism was articulated previously by Democratic congressman Ted Deutch of Florida, in a 2019 op-ed entitled “The US Should Adopt the IHRA Definition of Anti-Semitism.” While Deutch condemned the State Department’s plans to label human rights groups anti-Semitic, he has not retracted his support for implementing the definition in general.

The IHRA definition is explicitly politicized, refocusing the term to encompass not only hatred of Jews, but also hostility toward and criticism of the modern state of Israel.

In short, there appears to be bipartisan support around making the IHRA definition, already adopted by an ever-growing list of countries, the official U.S. tool for rooting out alleged anti-Semitism. Should this come to pass, the full spectrum of organizations that challenge Israeli policies—or that advocate, support, or defend boycotts of Israel or settlements—will find themselves in the U.S. government’s crosshairs.

The State Department’s targeting of humanitarian and civil society groups must be understood in this context. It is not an isolated outrage, as it is being treated by some longtime backers of the IHRA definition who appear shocked to see the definition used this way, like the Anti-Defamation League. Rather, it is an inevitable consequence, intended or not, of the effort to enforce the IHRA’s politicized definition of anti-Semitism, and the dangerous implications of this effort cannot be overstated. It will be a short leap from sticking the “anti-Semitism” label on a group like Amnesty International—which does not accept U.S. funding in any case—to sticking it on virtually all groups that engage on Israel-Palestine, including many that rely on U.S. funding for their work across the globe. Other angles of attack will doubtless come into play, like seeking to strip nonprofit organizations of their tax-exempt status (a first shot at which is already under way). Across the globe, authoritarian regimes and illiberal forces will exploit the new U.S. policy as a pretext to escalate their own attacks on civil society groups.

Delegitimizing the world’s leading human rights organizations with false accusations of anti-Semitism is a feature, not a bug, of a larger effort to weaponize the fight against anti-Semitism for political ends. Even with Biden moving into the White House in January 2021, absent a determined effort to roll back or amend the IHRA definition, or to adopt a different interpretation of its examples, the targeting of vital human rights and humanitarian aid organizations, in the United States and around the world, will be just the start.