Written By: Nadav Raz
Defining antisemitism is, in essence, defining what it means to be Jewish. Which is why, as the treasurer of the Undergraduate Student Government at Brooklyn College, I made a concerted effort to block the passage of the IHRA’s “Working Definition of Antisemitism” from being enacted into student government law. While on the surface, the definition was mostly acceptable, my main problems with it can be found within two stipulations which are used by the IHRA as examples of antisemitism, both relating to the state of Israel.
The first one I have a problem with is the example: “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.” As an American-Israeli Jew born in Israel, I find such an example deeply disturbing and wrong. For starters, claiming that ‘legitimate’ criticism of Jewish institutions or its foundations is antisemitic, would be to necessarily tie the Jewish identity, which means every Jew, to the actions or existence of specific institutions. This is, by the IHRA’s very own definition, antisemitic.
The root of the problem comes down to what one considers legitimate criticism of Jewish institutions or doctrine. Being a ‘non-practicing’ (whatever the hell that means) Jew myself, with a belief system that pertains to the practicalities of this current century, such a stipulation would have me, and many Jews like me, be considered antisemites. This is both ridiculous and offensive.
My experience with antisemitism, which due to my upbringing in western Europe was rather unique, fortifies my resolve against such silly and dangerous definitions of antisemitism. That is because what it means to be a Jew, as what it means to be of any ethnicity, race or gender, can be found in how one is perceived by the rest of the world. While people may try to subvert their identity to the best of their ability with varying degrees of success, it is ultimately not up to oneself to decide what they are in the eyes of others. I am a Jew because I look like a Jew and I look like a Jew because others identify me as such. I have little choice in the matter. That I am occasionally mistaken for being Irish, Russian, Polish, or even a downright dignified WASP, does not dilute this meaning of what it means to be Jewish, anymore than it dilutes the word “Jew” itself.
That is to say that, describing Israel as a racist endeavor, is indeed legitimate criticism, as Israel does not encapsulate the entirety of the Jewish experience anymore than I encapsulate the entirety of Israel. Not to mention that the State of Israel, in its legal zionist form, postdates Judaism and the Jewish people by thousands of years. But don’t mention that to the folks at the IHRA, who I’m sure might also grimace at the observation that they are wealthy, old, and out of touch with the reality of the Jewish experience.
There is also the matter of the word “denying” in relation to Jewish self-determination. Since when was self-determination a process to be taken for granted? The Israelis, and the settler colonialists who preceded them, did not happen upon the state of Israel. They brutally fought for its fruition and continued existence, as every state has always done. And they were only given that chance because of a quickly collapsing and delusional British Empire who indulged and financed the original zionists, who at the time, and up until the Second World War, made up a tiny fraction of the Jewish people.
That Israel is a state run by Jews does not shield it from the realities every state must face. The IHRA suggesting it does, is also, under their own definition of double standards, antisemitic.
The second stipulation I take issue with states that, “Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis,” is antisemitic. No, it is not. It may be inappropriate and crude, but it is not antisemitic. Although the Nazis were likely the worst manifestation of fascism and nationalism the history books have yet to experience, that qualifier alone does not negate the validity of its comparisons with other nationalist or fascist states such as contemporary Israel. Additionally, the fact that the Jewish people were the Nazis’ greatest victims still doesn’t strip meaning from comparisons being drawn on a historical axis. It is imperative that we understand the universality of the human condition. Not only do we all share the joys of laughter and love, but we also all share the darkness of greed and violence, which is often expressed most effectively through the vehicles of nationalism and one of its bleaker end results, fascism. The story of history up until today, is the story of the cycle between victim and perpetrator, and however unfortunate, no person or state has yet to be immune from this condition.
There are workable definitions of antisemitism available for use, such as the recently created “Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism,” that does not pose such dangerous contradictions as detailed above. But I must reiterate the importance of such definitions. This is not merely some abstract intellectual argument that is hashed out between academics hidden in their ivory towers. If it were, I would be too lazy to write all of this. Instead, it is of actual tangible and material value that we clearly and accurately understand each other and use definitions that have more holistic aims. For that is the only way we can relate to one another peacefully. If we begin to reduce people to institutionalized identities which are disparate from the truth, we will end up repeating the same mistakes we have always made as a species. And as the clock of history ticks on, the risks for such mistakes are not getting any smaller.
Nadav Raz is also the USG Treasurer