Kenneth Stern, who helped write what’s now known as the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism, naturally has every right to oppose President Trump’s executive order (EO) last week requiring universities to consider IHRA when assessing if, per title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Jewish students’ rights have been violated.
However, Stern, who was the antisemitism expert for American Jewish Committee for 25 years, does not have the right to dishonestly frame support for the EO as exclusively coming from the Jewish “right”, as he did in a Guardian op-ed (“I drafted the definition of antisemitism. Rightwing Jews are weaponizing it”, Dec.).
Stern’s piece includes the following:
…starting in 2010, rightwing Jewish groups took the “working definition”, which had some examples about Israel (such as holding Jews collectively responsible for the actions of Israel, and denying Jews the right to self-determination), and decided to weaponize it with title VI cases.
As proponents of the executive order like the Zionist Organization of America make clear, they see the application of the definition as “cover[ing] many of the anti-Jewish outrages … frequently led by … Students for Justice in Palestine, including … calls for ‘intifada’ [and] demonizing Israel”. As much as I disagree with SJP, it has the right to make “calls”. That’s called free speech.
Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and special adviser, wrote in the New York Times that the definition “makes clear [that] Anti-Zionism is antisemitism”. I’m a Zionist. But on a college campus, where the purpose is to explore ideas, anti-Zionists have a right to free expression.
So, Guardian readers would have you believe that the only ones supporting applying IHRA to college campuses – thus “weaponising antisemitism” – are right wing Jews (like Jared Kushner) and right wing Jewish groups (like ZOA).
However, Stern fails to mention that the EO was enthusiastically embraced by Amercian Jewish Committee (AJC), one of the oldest Jewish advocacy groups in the country, and an organisation that nobody with any knowledge of the US Jewish communal landscape would describe as “right wing” – and where, as we noted, Stern himself worked from 1989 to 2014.
Here’s AJC’s press release:
“American Jewish Committee (AJC) welcomes President Trump’s Executive Order to strengthen efforts to combat antisemitism on college and university campuses. We trust that a careful application of this directive will enable university administrators to avoid running afoul of free speech protections as they seek to root out antisemitism on their campuses,” said AJC CEO David Harris.
The situation for Jewish students is most worrisome. As AJC’s recent landmark survey on antisemitism in the U.S. shows, American Jewish young people are the age group most vulnerable to this hatred. Nearly half of those between the ages of 18 and 29 have been victims of antisemitic acts over the past five years, compared to just over a third of American Jews overall. More than a third of Jewish young people said they either had experienced antisemitism on an American college campus themselves or know someone who has.
AJC does not consider the EO, or longstanding Department of Education guidance, to be designed to suppress rational criticism of Israel or its policies, and we will speak out against any attempt to do so. AJC also recognizes that there will be hard cases where it will be necessary to decide whether the speech in question is constitutionally protected or not.
To date, though, responses to antisemitism on many campuses have often fallen short, leaving Jewish students vulnerable. Existing federal policy has not been fully enforced and today’s order merely gives Jews what other groups have long enjoyed—the right not to be subject to a hostile environment on campus. There is nothing inconsistent with protecting freedom of expression and providing Jews the same protections accorded other minorities.
Another US Jewish group which can’t possibly be described as “right wing” – and in fact is frequently quite outspoken in their opposition to Donald Trump – and supported the EO is Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the largest and arguably most influential Jewish group in the country.
Here’s the passage of ADL’s press release which specifically refers to IHRA:
Today’s announcement that the U.S. will adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of anti-Semitism is an important step acknowledging the growing concern about anti-Semitism on American college campuses.
Support for the EO also came from American Jewish Congress and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations (the umbrella group comprising 51 US Jewish organisations).
Moreover, if anything is routinely “weaponised” it’s the term “right-wing”, which is often cynically used – often in an ad hominem manner – to discredit arguments about Jews and Israel that aren’t approved of by the Guardian left. As even Nicholas Watt, Guardian’s former chief political correspondent, once acknowledged: “quite often on the left the term right-wing is just used to mean ‘bad'”.