Progressive Jews, Palestinians and other community members mobilized opposition to the proposed adoption of a controversial definition of antisemitism that would stigmatize criticism of Israel ahead of a Jan. 24 King County Council meeting.
The council was slated to issue a non-binding and symbolic proclamation showing solidarity with the Jewish community and calling for the eradication of antisemitism. This would ordinarily be an uncontroversial proposal, drawing support across the political spectrum. However, the draft language of the proclamation adopts the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, one that has become increasingly toxic within progressive and liberal sections of the Jewish community. At the council meeting, the proposed proclamation ended up not on the agenda; however, a number of community members were present and testified against the IHRA definition.
The IHRA definition, established in 2016, has been adopted by a number of organizations, cities and countries in Europe and the Americas. It is composed of a working definition and list of 11 examples. Of these, seven directly refer to Israel, claiming that certain types of criticism of the state are antisemitic. This includes referring to the creation of Israel, as a country, as a racist endeavor or applying “double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.”
Over the past few months, Snohomish County and the cities of Bellevue, Mill Creek and Tacoma have all adopted similar proclamations against antisemitism and showed support for IHRA. Proponents, including the pro-Israel lobby group American Jewish Committee, said that these resolutions are more important than ever to combat an uptick in antisemitic incidents.
Critics have denounced the IHRA definition, claiming that it attempts to rewrite the definition of antisemitism to crack down on supporters of the Palestine liberation movement. Multiple human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have accused Israel of committing apartheid against Palestinians.
Diana Dvora Falchuk and Shelby Handler are among a group of Seattle-area Jews and non-Jewish community members who are organizing against the IHRA definition. The group organized a letter campaign to the council, garnering more than 3,000 letters as of Jan. 24.
Falchuk, who is an equity and social justice consultant and strategist, said that the IHRA defintion doesn’t offer a great way to combat antisemitism.
“It actually does not do much to address actual antisemitism,” she said. “In fact, it is often used as cover by rightwing or anti-democratic governments at all different levels of government that either tacitly promote or explicitly encourage antisemitic speech and actions. And so we see it being used by Viktor Orbán in Hungary. We see it being used by the Polish government. We saw it being used by the Trump administration. It doesn’t have the teeth to do anything about actual antisemitism.”
Falchuk also claimed that the IHRA definition has been weaponized to go after critics of Israel and limit what is considered acceptable criticism.
“Another really big problem is that it really draws a line around what is acceptable speech and really threatens our First Amendment rights and democratic commitments,” Falchuk said. “And so it’s being used to silence, to punish and otherwise attack folks who speak up against the policies of the state of Israel.”
By making a critique of Israel an act of antisemitism, it limits what you can say, she said.
For Handler, who is a Jewish school teacher and a member of Seattle Jewish Voice for Peace, the fight against antisemitism is inextricably linked to other struggles against racism and oppression.
“We are Jews who care deeply about actually resisting antisemitism and know that that is inseparable from many movements for justice, including the Palestinian human rights movement,” they said.
Guy Oron is the staff reporter for Real Change. Find them on Twitter, @GuyOron.
Read more of the Jan. 25-31, 2023 issue.