Universities should endorse the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism (opinion)
This month, the University of Minnesota student body widely approved a referendum condemning anti-Semitism and adopting the internationally agreed-upon working definition of anti-Semitism, known as the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition. The action has gained national attention, as Minnesota’s was the first student body to adopt the IHRA definition by referendum, although the measure has been approved by dozens of college student governments, as well as a handful of U.S. university administrations.
The timing is good. The Anti-Defamation League recently reported that 63 percent of Jewish Americans have experienced or witnessed anti-Semitism in the past five years. World Jewry is caught in a pincer-like grip between right-wing and left-wing prejudice. The recent riots on Capitol Hill have exposed the depth of Jew hatred, especially among white nationalist and neo-Nazi groups. We have seen this hatred erupt in mass bloodshed, such as the 2018 massacre at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue or the 2019 Poway shooting in Southern California. At the same time, Jews have faced increasing animosity from the left, especially when they express a commitment to Israel as a part of their Jewish identity. In American higher education, rising anti-Semitism has ranged from anti-Jewish arson and vandalism to widely orchestrated efforts to rid student governments of pro-Israel Jews.
Minnesota’s student body joins a fast-moving international consensus. The Kentucky Legislature adopted the definition in March, following similar moves in Florida and South Carolina. Ironically, some critics call the definition “controversial,” pointing to disapproval by a relatively small number of objectors. In fact, few measures have garnered so much support in the organized Jewish world. In the United States, more than 50 major Jewish American organizations, who agree about virtually nothing else, have joined in praising this definition. Internationally, the definition enjoys wide support. More than 30 countries, including Muslim-majority nations such as Albania; the Global Imams Council; European universities, including Oxford and Cambridge; major German multinational companies like Daimler AG and Volkswagen; and even the English Premier League, the most widely watched soccer division in the world, have adopted the definition.
The IHRA definition is important for several reasons. The Biden administration has full-throatedly endorsed the IHRA definition, which is embedded in the Code of Federal Regulations posted on the active policy portal of the U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights and included in a federal executive order. This means that universities will be held accountable under its terms, whether they adopt it or not. Administrators can ignore the definition, in the same sense that they can ignore federal antitrust law, but they will be held accountable for violations nonetheless.
Liability is not, however, the principal reason why universities should pay heed. It is important for higher education institutions to take strong, proactive action not only because their campus climate and federal compliance depend upon it, but also because they are now part of the problem when they should be part of the solution. While Americans often tell ourselves that education can provide the answer to such problems, the data tell a different story.
A new study by University of Arkansas researchers shows that highly educated people are more anti-Semitic than their less well-educated peers. In a national survey of over 1,800 people, the researchers, led by well-known education policy expert Jay Greene, found that the likelihood that Americans would hold Jews to double standards varied inversely with their educational attainment. That finding should be surprising only to those who have ignored increasing evidence of resurgent anti-Semitism over the last two decades.
The fact is that constant exposure to anti-Jewish campus activity is now having a spillover effect on the broader society. Rather than serving as a source of tolerance and reason, many university leaders have allowed their campuses to become breeding grounds for anti-Jewish hatred. And they have done so during a period in which they have invested heavily in equal opportunity infrastructures that have provided much-needed support for many other groups.
According to a 2020 American Jewish Committee report, 53 percent of Americans aged 18 to 29 simply do not know what anti-Semitism is. One of the goals of a uniform definition is to raise awareness, which is why congressional efforts to enact the definition were called the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act. To defeat anti-Semitism, we must understand it. The first step that universities must take to raise community awareness, serve their educational function and become the solution rather than the problem is to join the gathering global consensus by adopting the one definition that dozens of nations have now embraced.
Some critics argue that the IHRA definition will limit speech, but that is nonsense. The IHRA definition is precisely that: a definition. Like any definition, it explains how words are used and should be used. To be sure, any definition can be interpreted in a way that increases or limits speech. Most American efforts to formalize the definition, such as the U.S. Department of Education’s guidance, provide clear guardrails on its usage as well as strong supports for free speech. Properly administering antidiscrimination policies, consistent with constitutional limitations, is not rocket science. Every university succeeds daily at much harder tasks. More important, the definition protects speech by illuminating the ways in which Jewish students are too often punished for expressing their views — for example, when activist organizations try to force them out of leadership positions.
In the run-up to the University of Minnesota resolution, College Democrats argued incorrectly on Instagram that the anti-Semitism resolution would curtail their expression. The truth came out, however, when Palestinian human rights activist Bassem Eid responded, “I’m a Palestinian living in East Jerusalem … I care about my Jewish brothers and sisters. I support IHRA because it is the internationally accepted definition of antisemitism.” In response, Eid reports, IHRA’s critics deleted Eid’s post and blocked his account — a perfect demonstration of how those who falsely claim to uphold free speech are often the first to stifle it.
Other critics malign the definition through a kind of new parlor game: demonstrating that the IHRA definition can be mangled so badly, through misunderstanding or misrepresentation, that nearly anyone can be called an anti-Semite: Hannah Arendt, Tony Judt or Albert Einstein. Who knows, maybe David Ben Gurion, Moses, Maimonides or the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Serious people have discussed what sense we can make of Judt’s vehement anti-Israel writing or Arendt’s extramarital affair with a notorious Nazi. The IHRA definition, however, provides no more than guideposts around which conversations may be had, rather than glib judgments or party tricks.
In recent weeks, left-wing critics have tried, unavailingly, to slow IHRA’s momentum by proffering definitions of their own. March alone brought two such efforts: the so-called Nexus definition, sponsored by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, and the Jerusalem Declaration. At this rate, it seems, every Jewish scholar will have his or her own definition of anti-Semitism in the future. The instinct is understandable. Several years ago, I even published mine.
People have criticized the new alternative definitions for being substantively wrong. That is, however, beside the point. Even if the drafters had valid intellectual points, which they do not, their effort would be counterproductive to the extent that conflicting standards would undermine the consistency and uniformity that international standards are intended to facilitate.
While U.S. universities have lagged behind their European counterparts when it comes to adopting IHRA, it is not too late to adjust course. Instead of bemoaning the resurgence of anti-Semitism and other forms of hate, more higher education leaders should follow the model of the University of Minnesota students and take positive, proactive and visionary steps now that will pay dividends down the road.
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