Hearing on antisemitism in international orgs highlights divides over combating antisemitism
Despite a premise focused on the U.N., Palestinian Authority and NGOs, the hearing ultimately touched on broader questions about partisan divides over how to address antisemitism writ large
A panel of expert witnesses testified yesterday at a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations Subcommittee on addressing antisemitism and anti-Israel bias in the United Nations, Palestinian Authority and nongovernmental organizations. Despite its premise, the hearing ultimately touched on broader questions about growing partisan divides over how best to address antisemitism writ large, in addition to policy recommendations regarding the international community.
In their opening statements, two witnesses raised concerns about the Biden administration’s decision, in its national strategy on antisemitism, to praise the Nexus definition of antisemitism — which critics say allows for antisemitic critiques of Israel – while embracing the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition.
Former Soviet refusenik Natan Sharansky, who previously headed the Jewish Agency for Israel, praised the “comprehensive” plan, but said the section on definitions of antisemitism “caused confusion or mixed reactions.”
“The IHRA definition is the only one which really connects the old antisemitism attacking Jews and the new antisemitism attacking the state of Israel,” Sharansky continued.
Eugene Kontorovich, the head of the International Law Department at the Kohelet Policy Forum and a law professor at George Mason University, went further, accusing the administration of “harm[ing] efforts to respond to [antisemitism] by referring to two different and fundamentally contradictory definitions of it.”
Democrats on the subcommittee defended the administration’s strategy; Rep. Kathy Manning (D-NC) called it a “one-of-a-kind opportunity not just to counter antisemitism in this country, but to lead countries around the world.” Anti-Defamation League National Board Member Sharon Nazarian, another witness, praised the plan as “a true roadmap for what we need to be doing as a whole of society.”
While lawmakers on both sides of the aisle raised concerns about a range of issues relating to antisemitism and anti-Israel bias in the international community, some Democrats on the panel encouraged a focus on the broader scope of antisemitism, in addition to addressing antisemitism within the international community.
They highlighted links between antisemitism at home and abroad, as well as strains of white nationalist antisemitism emanating from the far right.
Rep. Susan Wild (D-PA), the ranking member of the subcommittee, described “the antisemitic, racist and xenophobic ideology of white supremacists” as the most dangerous antisemitic threat, while also condemning the “disturbing” antisemitism among Palestinian leaders, driving Palestinian terrorism, and at the U.N.
Rep. Sara Jacobs (D-CA) offered strident criticisms of the proceedings as a whole.
“I’m really just disheartened to hear all of this rhetoric undermining the very important work that the U.N. does around the world,” Jacobs said, appearing to refer to comments from witnesses and her colleagues criticizing anti-Israel and antisemitic activity at the U.N. “I think that it’s dangerous for our national security and for our ability to build alliances around the world.”
Jacobs further alleged that “a lot of the rhetoric we’re hearing out of the current Israeli government… is as inflammatory” as that coming from the Palestinian Authority. She claimed that American Jews are “told that any criticism they’re trying to have of [Israel] is antisemitism” which is “really, really dangerous.”
Other Democrats, including Wild and Rep. Dean Phillips (D-MN), expressed concern about criticism of Israel that veers into antisemitism, but emphasized the need to maintain space for what they described as legitimate criticism of the Jewish state.
“I, as a Jewish American member of the United States Congress, I need space and place to criticize any country, at any time, for any reason if I see it just, and I think we have to maintain space and place to criticize Israel sometimes too,” Rep. Dean Phillips (D-MN) said. “Sometimes it is antisemitic, I think we can all agree. We cannot limit that space, though, to the point where it becomes anti-democratic.”
Testimony from the witnesses, and discussion by committee members, touched on a wide range of subjects, from specific policy recommendations to broader questions of identifying antisemitism in criticism of Israel.
Itamar Marcus, the founder of Palestinian Media Watch, suggested that the U.S. enhance efforts to combat the Palestinian Authority’s payments to terrorists and their families by specifically targeting PA officials involved in the payments for travel restrictions or other sanctions. Subcommittee Chair Chris Smith (R-NJ) expressed interest in the idea, suggesting that the Magnitsky Act could be utilized to target such individuals.
Kontorovitch added that the U.S. should do more to publicize violations of the Taylor Force Act, a requirement of the law he argued has not been followed, and highlighted that U.S. funding to the World Bank indirectly goes to the Palestinian Authority.
Marcus also called for the U.S. to work to repeal U.N. Resolutions 3236 and 3245, which he alleged “tell the Palestinians that they have an international right to… [murder] civilians.”
Nazarian urged increased funding for the Office of the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism; legislation to require social media companies to enforce their own hate speech policies and be more transparent — in an effort to combat major transnational spreaders of antisemitism; and greater support for Holocaust education at home and globally, including passing the HEAL Act.
Rep. Brad Schneider (D-IL) argued that the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, which witnesses noted has long-standing issues with antisemitism in its schools, has “outlived its usefulness” and suggested that there are “other entities that are perhaps better positioned” to provide the services that UNRWA has performed — a view echoed by multiple witnesses.
Hillel Neuer, the executive director of U.N. Watch, alleged that the U.S.’ European Union allies often support anti-Israel resolutions at the United Nations to secure the support from anti-Israel states for their own U.N. resolutions; to maintain access to oil, gas and sovereign investment funds from such nations; because of a fear of terrorism; and because of long-standing and entrenched antisemitism.
Rep. Rich McCormick (R-GA) said that the hearing had made him question his support for the entire U.N. system. “They are corrupt and they’re governed by dictators and theocracies and other unfair people who administer this ‘justice,’” McCormick said.
Some subcommittee Democrats pushed back on that notion, arguing that the U.S. can best fight back against antisemitism within the U.N. by remaining at the table.
Panelist Yair Rosenberg, an Atlantic reporter, argued that antisemitism — both among left-wing opponents of Israel and on the far right — traces back to a more “fundamental” problem that far predates the modern state of Israel: conspiracy theories about Jewish control of the world. He said that such framing, and education about the historic roots of antisemitism, can be useful for identifying and understanding when criticisms of Israel cross over into antisemitism.
“Actors like [George] Soros or the State of Israel possess real power and influence and certainly warrant critique for how they exercise it,” Rosenberg said. “The problem is… that such criticism is too often replaced with conspiracy, in which the Jewish target is transformed into an avatar of absolute evil who stands behind the world’s ills.”
Kontorovitch argued that antisemitic criticisms of Israel can be identified by their “intensity and frequency” and through applying double standards to Israel.
“What’s an appropriate volume [of criticism]? You can understand that by the context of how other countries are talked about,” he explained. He offered as examples the U.N.’s disproportionate focus on Israel, as well as unnamed lawmakers who oppose Israeli settlements but have supported settlements in other disputed territory.
Kontorovitch also characterized accusations of apartheid as inherently antisemitic and a modern form of blood libel. “What’s the remedy for apartheid?” he asked. “Ending the regime.”
Yona Schiffmiller, director of research for NGO Monitor, focused in his remarks on how Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Palestinian NGO groups use “human rights discourse… to mask and legitimize [an] antisemitic agenda.” He charged that these groups ignore or justify antisemitism and violence against Jews and Israel, and highlighted funding from the EU and the U.S.’s European allies to such groups.
Smith, the chair of the subcommittee, pledged that he would not allow representatives of Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch to testify before his committee, in response to their descriptions of Israel as engaging in apartheid.
He also previewed plans for further hearings on antisemitism, including on UNRWA featuring testimony from Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism Deborah Lipstadt, on UNESCO — which the U.S. is set to rejoin — and, potentially, one on antisemitism on college campuses