Read the full piece at Jewish Currents

By Mari Cohen

Last Thursday, after the Biden administration released an unprecedented, 100-plus-pronged federal plan to combat antisemitism, my inbox filled up with press releases from Jewish organizations across the political spectrum claiming victory. Progressive groups like Bend the Arc and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ) as well as establishment organizations like the Conference of Presidents, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), and the American Jewish Committee (AJC) all celebrated their success in lobbying the administration to adopt their policy priorities. (Only a few right-wing exceptions, like the Republican Jewish Coalition, StopAntisemitism, and the Zionist Organization of America, have expressed disappointment.) In some cases, the groups seemed to be drawing contradictory conclusions from the same document, especially when it came to the plan’s inclusion of the controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) “working definition” of antisemitism, which explicitly defines certain types of anti-Zionist speech as antisemitism. The Jewish Federations of North America announced that they were “pleased that the White House reaffirms the [IHRA] working definition of antisemitism,” adding that they “maintain our commitment to its uncontested use.” The ADL even insisted in a press release that the Biden administration had “adopted” the IHRA. Meanwhile the dovish two-state-solution organization Americans for Peace Now (APN) wrote to “thank the administration for . . . not endorsing or otherwise codifying into law the problematic” IHRA definition.

The unanimous acclaim for the plan makes it hard to parse what the document is actually doing. “All the groups that put out statements are sophisticated enough to know that it was extremely important for them to be supportive,” said Matt Nosanchuk, founder of the liberal group New York Jewish Agenda, who served as a liaison to the Jewish community in the Obama White House. “Here you have the first ever American national strategy to combat antisemitism, so how could a major Jewish organization—many of which called for such a strategy—credibly criticize it and distance themselves?” Still, a close read shows that, on a few key debates, the Biden administration has incorporated the advice and perspectives of progressive Jewish groups—and rejected the more conservative organizations’ agenda. While the administration acknowledged that IHRA is the “most prominent” definition of antisemitism, it did not fulfill the Jewish establishment’s request that the government adopt IHRA as the sole acceptable definition and encourage its use in policy; instead, the Biden plan nodded to the fact that multiple definitions of antisemitism have been proposed. The plan also emphasized the idea, common in progressive Jewish advocacy circles, that antisemitism frequently occurs alongside other manifestations of hatred—including racism, Islamophobia, and anti-LGBTQ sentiment—and is best fought in coalition.

Despite these nods to progressives, the majority of the plan’s policy planks simply reiterate the federal government’s existing approaches to fighting antisemitic violence—many of which involve security programming run by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the FBI, agencies that left-wing activists have criticized for targeting marginalized groups. Still, the plan signals that progressive Jewish groups in the US have succeeded in making antisemitism policy contested territory, rather than the sole purview of legacy organizations like the ADL. “The White House, in having to listen to the Jewish community, had to go beyond what the usual suspects wanted,” said Emma Saltzberg, US strategic campaigns director for Diaspora Alliance, a group that fights antisemitism and its weaponization. “There’s something hopeful and encouraging about what can happen when more of the range of Jewish opinions and experiences are taken into account.”

The Fight Over the IHRA

When Biden announced the formation of a council to combat antisemitism last December, “the assumption was that the White House was going to endorse and codify IHRA,” said Hadar Susskind, president and CEO of APN. The definition had been adopted by the US State Department in 2016 and praised by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and by Deborah Lipstadt, the special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism. US allies abroad had also made IHRA a linchpin of their government-sponsored anti-antisemitism work: A 2021 European Union plan to combat antisemitism called on member states to adopt it as a top order of business; to date, 30 European countries have done so. Establishment groups have long lobbied the Biden administration to do the same: Expanding the use of IHRA was central to a list of recommendations to the executive branch the AJC released last September, for example. But in conducting nearly 1,000 listening sessions over five months, the administration spoke not just to bigwigs like the AJC, but also to representatives of progressive groups like Bend the Arc and local social justice organizations like New York City’s JFREJ, Chicago’s Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, and Minneapolis’s Jewish Community Action. The week before the plan’s release, the Jewish press reported that legacy organizations were in a panic, because they had learned that alongside IHRA, the plan would reference an alternate definition of antisemitism known as the Nexus Document. (Nexus, created in 2021 by a task force of liberal professors and activists, explicitly states that not all anti-Zionism is caused by antisemitism.)

Before the plan was even public, therefore, Jewish groups were sparring over its contents. ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt tweeted that “no other definitions” of antisemitism besides IHRA would “work”; the Conference of Presidents sent the administration a letter from 550 rabbis arguing that IHRA must be adopted as the “official and only” antisemitism definition. The fight over the definition threatened to “overshadow” the plan itself, the Forward’s Arno Rosenfeld reported, becoming a proxy war for “competing visions of Jewish safety.” On one side, he wrote, centrist and right-wing organizations “emphasize defending Israel and explaining the ways that antisemitism is different from other forms of racism,” and thus promote IHRA, which codifies some anti-Israel sentiment as antisemitism. On the other, “progressives see white supremacy as the greatest threat to Jews and focus on building broad coalitions to stop far-right extremism,” leading them to promote definitions of antisemitism that don’t preclude Palestine solidarity activism.

Ultimately, the leaks turned out to be true: Though the plan states that the US has “embraced” the IHRA definition, it also says it “welcomes” Nexus, and acknowledges that the meaning of antisemitism is disputed terrain, noting that “there are several definitions.” While only IHRA and Nexus are mentioned by name, the White House also notes the existence of “other such efforts,” likely referring to the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism, which has been endorsed by 350 scholars and states that opposing Zionism is not antisemitic. The plan does not suggest codifying IHRA or using it in any official capacity, and instead offers a paragraph of original language to describe anti-Jewish sentiment, defining antisemitism as “prejudice, bias, hostility, discrimination, or violence against Jews for being Jewish” that “can manifest as a form of racial, religious, national origin, and/or ethnic discrimination, bias, or hatred.” It doesn’t mention Israel at all. This demonstrates an avoidant approach to IHRA’s anti-anti-Zionism that also characterizes the rest of the document, in which the word “Israel” is mentioned on only three of 60 pages. The plan does note that the administration is approaching its antisemitism strategy with “unshakable commitment to the State of Israel’s right to exist, its legitimacy, and its security”—but none of the official policy suggestions advocate supporting Israel or challenging anti-Zionist politics. (This fact has not stopped the spin: After the plan was released, US Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told Jewish Insider that he was proud of having “succeeded” in lobbying the administration for “strong language” on IHRA in response to the concerns of Jewish groups—a puzzling statement given that the document includes the very language that pro-Israel groups had said they feared.)

The document is the latest in a series of defeats for proponents of the IHRA definition. In February, the American Bar Association removed IHRA from a resolution condemning antisemitism after civil rights groups argued that including it would harm Palestinians and undermine free speech. In January, Biden’s Department of Education announced that it would delay issuing a rule that advocates had expected might enshrine the definition as the standard for adjudicating campus civil rights complaints. Now, the language in Biden’s plan suggests that progressive coalitions have indeed succeeded in politicizing the IHRA by pointing out its free speech implications. “The fact that this process didn’t result in the US government adopting the IHRA definition demonstrates that opponents of its adoption, which include most civil rights groups in the United States in addition to progressive Jews and Palestinian groups, are a force to be reckoned with,” said Saltzberg. Susskind agreed: “That’s a giant win for us and a loss of giant magnitudes for ADL and AJC and others who spent a gazillion dollars and hours on these huge campaigns pushing how essential IHRA is.”

Read the full piece at Jewish Currents