This week the American Bar Association (ABA) passed a resolution condemning antisemitism after it removed a reference to International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) controversial working definition. Critics of the definition have long warned that it can be implemented as a tool to stifle Palestinian activism and speech.
The original version of Resolution 514, which was approved by the ABA House of Delegates at its midyear meeting in New Orleans, called on the U.S. government,
to condemn antisemitism based on the IHRA’s definition, but the body faced pressure from human rights groups over its inclusion.
More than 40 organizations (including the ACLU, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and Palestine Legal) sent a letter to the resolution’s cosponsors detailing their concerns about the definition.
“Just as we believe the ABA should be involved in fighting antisemitism, we believe the ABA —consistent with its commitment to the rule of law, the legal process, holding governments accountable under law, human rights, and justice—has an important role to play in conveying concerns about Israel and its policies,” it reads.
With that in mind, we are concerned that the reference to the IHRA definition in the ABA resolution would undermine the ABA’s own ability to engage on key issues related to Palestinian rights, including in support of human rights defenders who are increasingly under attack.
The Center for Constitutional Rights and Palestine Legal also sent a supplemental letter providing multiple examples of how the definition is used to censor Palestine advocates.
The IHRA working definition was developed 2016. It defines antisemitism as, “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.” Many have criticized the vague nature of this definition and expressed concern over the “contemporary examples” of antisemitism that are attached to the definition. Some of these examples consider certain criticisms of Israel as antisemitic.
In 2020 a group of over 100 Arab academics and intellectuals published an open letter detailing their concerns about the definition and last year 128 scholars put out a statement asking the United Nations to refrain from adopting it. “Let us be clear: we wholeheartedly welcome the commitment of the UN to fight antisemitism and commend the UN for its vital efforts in this regard,” it reads.
What we object to and strongly warn against is that the UN would jeopardize this essential fight and harm its universal mission to promote human rights by endorsing a politicized definition that is instrumentalized to deter free speech and to shield the Israeli government from accountability for its actions.
Even Kenneth Stern, the lead drafter of the definition, has challenged the idea that the it should be adopted by schools and spoken out against its weaponization. “The definition was intended for data collectors writing reports about anti-Semitism in Europe,” he wrote in a 2016 New York Times op-ed.
It was never supposed to curtail speech on campus.
After former president Donald Trump signed an executive order that effectively adopted the definition as a campus hate speech code Stern wrote,
If you think this isn’t about suppressing political speech, contemplate a parallel. There’s no definition of anti-black racism that has the force of law when evaluating a title VI case. If you were to craft one, would you include opposition to affirmative action? Opposing removal of Confederate statues?
Thirty U.S. states have adopted the definition through legislation or executive action and lawmakers are currently pushing it in a number of the remaining states. Earlier this week New Jersey Palestine solidarity organizations released a petition rejecting such an IHRA measure that’s pending in the state’s legislature.
“The fight against resurgent right-wing antisemitism must be part of the struggle against ALL forms of racism and oppression, not conducted via resolutions, bills, or policies of any kind that use antisemitism as a pretext to muzzle the call for justice throughout historic Palestine,” it reads.