Friday, March 26, 2021

A New Challenger Approaches!: Evaluating the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism

Yet another antisemitism framework has emerged, with the release of the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism (JDA) signed by around two hundred Jewish Studies scholars. This, of course, comes rapidly on the heels of the Nexus document on antisemitism (of which I was one of the drafters), meaning we now have two new antisemitism frameworks standing as potential complements (or alternatives) to the venerable IHRA definition.

The other day I made a handy table summarizing the similarities and differences between the three definitions. That was designed to be a pretty straightforward, "just the facts" presentation. But I also want to give my evaluative judgment on the Jerusalem Declaration in comparison to IHRA and Nexus (I wrote more on the Nexus document, specifically, in this post). Obviously, the fact that I was a Nexus author means I have a dog in this hunt, though I don't view these definitions as in competition with one another. And likewise, I don't have direct knowledge of the background and genesis of the Jerusalem Declaration in the same way I do for the Nexus document -- some of my comments will be based on inference and speculation. So take them with however much salt you think is appropriate.

This is a somewhat long post, divided roughly into three parts. First, I address differences in the orientation of the JDA compared to the other frameworks -- who wrote it and who their audience is. Second, I examine the JDA's relationship to IHRA -- particularly IHRA as a symbol of (depending on who you ask) rallying against antisemitism or creating toxic policing of discourse on Israel -- and how that is mediating the reception (both positive and negative) of the JDA. Finally, I address where the JDA is substantively different from the other frameworks and where it isn't. Likewise, I identify a few important areas that neither the JDA nor IHRA address that are included in the Nexus document: the inclusion of conditions (alongside attitudes and behaviors) as a potential form of antisemitism, recognizing and objecting to the practice of routine and reflexive dismissal of antisemitism claims, and addressing how Jews who take the "wrong" (however defined) position on Israel see their Jewish identity denigrated or denied -- a form of harassment that especially targets Jews of Color.

I. The JDA's Orientation

At the outset, there are a few core differences in the orientation of the JDA in comparison to the Nexus document -- who wrote it and what it is targeting. The JDA has more of a European center of gravity, whereas the Nexus is more American; the JDA is primarily endorsed by academics, whereas the Nexus document was geared more towards "community leader" sorts. Obviously, these are generalizations -- the JDA has American signatories, the Nexus document had academics involved (such as myself). But I think these broad-stroke differences exert a noticeable impact in terms of what is and isn't prioritized, and who was and wasn't sought to be "included" in the definition.

In particular, 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 [or, I imagine, its hypothetical successor] to exist and flourish, collectively and individually, as Jews"). The Nexus document, by contrast, had as its target audience (more or less) the median American Jew -- envisioned as a Biden-style Democrat who identifies as broadly Zionist and pro-Israel but has his or her fair share of criticism. Accordingly, the Nexus doesn't speak directly on BDS, implicitly judging it by the other standards in the document, and contains a more robust defense of the right of Jewish self-determination than is present in the JDA (it is notable that challenging Israel's "right to exist" is viewed as antisemitic by an extremely wide consensus of American Jews -- more so than almost any other issue). 

The JDA's audience is thus simultaneously broader and narrower than the Nexus': it reaches non-Zionist activists for whom it is exceedingly important that challenging Israel's existence as a Jewish state not be labeled antisemitic, but in doing so it may have language that's a veritable poison pill for rank-and-file Jews (at least in the US). The Nexus document was meant to be a viable set of guidelines for a Democratic administration that would let them handle antisemitism controversies while avoiding obvious shoals and pitfalls. The JDA (and I think this is true even if one agrees with it on its merits) would be more likely to provoke controversy simply because of its explicit language on BDS and its position that denying Jewish self-determination in Israel is not necessarily antisemitic. The JDA is I think more valuable as a tool of public discourse than something that could be "adopted" by a particular organization, especially (say) the Democratic Party (and the JDA is quite explicit that it is not meant to be adopted or codified as any explicit legal tool).

II. The Symbolism of IHRA

Speaking of provoking controversy, another defining feature of the JDA is its explicitly antagonistic posture towards IHRA. The Nexus document sought to position itself as primarily an interpretive resource -- a complement where IHRA was vague or incomplete (as Jonathan Jacoby put it, IHRA is the Mishnah and Nexus is the Gemara). The JDA, by contrast, is very much taking aim at the king. As I mentioned in my post on the Nexus document, IHRA has taken on such symbolic weight that one can generate almost reflexive support and opposition for a given initiative simply by presenting as a challenge to IHRA, and that's definitely occurring here. People who hate IHRA are cheering the JDA simply because it's the "anti-IHRA", even when their own conduct would seemingly be obviously indicted under the JDA's definition. As noted above, Richard Falk is a signatory even though he's endorsed materials which seem to cleanly fall under categories the JDA deems antisemitic. Jackie Walker praised the JDA too even though her antisemitism likewise would be covered by the JDA. It's doubtful that such persons are backing the JDA as a mea culpa for their past misconduct; rather, they see the JDA as a counter to IHRA's putative "weaponization" of antisemitism and endorse it on that basis. If or when the JDA does get cited to label them as antisemitic, I suspect they will be just as dismissive as they've been in the past. 

Arguably, then, just like IHRA there is a risk that the JDA will be "applied" in a purely symbolic manner divorced from its actual textual mandates. Just as IHRA's language insisting that context matters has been roundly ignored, one can easily imagine persons accused of antisemitism "citing" the JDA for the blithe retort that "criticism of Israel is not antisemitic" while disregarding language in the JDA which arguably encompasses their particular "critique". As always, one suspects the most important interpretive canon in accept or applying any definition of antisemitism will be the overriding principle "me and my friends are not antisemitic."

The hegemony of IHRA's symbolism doesn't just afflict the JDA's defenders. IHRA's advocates also have gotten so invested in the importance of IHRA as a marker for "taking antisemitism seriously" that they are often unwilling to recognize IHRA has quite a few serious gaps and ambiguities. The core definition itself is nearly useless ("A certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews" -- what does that mean?), and the illustrative examples, while helpful as far as they go (and IHRA itself says they only go so far as to be cases which "could, taking into account the overall context," be antisemitic), are significantly underinclusive even leaving aside IHRA's relative lack of guidance on what "context" can be used to assess whether any given speech or behavior that abuts one of the examples actually is antisemitic. As a symbolic gesture where a given organization says "we care about antisemitism", IHRA can stand alone (in large part because for that function it doesn't matter what IHRA says). As an actual substantive tool for identifying antisemitism, IHRA needs to be expounded upon, and that is a task that (in different ways) both the Nexus document and the JDA attempt to tackle.

Unsurprisingly, I prefer the Nexus' approach of not directly trying to overthrow IHRA but rather fine-tune, calibrate, and direct it. I have no desire to undermine the symbolic importance of IHRA, but I very much have an interest in alleviating the very real gaps and shortfalls present under any honest reckoning with IHRA's text. Even still, if I'm being honest I suspect that the JDA will prove more influential than Nexus simply as a function of polarization. The people who blame IHRA for creating a toxic atmosphere around antisemitism want something that directly challenges it. The people who are basically content with the way antisemitism discourse has proceeded around IHRA will stick with it, without seeing the need for modification. Even if substantively the Nexus does the best job of filling the pitfalls and potholes in IHRA while representing a vision of fighting antisemitism that aligns with the median American Jew, the seemingly inexorable pull of polarization will drive people into the arms of either IHRA or anti-IHRA (which is to say, JDA).

III. Substantive Similarities and Differences Across the Frameworks

You might have noticed that the above analysis actually doesn't concentrate that much on the actual substantive differences between the three antisemitism frameworks. One reason for that is that, as my table illustrates, there are fewer differences between them than one might guess from the heated nature of the JDA and IHRA's reception. Certainly, it is fair to focus on the areas where the definitions depart -- that's what should determine whether one prefers one over another -- but that focus can overshadow the significant agreement in a large set of cases regarding what is antisemitic amongst all three frameworks. All agree that criticism of Israel can be antisemitic insofar as Israel is a Jewish institution (and thus none indulge in the tritely true but banal point that "Judaism and Israel are not the same thing"), all agree that criticism of Israel is not always antisemitic, all agree that "tropes" (variously worded) are an important feature of antisemitism, and all agree that notions of Jewish collective responsibility for alleged Israeli misdeeds are antisemitic.

What are the key differences? I've mentioned two already: IHRA and Nexus both consider denial of Jewish self-determination rights to be antisemitic, while the JDA seemingly does not; and IHRA and Nexus don't speak specifically on BDS, while the JDA expressly says it is not antisemitic. These are both significant. BDS is a well-known third rail in Jewish politics, and Nexus' "strategic ambiguity" (to put it uncharitably) on the question is an attempt to traverse a cliff the JDA eagerly dives off. Likewise, as noted above the "Israel has no right to exist" position is one on which there is almost unrivaled Jewish consensus regarding its antisemitic character, so the JDA's dissident position here is risky indeed.

Beyond those two issues (and putting aside any nitpicking one can do about phrasing or word choices), the other big departure I see in the JDA is that it explicitly says that "double standards" are not antisemitic, whereas IHRA says they are. The Nexus tries to take a middle position here, agreeing that double standards are antisemitic but refusing the simplistic argument that any time Israel is concentrated on or even "singled out" in a discrete case that is evidence of a double-standard (as I've argued, AIPAC "singles out" Israel -- is that antisemitic? Of course not). The JDA's rejection of including "double standards" likely stems from the view that this language has been particularly abused by right-wing zealots who argue that essentially any Israel-critical activity that does not simultaneously tackle the entire world is per se antisemitic. That notwithstanding, the JDA's dismissal of double standards as even a potential form of antisemitism seems clearly incorrect. Disparate treatment -- treating likes unalike -- is perhaps the closest thing there is to the paradigm case of discrimination and it'd be simply weird for antisemitism to stand alone in not including this very intuitive case. If one can subject Jews or Jewish institutions to different standards than other comparable actors in global affairs without it being labeled "antisemitic", you've created a loophole you can drive a truck through.

It is also important to flag a group of important components of antisemitism that are found only in the Nexus definition and are not present or discussed in either IHRA or the JDA. The first is that the Nexus definition is the only one which considers certain social conditions (on top of behaviors or attitudes) to be cases of antisemitism: specifically, those conditions "that discriminate against Jews and significantly impede their ability to participate as equals in political, religious, cultural, economic, or social life." I lobbied very hard to include this language, and in some ways I think it is the single most important point in Nexus' favor compared to other frameworks. Ironically enough (given that the Nexus document is nominally limited to the Israel case), the inclusion of this language is why the Nexus document is probably the only framework of the three which could explain why a proposed ban on Kosher slaughter would be antisemitic -- it does not fall within any of either IHRA or JDA's examples, but it would represent a social condition which "significantly impede[s] [Jews'] ability to participate as equals" in European society. Understanding antisemitism as not just a set of attitudes or behaviors but as a state of social affairs better aligns antisemitism with emerging understandings of racism and other forms of oppression, all of which have dedicated considerable attention to understanding inequality at least partially in those terms.

The second inclusion in Nexus not seen in the other frameworks is an acknowledgment of the epistemic antisemitism that occurs when Jewish claims regarding antisemitism are reflexively or cavalierly dismissed. The so-called Livingstone Formulation, where claims of antisemitism can be immediately brushed off by claiming they're actually attempts to "silence criticism of Israel," is one of the primary mechanisms through which Jews are impeded in their ability to be treated as valid and viable claim-makers in public discourse. Here, too, recognition of this practice as a form of antisemitism aligns antisemitism with other forms of oppression where it has been well-acknowledged that these sorts of reflexive dismissals are themselves manifestations of racism, sexism, or what have you (as in the infamous and ubiquitous "race card" retort). The opening entry of the Nexus definition is decisive on this point: "All claims of antisemitism made by Jews, like all claims of discrimination and oppression in general, should be given serious attention" -- which is not to say automatic acceptance, but not immediate eye-rolling dismissal either. Neither IHRA nor the JDA address this issue -- IHRA probably wasn't thinking about it at all, and the JDA it's fair to assume includes a good number of stakeholders who are at least sympathetic to the notion that antisemitism claims are regularly abused and so need tighter policing.

The final major feature of Nexus not found in its compatriots is an acknowledgment of a particular type of antisemitism that targets Jews for having the "wrong" view on Israel, at which point their status as Jews is called into question. Rudy Giuliani claiming that he's "more of a Jew" than George Soros is a high-profile case here. But the importance of including this as a form of antisemitism stemmed from the way in which this sort of marginalizing rhetoric is especially likely to be deployed against Jews of Color, who regularly are assailed as being "fake" or "lesser" Jews (even by non-Jews!) if they deviate from an imagined proper or correct Jewish standpoint on Israel. The Nexus document accordingly recognizes that "denigrating or denying the Jewish identity of certain Jews because they are perceived as holding the 'wrong' position (whether too critical or too favorable) on Israel" is a form of antisemitism, and I can say that language was included in specific recognition of dynamics one increasingly sees on social media where JOCs have been subject to brutal and persistent harassment along this exact dimension. It is a recurrent failing of Jewish efforts on antisemitism that we often are not thinking intersectionally -- and so the discrete experiences or problems faced by, e.g., Jewish women, or Mizrahi Jews, or Jews of Color, as Jews are overlooked or not incorporated. I'm sure the Nexus document can still improve on this front, but I am proud that it made at least a step in the right direction.


Unknown said...


The IHRA's Careless Conflations on Antisemitism (and Few Alternatives) | Contending Modernities

Doc_P said...

Since the JDA got Peter Beinart and Richard Falk to sign, why didn't they also get Jeremy Corbyn, George Galloway and Ken Livingstone. They would probably be happy to sign.

Unknown said...

So glad I called you out as the joke you are years ago.