Wednesday, November 16, 2022

It's Not (Always) About IHRA

The Cal student government just passed a resolution denouncing antisemitism. However, a handful of student Senators (I've seen different reports -- between five and nine) abstained from the vote, contending that the resolution "penalizes" senators by "forcing them" to approve a resolution that "equates supporting Palestine with being antisemitic."

When I hear language like that, I immediately assume that the problem is over utilization of the IHRA antisemitism definition -- a widely accepted tool for identifying antisemitism that has come under significant scrutiny and controversy for allegedly improperly targeting pro-Palestinian speech or action.

But here, the resolution doesn't mention IHRA. In fact, the resolution doesn't talk about Israel at all. None of the "whereas" clauses speak to antisemitic incidents related to Israel. None of the resolution parameters in any way speak about Israel or Zionism in any way whatsoever.

So given all of that, how is it that a cluster of students -- a minority, but not an insignificant one -- thinks that the resolution "equates supporting Palestine with being antisemitic"?

The apparent answer is that the resolution identifies a webpage created by Berkeley's Center for Jewish Studies as a resource students can use to find more about antisemitism. And that webpage, in turn, among its many links and resources, contains a video about antisemitism which, contains a small segment trying to articulate when criticism of Israel becomes antisemitic. 

The video draws the line in relatively normal places (criticism of Israeli policies is fine, supporting a Palestinian state is fine, supporting Arab rights in Israel is fine; relying on classic antisemitic imagery is not fine; Nazi comparisons are not fine; opposing Israel's existence where one supports analogous forms of national autonomy groupings for other marginalized groups is not fine). But one needn't find the video sacrosanct to think that it represents a tremendously thin reed through which to say that this particular resolution "equates supporting Palestine with being antisemitic."

I think this reaction, though, illustrates something important. Much of the criticism of, for example, IHRA, styles itself as lawyerly or technical objections to IHRA's vagueness, or over- or under-inclusivity. I share many of those criticisms; I think IHRA has many problems. Yet I've been very hesitant to join in on the various "drop IHRA" campaigns. And the reason why is that the underlying social movement that drives these campaigns is not one predicated on technical or lawyerly objections. It is based on belief in a more fundamental claimed entitlement: the absolute right that no type of "anti-Israel" or "pro-Palestine" speech or conduct ever be deemed antisemitic, in any case or context. Any condemnation of antisemitism that doesn't promise plenary indulgence for anti-Israel activity will be deemed tantamount to "equating supporting Palestine with being antisemitic."

For this reason, I think that many of the more thoughtful anti-IHRA critics are deluding themselves if they think their compatriots' problem with IHRA really boils down to things like "there's no need for a more specific codified standard of antisemitism" or "it's too vague" or "it's applied overexpansively". All of those things may be true -- but one can take them all away and the core opposition would still remain in any case where claims of antisemitism are treated as conceptually plausible in a non-trivial number of cases relating to speech or conduct about Israel or Zionism.

The Berkeley resolution studiously -- perhaps too studiously -- avoided the issue of Israel. It passed, which was good. But the minority opposition's claims that even a resolution that anodyne was objectionable -- that it was tantamount equating any support for Palestine with antisemitism -- I think is revelatory about a sort of political positioning on antisemitism that cannot be dismissed as a bit player. For some people, it isn't about IHRA, nor about technical objections or more precise language. A lot of the push here is by people who will settle for nothing less than a blanket, preemptive exoneration of anything and everything that might be said or done to or about Jews, so long as it styles itself as "supporting Palestine." And it's going to be up to the good faith critics of IHRA et al to recognize the existence of that cadre and its non-triviality, and decide how to sever them from the ranks, because right now they're unfortunately driving a lot of the conversation forward in a fashion that -- if they have their way -- would essentially make any non-nugatory move against antisemitism impossible.

1 comment:

Ben said...

From my vantage point, the raison d'etre of IHRA was to provide a nuanced definition that incorporated what anti-Semitism IS, what anti-Semitism is NOT, and how to cover this detail-laden ground with the baseline understanding that anti-Semitism is a very serious and real present-day concern. The JDA, on the other hand, had as its raison d'etre a strident coverage of only the "what it's not" area and to give Leftists coverage to demand Israel no longer exist (outside of dark fantasy-based views of secular-binationality that would exist entirely at the discretion of Leftists and their Palestinian pets). That's why the IHRA is valuable on its basis despite its flaws, and why the JDA isn't worth shit on its bases even before one gets into the legion details of how it's bankrupt.