Against Overuse of IHRA Definition of Antisemitism

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s non-legally binding working definition of antisemitism (the IHRA definition) was never intended to be the final word on what is and is not antisemitic. It is, as David Schraub wrote, “vague to the point of incoherency, and riddled with so much imprecision and hedging that it could justify labeling anything or nothing anti-Semitic.”

Supporters of the IHRA definition mention that many jurisdictions have adopted the IHRA definition but don’t mention that supporters of other definitions have made no effort to codify them into law. Proponents of the IHRA definition have yet to provide any evidence that antisemitic speech or violence declined anywhere in the U.S. or anywhere in the world following the adoption of the IHRA definition in any jurisdiction.

When was the last time you saw the IHRA definition cited to determine whether a statement was antisemitic? Think back to controversies about Ye, Dave Chappelle, Donald Trump, Elon Musk’s recent comparison of George Soros to a Jewish comic book superhero–you won’t find anyone citing the IHRA definition because it’s unnecessary and irrelevant. Its original purpose was to help European data collectors identify possible instances of antisemitism. Now it exists mainly to help right-wing supporters of Israel avoid addressing the merits of certain criticism of Israel by labeling such criticism as antisemitic. If they have that little faith in themselves or in Israel to defend Israel on the merits maybe they should ask themselves why.

If the drafters of President Biden’s strategy to counter antisemitism deem it necessary to define antisemitism, they should remember that we have better definitions than the IHRA definition that we can use in addition to or instead of the IHRA definition. At best, the IHRA definition is one of many tools at our disposal. Jonathan Jacoby, who directs the Nexus group, said that “the big mistake people are making about IHRA is that it’s the final word and there are many words and perspectives.” This chart compares three leading definitions of antisemitism and shows that all have pluses and minuses.

We do not have consensus within the Jewish community on the IHRA definition. It is a divisive definition with free speech implications that distracts from what should be our focus: fighting antisemitism and prioritizing its most dangerous manifestations, which in the U.S. emanate from white supremacist and right-wing extremist movements and individuals. Questions? Read my post on how not to define antisemitism.

Click “Hate Will Not Win” to read the entire posting of the May 21, 2023 issue of “Steve Sheffey’s Pro-Israel Political Update” (including how to subscribe to and support this weekly newsletter).