White House faces pressure from the left to buck mainstream antisemitism definition

The Biden administration is close to completing a national antisemitism strategy, but the question of how it will define antisemitism remains in flux

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President Joe Biden delivers remarks about the economy after touring Volvo Group Powertrain on Oct. 7, 2022, in Hagerstown, Maryland.

As the White House prepares to release a national antisemitism strategy in the coming weeks, the matter of how the document defines antisemitism has become a key point of contention, Jewish Insider has learned.

The strategy will include more than 200 policy plans and recommendations to counter antisemitism, President Joe Biden said Tuesday in remarks delivered at a Jewish American Heritage Month reception. But while the strategy is set to be released soon, the White House task force working on the project has not yet decided how to define antisemitism, three sources with knowledge of the White House process said.

At issue is whether the strategy will adopt the widely accepted International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism, which is already in use elsewhere in the federal government. Secretary of State Tony Blinken wrote in a 2021 letter to the American Zionist Movement that the Biden administration “enthusiastically embraces” the IHRA working definition of antisemitism, including its full list of examples.

But the Biden administration is now facing pressure to buck the IHRA definition from some on the left who argue that the IHRA definition, which identifies some forms of anti-Zionism as antisemitism, does not leave sufficient space for critiques of Israel.

An individual with knowledge of the process said that major mainstream Jewish groups have been advocating for the IHRA definition’s inclusion in the White House strategy. Progressive groups have been urging that it be left out of the strategy — but said they would accept its inclusion if other alternative definitions of antisemitism that have been proposed by academics and activists on the left were mentioned. The source said it remains unclear what the final draft might entail, but that the White House has considered excluding IHRA entirely. 

The individual said that the White House has been consulting with a range of both mainstream and progressive Jewish groups on how they would react to the inclusion or exclusion of the IHRA definition. They also said that Jewish groups have emphasized to the White House that they would accept a delay in the strategy’s release, if needed, to work through such issues. 

The White House has been targeting a release before the end of the month — prior to the departure of Susan Rice, the director of the Domestic Policy Council, who is spearheading the antisemitism strategy.

Another source with knowledge of the process said one possibility on the table is for the document to refer to the IHRA definition without formally endorsing or adopting it.

“What I’ve been told repeatedly,” said the source, is that “as much as is humanly possible they want to make everybody in the community that’s engaged in this work as happy as possible.” 

Another individual with knowledge of the process agreed that the White House’s approach to defining antisemitism remains unclear and in flux, and there is concern among mainstream Jewish groups that the White House may be shying away from including the IHRA definition. A White House spokesperson declined to comment. 

The forthcoming antisemitism strategy is “the most ambitious, comprehensive effort in our history to combat antisemitism in America,” Biden said Tuesday at the White House reception.

 He noted that the White House efforts to prepare the report involved conversations with more than 1,000 Jewish community members “from diverse backgrounds and all denominations.” He highlighted the strategy’s four pillars: increasing awareness and understanding of antisemitism and Jewish heritage in America; keeping Jewish communities safe; reversing the normalization of antisemitism; and building coalitions to fight hate.

“As we work together to implement this report, we’re sending a clear and forceful message. In America, evil will not win. Hate will not prevail. The venom and violence of antisemitism will not be the story of our time,” said Biden. 

Supporters of the IHRA definition question whether a debate over how to define antisemitism — when that definition has been widely accepted by hundreds of municipalities and state and federal governments around the world — distracts from the actual issues at play. 

“If you start throwing out alternative definitions, you really divert attention away from finding the problem and into debating definitions,” said Mark Weitzman, the chief operating officer at the World Jewish Restitution Organization and one of the architects of the IHRA definition. “I don’t think we can or should or can afford to have attention diverted from the major issue, which is fighting antisemitism.”

Leaders of the House and Senate’s bipartisan antisemitism task forces met last week with officials from the White House task force. Rep. Kathy Manning (D-NC), a co-chair of the House task force, said Tuesday that the lawmakers in attendance made “abundantly clear” to the White House that they all support the IHRA definition.

“I think it’s important to have a definition that recognizes that anti-Zionism is often used as a code to cover up antisemitism,” Manning told JI. “It’s the definition that’s used by the State Department, it’s the definition that’s used by the Department of Education. I think it’s the appropriate definition, and I’m hoping that that’s what they’ll include in their strategy.”

Sen. James Lankford (R-OK), a co-chair of the Senate task force, told JI on Tuesday that he also was “very clear… to say the IHRA definition needs to be included.”

“It is nonsensical for us not to include the IHRA definition when the United States was one of the bodies that originally created this,” Lankford said. “It just doesn’t make sense when we have British football teams that have accepted the IHRA definition and the United States government chooses not to, when we were the entity that helped write it, including all the examples.”

“They have to make their decision on how they’re going to do this,” Lankford continued, “but to do another definition, and ignore the global reach of the IHRA definition, doesn’t make sense to me.”

Manning said she didn’t have any knowledge of the internal deliberations at the White House, but said that the officials had “listened carefully” and “I’m sure they heard what we said.”

She also emphasized “the big picture, which is how critically important it is that we’re going to see a strategy from them,” adding that White House officials said it would include “deliverables where there would be a timeline” and “a strategy that was implementable.”

Left-wing activists urging the White House not to include the IHRA definition argue that it is unnecessarily limiting, and that opponents of antisemitism should consider a range of approaches — and a range of definitions. 

“I don’t think they should endorse or adopt any of them, because I don’t think that’s useful,” said Hadar Susskind, president and CEO of Americans for Peace Now. He pointed to a 2021 congressional letter from several progressive lawmakers that called on the Biden administration to “consider multiple definitions of antisemitism” beyond only IHRA. 

“I’d like to see them legitimately say, ‘Here are these various tools.’ Not, ‘We’re adopting them, you have to use this.’ Just, ‘Here are different things that one can use,’” Susskind added.

Dylan Williams, the senior vice president for policy and strategy at J Street, cautioned that “efforts to give the force of law to a single, controversial definition of antisemitism that focuses disproportionately on criticism of Israel does a disservice to Jewish Americans targeted by this hatred.” J Street opposes the use of the IHRA definition.

J Street spokesperson Logan Bayroff added that the organization does not “believe [IHRA] should be used as the sole standard by the government when enforcing U.S. law,” but noted that J Street would be okay with IHRA “being referenced by the White House or other government entities along with other definitions as resources that may be considered.”

If the White House opts to include the IHRA definition in its strategy, that definition will not have any legal bearing. Supporters say it would serve only as a guidepost for government officials, law enforcement officers and others who must reckon with whether an incident should be viewed as antisemitic. 

“How does the policeman on the street recognize antisemitism? ‘Well, I have to call up the local federation or the local rabbi,’” said Weitzman. “There’s no coherency or continuity there. IHRA is a tool. IHRA by itself does not solve antisemitism, but IHRA can help.”

William Daroff, the CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, emphasized that the IHRA definition is the “gold standard,” which has been accepted by over 40 countries, dozens of states and hundreds of other groups, including all but two of the members of the Conference of Presidents and the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements. 

“I am certain that the definition that is accepted by the vast vast majority of American Jewry, and championed across the globe by Secretary [of State Tony] Blinken and Ambassador [Deborah] Lipstadt [the State Department’s special envoy on antisemitism], will be prominently highlighted in any comprehensive strategy to combat antisemitism,” Daroff told JI, noting, “support for the IHRA definition is long-standing U.S. policy, going back to the Obama administration.”

Elana Broitman, the senior vice president of public affairs at the Jewish Federations of North America, told JI, “we strongly support the IHRA definition of antisemitism and will continue to encourage the government to adopt it.”

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