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Three Definitions of Antisemitism, Part 2

By TTN Blog

Just prior to Holocaust Remembrance Day, our TTN colleague, David Schraub (pictured here), has continued to analyze definitions of antisemitism in a number of venues.  Part I of his discussion centered around his chart comparing three distinct frameworks on antisemitism: the increasingly prevalent “working definition” from the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), which triggered the new “Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism” (JDA) as a counter perspective, and the “Nexus” analytical statement (for which Schraub was a co-author) emanating from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.     

Prof. Schraub followed up in his March 26th blogpost, noting that: 

the JDA seems to have been very invested in coming up with a definition that could get non- or anti-Zionists onboard alongside at least liberal Zionists (getting a document signed by Susannah Heschel and Richard Falk is no mean feat!). In doing so, the JDA gives the non-Zionist contingent a few very big wins: it expressly declares BDS not antisemitic, and it more or less declares calls for the dissolution of Israel to be not antisemitic (the constraint is that any alternative polity that is envisioned must be one that protects “the right of Jews in the State of Israel … to exist and flourish, collectively and individually, as Jews”).

Critics of the JDA, including most who have discussed this in TTN’s email google group, have noted its endorsement by vociferous anti-Zionists.  In a new opinion piece in Haaretz, Prof. Schraub has again pronounced himself on this matter:

. . . in practice, the JDA is being interpreted almost solely as a tool for denying things are antisemitic. It scarcely ever is cited to actually declare something antisemitic . . . . 

Consequently, the JDA has garnered enthusiastic reception from individuals whose main take on antisemitism is that we hear too much about it.

One could already see glimmers of this in the original list of signatories, which included people such as 9/11 truther Richard Falk whose own records on antisemitism were decidedly unsavory and could fairly be indicted even by the JDA’s own language.

. . .  the eminent scholar of antisemitism David Hirsh has … a colorable claim when he alleges that endeavors like the JDA “are not about fighting antisemitism; they’re about fighting efforts to fight antisemitism. They’re not about standing with Jews against antisemitism, they’re about standing with antisemites against accusations of antisemitism.” . . .

The JDA’s basic definition of antisemitism is “Discrimination, prejudice, hostility or violence against Jews as Jews.”  In his typically calm and fair-minded way, Schraub challenges supporters of the JDA to condemn specific instances of antisemitism.  He cites the views of British sociologist David Miller, whose conspiracy charges against Jewish student organizations precisely exemplifies antisemitism as cited by the JDA: “treating Jews, simply because they are Jewish, as agents of Israel.”

One Response to “Three Definitions of Antisemitism, Part 2”

  1. February 12, 2022 at 6:41 pm #

    Apropos of that Haaretz piece by David Schraub criticizing the implications and likely effects of the Jerusalem Declaration … it’s worth noting this devastating follow-up about an illuminating test case:

    “Why Did the JDA Exonerate David Miller?”

    “A few months ago, I described the David Miller controversy as the JDA’s ‘test case’: would it ever be used to declare a contested case of commentary on ‘Zionism’ to be antisemitic, or would it only be used to level “‘not guilty’ verdicts? Shortly thereafter, it was revealed that an internal investigation by the University of Bristol into Miller’s antisemitism had entirely exonerated him — largely relying on the JDA to do so. The JDA critics cried vindication.

    Now, two signatories of the JDA — Yair Wallach and David Feldman (the latter is a JDA co-author) — have written to explain why they think that was incorrect and a misapplication of JDA. They make reasonable arguments for why Miller’s conduct should have been viewed as antisemitic under the JDA framework. However, they observe, a definition is only as good as those applying it — Labour, after all, didn’t become instantly free of antisemitism simply after adopting IHRA. The JDA, too — any definition, really — can only be so resistant against interpreters determined to see no evil.

    This is a fair point. But I think a little more reflection is needed. Reading Wallach and Feldman, one might get the sense that the exoneration of Miller was simply a matter of bad luck: the university picked the wrong actor to conduct its internal inquiry, who did a bad job reading the JDA and so came to incorrect conclusions. A better reader who exhibited more careful, lawyerly interpretive skills would have come to the right conclusion: that Miller was, under the JDA framework, antisemitic.

    I agree that texts alone will provide only moderate, if any, constraints on poor reading. And I agree that the JDA, fairly read, very much can provide support for why Miller was antisemitic. But Wallach and Feldman do not grapple with the CULTURAL meaning of JDA which I think clearly is germane to why it was used, as its critics predicted it would be, as a tool of exculpation.

    As a CULTURAL phenomenon, JDA was introduced to the world as a corrective against the overzealous labeling of things as antisemitic. The “problem” JDA was there to correct was the presumed assumption by IHRA and its adherents that ‘criticism of Israel is antisemitic’; it corrected this (among other ways) by sharply delinking ‘Jewishness’ and ‘Zionism’ and declaring itself a sentinel against their wrongful conflation. In a real sense, the JDA was less concerned about protecting Jews from antisemitism than it was protecting non-Jews from being (wrongfully) accused of antisemitism. It’s not that the former wasn’t important, but the latter was what JDA believed was missing from antisemitism discourse and addressing that problem was accordingly the document’s value-added. Nearly all of the JDA’s marketing and public reception centered around this function, and it was accordingly taken up as the standard by people whose primary orientation towards antisemitism is that of Bruce Robbins: ‘The real issue here is anti-Semitism; that is, accusing people of it’.

    JDA defenders will no doubt argue, as Wallach and Feldman do, that the text of JDA belies any claim that it is unconcerned with what is antisemitic and that, properly applied JDA very much can and does offer resources which can support a guilty verdict as much as a not-guilty one. This is true, but only in the same way that IHRA also has textual resources which could be used to forestall its use as a blunt cudgel against any harsh criticism of Israel. [….]

    It is not accidental nor idiosyncratic, then, when JDA is read and interpreted in a fashion that maximizes its function as an exculpatory tool. Those who read it that way aren’t reading it badly, they’re just reading it in the context of how it was presented to the world. Since the JDA is a corrective to overuse of antisemitism, it is hardly a misreading when readers adopt a canon of construction where all ambiguities should be resolved against a finding of antisemitism.

    If JDA proponents want to head off those readings, they cannot simply ask for people to be better or more educated readers. They’ll have to take aim at the golden calf of their EPISTEMIC camp, and decisively declare that the problem of antisemitism is not just ‘accusing people of it’, the problem is as much (if not — dare I say — more so) reflexive denials of it. Unless and until the JDA forthrightly tackles that aspect of how we talk about antisemitism, no amount of careful reading will stop the JDA from being almost exclusively seen as and used as a means of exonerating anyone and everyone from antisemitism.”

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