Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Focusing on What Is versus What Isn't Antisemitism

A good definition needs to do two things. It needs to tell you what a concept is, and it needs to tell you what a concept is not. But these two requirements are not equally weighted. Most definitions focus primarily on the former. A dog is a four-legged mammal of the species C. lupus etc. etc. Such a definition is primary concerned with avoiding false negatives -- ensuring that all the entities which are dogs are identified as dogs. A definition that focuses inordinately on what a dog is not -- a dog is not a cat, a dog is not a building, a dog is not a rock, and so on -- would normally be quite weird. If we saw a definition of taking that form, our most likely inference would be that there had been a significant problem with false positives -- people calling things "dogs" that were not.

As with dogs, so too with antisemitism. A definition of antisemitism needs to tell us what is antisemitic, as well as what isn't. But if the discourse is weighted too heavily towards the latter, it is fair to draw the inference that the primary problem the definition is seeking to grapple with is one of false positives -- things being called antisemitic that are not, in fact, antisemitic.

In terms of text, the new Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism is 2:1 weighted in terms of what antisemitism is. It would be manifestly unfair to say the text doesn't speak on that subject. But in terms of its public reception -- how it is being presented to the public, and how it is being pitched by its defenders -- it is being seen as an intervention predominantly concerned not with telling us what is antisemitism but with telling us what isn't. This Slate article in praise of the JDA by Dov Waxman and Joshua Shanes -- both of whom are friends of mine -- focuses almost exclusively on this angle. The JDA is superior to IHRA because of what it doesn't call antisemitism, because it allegedly avoids false positives that might result from the IHRA definition. Omer Bartov's defense of the JDA in Haaretz sounds in similar notes: the JDA is "vital" because IHRA "has been used, perhaps contrary to the intention of some of its authors, to stifle any biting criticism of Israel and its policies." The JDA, we're told, wouldn't do that -- it would result in fewer things being called antisemitic, (hopefully by) stopping fraudulent or abusive claims.

Importantly, alleged overinclusion is not the only basis on which one could criticize IHRA. It is entirely possible to find fault in IHRA for being underinclusive as well -- false negatives rather than false positives. For example, I've regularly promoted the Nexus antisemitism document as holding the advantage over IHRA in that it captures cases where social conditions are antisemitic -- it is the only document that can explain why a Kosher slaughter ban is antisemitic, for example. If I'm right, this is a claim that the Nexus is preferable to IHRA because it can do more rather than do less.

But the JDA isn't being pitched that way. Its advantages are not presented in terms of being able to accurately call things antisemitic in cases where previously we could not. Its advantage is framed almost exclusively in terms of stopping people from calling things antisemitic when they previously could. In this, David Hirsh sadly is on to something when he says:

The new efforts 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.

That's overstated. But again, it's on to something. The JDA's main impact, thus far, has not been to assist in fighting against antisemitism. It has not been used, for example, to help rally people who'd otherwise be ambivalent to forthrightly call out David Miller as an antisemite (Yair Wallach, a JDA signatory, accurately notes that IHRA hasn't been effective at this task either. Still, it would do wonders for the JDA's rep if its signatories came together to forthrightly say "this guy is an antisemite"). There have been almost no cases I've seen where someone has said "before the JDA, we could not reliably identify A B and C as antisemitic, but now we can." Almost entirely, the discourse has been the opposite: "before the JDA, people were incorrectly identifying X Y and Z as antisemitic, and now we can stop them." So it isn't wrong for people to infer from this discourse that the JDA is motivated primarily because of fears of false positives -- that the major problem in antisemitism discourse is that we're calling too many things antisemitic when we shouldn't be.

This feature of the JDA almost certainly explains why several unabashed antisemitic figures -- Richard Falk, Jackie Walker, Yvonne Ridley -- have been eager in its praise. They understand the JDA's practical function as part of the "fight against the fight against antisemitism," even if (to quote Bartov) this is "contrary to the intention of some of its drafters." It does little good to cite specific language in the JDA that would indicate their pleasure is misplaced, anymore than the language in IHRA that insists upon context-specific inquiry is doing much to stop folks citing IHRA for sweeping, context-free declarations that everything and its mother is antisemitic. The issue isn't the text, the issue is the symbol. And the JDA, as a symbol, is being seen as a banner for those who think the problem with antisemitism is that we're labeling too many things antisemitic -- the fight against calling things antisemitism, rather than the fight against antisemitism itself.