The Volokh Conspiracy

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Bizarre and Ultimately Dishonest Letter Opposing the Antisemitism Awareness Act

Over 800 Jewish professors inveigh against an enemy of their imagination.


A letter, currently with over 800 signatures, has been circulating among Jewish faculty to oppose the Antisemitism Awareness Act, in particular its codification of the use of the IHRA definition of antisemitism as a factor in determining anti-Jewish intent in Title VI cases. I wrote about the Act here, and explained that much of the opposition has been hysterical and counter-factual. If one had hoped an academic letter would be more reality-based, one would be disappointed.

The letter begins:

Criticism of the state of Israel, the Israeli government, policies of the Israeli government, or Zionist ideology is not – in and of itself – antisemitic.

We accordingly urge our political leaders to reject any effort to codify into federal law a definition of antisemitism that conflates antisemitism with criticism of the state of Israel.

This includes ongoing efforts to codify the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance's (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism, which has been internationally criticized for conflating antisemitism with legitimate criticism of Israel.  

The IHRA definition of antisemitism, however, never says that criticism of Israel, etc., is "in an of itself" antisemitic. Indeed, it specifically says "criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic." (my emphasis) The fact that it's been "internationally criticized" for doing what it does not do is irrelevant, especially because many of those critics want to protect antisemitic criticism of Israel from charges that it's antisemitic. (Relatedly, I just saw a letter signed by over half the faculty at a respected liberal arts college. The letter, among other things, referred to Israel and Zionism as "Jewish supremacist." David Duke may have invented, but certainly has been the leading popularizer of, the notion that Israel is "Jewish Supremacist." If you go back a few years, he was pretty much the only person of any prominence using that phrase. May I point out that when you are borrowing memes about Israel from David Duke, it might be tainted with antisemitism?)

The letter continues:

Whatever our differences, we oppose the IHRA's definition of antisemitism. If imported into federal law, the IHRA definition will delegitimize and silence Jewish Americans–among others–who advocate for Palestinian human rights or otherwise criticize Israeli policies. By stifling criticism of Israel, the IHRA definition hardens the dangerous notion that Jewish identity is inextricably linked to every decision of Israel's government

The Antisemitism Awareness Act codifies the IHRA definition of antisemitism with regard to a narrow set of evidentiary issues in Title VI civil rights cases. But note that the Education Department started using the definition on its own initiative in 2018. President Trump signed an executive order in 2019, still in effect, requiring all federal agencies charged with enforcing Title VI to consider the IHRA definition when making or enforcing relevant law and policy.

Not only have Jewish critics of Israel, indeed Jews who don't think Israel should exist, not been silenced, it seems like they never shut up. The latter group is a tiny fringe of the Jewish community, but they appear disproportionately in both mainstream and social media.

And speaking of the media, no one who has been paying attention to any sort of media over the last few months could possibly believe that criticism of Israel has been stifled.

As for the "dangerous notion that Jewish identity is inextricably linked to every decision of Israel's government," this is a ridiculous strawman. I have never met a Jew of any variety who believes this, nor one who is in agreement with every decision of Israel's government. Indeed, many of the most passionate pro-Israel Jews are also the most critical of Israeli government policy, whether from the right or from the left, because they care.

I expect very little from the academy these days, so I'm not surprised to see over 800 signatories on this (at best) hyperbolic letter. I am at least a little disappointed to see some prominent law professors on the list, given that they should at least be cognizant that (a) the Antisemitism Awareness Act would not change the legal status quo; and (b) the legal status quo has not led to any of the parade of horribles predicted in the letter. But maybe I should reduce my expectations of the legal academy, too.