‘Anti-antisemitism’ was meant to unite American Jews. Why is it backfiring?

For years U.S. Jewish leaders tried to center diaspora identity around Israel. But the battle to redefine antisemitism shows it is no longer working.

A rally against rising antisemitism under the banner of "No Hate, No Fear," Jan, 5, 2020. (Gili Getz)
A rally against rising antisemitism under the banner of "No Hate, No Fear," Jan, 5, 2020. (Gili Getz)

Analysts scrutinizing U.S. President Joe Biden’s recently unveiled “National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism” are rightfully asking what the effects of the new policy will be. But there is a backstory to the White House’s document — and to broader efforts to define and combat antisemitism — that shouldn’t go untold. 

Much of that story centers around how several American Jewish organizations have, for more than two decades, forcefully combined Israel advocacy with fighting antisemitism in their pursuit of a unified Jewish identity. Those same actors advised the White House as it prepared its new strategy — and while their victory was limited, the implications of their efforts may be far-reaching.

The origins and development of this campaign for Israel-oriented “anti-antisemitism” reveal that it is less about protecting Jews than it is an attempt to rescue a dominant but threatened approach to ensuring Jewish continuity. But with Israel no longer constituting a unifying force for American Jews, the effectiveness of this project seems increasingly in doubt. 

Indeed, as Israel lurches ever further to the right and more young Jewish Americans turn away, the attempt to make Israel the center of diaspora Jewish identity — and to silence anyone who criticizes it — no longer appears to be a guarantor of Jewish continuity so much as a threat to it.

A unified Jewishness?

The attempt to use “anti-antisemitism” to define young Jews by what they are against, and to insulate them from debate about Israel, is an unfortunate outgrowth of an evolution in American Jewish identity that has otherwise had many positive manifestations. 

In the wake of the Holocaust and the destruction of European centers of Jewish life, along with their own growing integration into the mainstream of American society, U.S. Jewish leaders began to worry that their main message to youth about combating antisemitism was largely negative and unattractive in itself. Fighting such racism was certainly an ongoing necessity, but more than a negative message was needed to ensure that future generations would value their Jewishness.

Holocaust Museum, Washington DC, August 2, 2015. (Karen/Flickr/CC 2.0.)
Holocaust Museum, Washington DC, August 2, 2015. (Karen/Flickr/CC 2.0.)

Enter Israel, especially after the 1967 Six-Day War. Over six decades, Israeli culture (rather than Central and Eastern European culture), the Hebrew language (rather than Yiddish), and ties to a romanticized Israel (rather than a romanticized shtetl) became increasingly central to American Jewish identity, daily life, and even religion. That trend has helped rising generations experience being Jewish as something positive and even fun, about more than denying Hitler a posthumous victory.

The change was profound but so subtle that only those with eyes and ears for detail — and a smattering of Yiddish and Hebrew — could follow it. It has been over that period that bubbie became savta; “Bei Mir Bistu Shein” (and even “Sunrise, Sunset”) gave way to “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav;” mitsvosav shifted to mitsvotav; and falafel and hummus elbowed out borscht and brisket. This was a cultural and linguistic shift but not really a political one, except in the vaguest sense that Ahavas Yisrael (or now Ahavat Israel, love of the Jewish people) and love for the State of Israel as the Jewish state began to melt into each other. Kiryat Arba and hilltop settler youth were generally overlooked; it was Zahal fatigues as fashion, and not its checkpoints, that seemed attractive. 

Non-Jews, or even many Jews who did not live through this evolution, may need a glossary to help them through that previous paragraph. But the current American Jewish leadership not only lived the change; they learned to love it. For most, Israeli orientation evolved quickly from a gradual trend to a conscious and well-supported strategy for Jewish continuity.

The reason for its adoption was simple: it worked. Sociologists and philanthropists, with only a smattering of spiritual and political figures, led the way, and the process was especially effective among the young. Israel-oriented programs, especially college-age Birthright trips, produced a generation who not only valued their Jewishness for years to come but were even more likely to marry other Jews and pass along their identity to their children.

‘It’s your birthright’

A glance at the way the Birthright program is presented makes this process explicit in both visual and verbal forms. Its promotional materials show young American Jews doing fun things in fun places, with mixed-gender groups featuring prominently. Accompanying texts speak little of Israel’s politics and security, but much about lifelong impact — or about an impact longer than a lifetime. The explicit goal, according to the materials, is “securing a Jewish future,” the implication (or the assumption) being that there is no Jewish future without Israel at its center.

Young Jews from all over the world participating in the Taglit Birthright program at an event held at the International Conference Center in Jerusalem, January 4, 2012. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)
Young Jews from all over the world participating in the Taglit Birthright program at an event held at the International Conference Center in Jerusalem, January 4, 2012. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

Participants on a Birthright trip might meet Palestinians in a tour of a so-called “mixed city” in Israel — but more often in a context in which they are not labeled as Palestinians, and even they can be part of the fun rather than a party to conflict. For instance, participants are hosted for a “mouthwatering ‘hafla dinner’ while sitting cross-legged in a Bedouin tent” just after taking a camel ride in the Negev; the horrifically cruel siege of Gaza, just a few miles away, is viewed only through the lens of Jewish communities on the frontlines of intermittent fighting between Israel and Hamas.

Why did this approach work? As memory and direct connection with European Jewry receded, and after the Holocaust destroyed so much of that population, the emphasis on that heritage became thinner. Israel thus provided not only an answer to global antisemitism, but a set of enticing and exciting activities in a vibrant society (and maybe even a place to meet someone).

And yet the approach is now running into a problem: Israel itself. The clear reality today is that Israel rules all of the territory between the river and the sea under a single state, granting citizenship only to some, harshly patrolling those without it, and discriminating against citizens who are not Jewish. Much of that reality might not be on full display on Birthright trips, but college students Google, and not all like what they find. 

It is true that Israel’s current far-right government has turned dog whistles into fog horns. But the idea that Israel’s warts are normal ones — and about to be solved — has been losing its force for years. Attachment to Israel as a core element of Jewish identity has similarly been declining among the young for a while.

Programs like Birthright have slowed the trend but not reversed it. While most Birthright veterans returned with more sympathy with Israel, not all did — and younger ones sometimes returned to campuses with lively debates about Israel. For those who left their parents’ Israeli folk dancing and falafel lunches in favor of social justice activism, those debates were worth joining.

But the hard data has begun to bring bad news for those who have invested so heavily in Israel as an anchor for Jewish continuity. It is particularly unnerving for the Israeli-oriented approach to see the idea of boycotting, divesting from, and sanctioning Israel (BDS) slowly spread among young American Jews.

Activists from IfNotNow protest outside Birthright Israel’s offices in New York City, April 5, 2019. (Gili Getz)
Activists from IfNotNow protest outside Birthright Israel’s offices in New York City, April 5, 2019. (Gili Getz)

BDS is still very much a minority position to be sure, but at this point, the share of American Jews who support BDS is edging out the share who are Orthodox. But even more worrying for those concerned with Klal Israel (all of Israel, that is Jewish peoplehood and unity) is that the share of both is growing — and the two do not overlap much at all. And divisions among Jews on the basis of religion are thus increasingly overlapping with polarization over politics in the American Jewish world — or worlds.

This is a problem Birthright cannot solve. Deeply problematic Israeli realities are not so much a shanda fur die goyim as they are a fadicha for the children of Israel. Recent events in Israel-Palestine, and the installation of Jewish supremacist ministers with an agenda to remold state institutions, have deepened the threat to pinning Jewish continuity on an idealized Jewish state. Most Jews might be caught in the middle if only there were still a robust middle ground on Israel. Even the Israel Studies Association, a scholarly group that previously insisted it was nonpolitical, has expressed “grave concern” about “looming changes in the state’s political and legal system, and the growing support for racism and incitement.”

Anti-antisemitism to the rescue

Enter anti-antisemitism. In recent years, a wing of the American Jewish leadership has sought to inoculate young Jews with the claim that they are in danger and unwelcome on college campuses. As educators who have spent most of our lives on or near one, we find the idea puzzling. Criticism of Israel can of course stem from many sources, but hatred of Jews is hardly the most common one — even among the most vociferous or harshest critics. The point of anti-antisemitism thus seems less to be protecting young Jews, and more about frightening their parents and bullying administrators by complaining that the problem is racism, not the reality in Israel-Palestine. And that is the effort afoot.

Since the early 2000s, Jewish and Israel advocacy groups have worked to “update” the world’s understanding of antisemitism. The culmination of their efforts — the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) “working definition” of antisemitism — has generated much controversy: it accepts “criticism of Israel” but only if it is deemed “similar to that leveled against any other country,” and then paints as antisemitic “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination.” What started as an honest attempt to tackle growing antisemitism quickly became weaponized by definitional warriors, among them the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), the American Jewish Committee (AJC), and the Brandeis Center, all of whom have lobbied institutions and governments to adopt it.

How does a diversity, equity, and inclusion officer, a dean of students, a state or local human rights official, or a Department of Education bureaucrat devise and use a yardstick to determine whether Israel is, for example, being criticized to a degree similar to other countries or not — especially when the policies that state follows do not find easy equivalents?

It is a bit of a leap to say that someone who focuses particularly on Israeli behavior must be motivated by hatred for Jews. Was a member of the African National Congress who called for a “multiracial South Africa” racist by denying national self-determination to white South Africans? Why is a resident of Tel Aviv who marches against the current government and calls for one that is secular and democratic a good citizen, while a Palestinian who calls for a “state for all its citizens” a bigot? And is a Palestinian living under Israeli rule antisemitic if their activism targets Israel’s human rights record, but not China’s?

​Demonstration by the anti-occupation​ bloc of Israel's anti-government protests, marking 56 years since the start of the military occupation, on Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv, June 3, 2023. (Oren Ziv)
​Demonstration by the anti-occupation​ bloc of Israel’s anti-government protests, marking 56 years since the start of the military occupation, on Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv, June 3, 2023. (Oren Ziv)

In the United States and Europe, terms that are now routinely used in discourse among Jewish Israelis critical of the current government — even from the center — such as “apartheid” or “Jewish supremacy” are often denounced as antisemitic “demonization,” suggesting that the definitional warriors view the only camp free of antisemitism to be the Israeli right. If denial of national self-determination is a measuring stick, decades and decades of statements by Israeli leaders about Palestinians would fail the test.

In the U.S. educational realm, the goal has been to give the IHRA redefinition the force of law on Title VI cases under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, positioning it as the gold standard by which to adjudicate cases of antisemitism. Most legal analyses quickly run into the unworkability of the IHRA redefinition, resulting in efforts to turn written law into written policy and adopt it as “guidance” instead. But this is to be done “contextually,” in effect using the same kind of double standard it claims to fight (such as ignoring a centrist Israeli critic of the state, but targeting a foreign critic of Israel who says the same thing). 

The focus on policy hasn’t stopped lobbyists from pushing the redefinition, however. To date, seven states have officially adopted the redefinition for use in enforcing civil rights and hate crimes laws. And in 2021, the Trump administration signed an executive order (days after spewing remarks that many found antisemitic) asking U.S. government agencies to consider the IHRA redefinition when assessing discrimination charges at public schools and universities, and prompting a wave of complaints against Palestinian advocacy on campuses.

Biden’s White House was likely aware of the quagmire that antisemitism definitions have created. They were advised by proponents of IHRA, but they also heard from progressive Jewish organizations, who urged the White House to either reject any one definition of antisemitism or to adopt a different one — like the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism or the Nexus Document — that doesn’t chill or punish political speech. The Biden Strategy “embraced” IHRA, but cited the existence of other definitions, mentioning Nexus by name. The result left IHRA supporters and critics each arguing within their own camps about what had been won or lost.

The real effect of this will be to take definitional matters off of Biden’s desk for now and place them in the inbox of many others. The ambiguity will turn disagreements about Israel into fights about antisemitism, to be adjudicated with little guidance by college administrators, human resources officers, social media platforms, and, inevitably, Congress. There are already seasoned litigators scouring for discrimination charges to file, hoping to set precedents that insinuate IHRA’s standard into operational practice.

Pushing the IHRA redefinition isn’t the only lawfare strategy rooted in anti-antisemitism. A nexus of organizations — among them the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs, the Israel Allies Foundation (IAF), Christians United for Israel (CUFI), and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) — are working in tandem to punish the BDS movement and other Americans who advocate for some level of boycott to pressure Israel on its human rights record.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the American Jewish Committee (AJC) Global Forum, in the Jerusalem Convention Center, June 10, 2018. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the American Jewish Committee (AJC) Global Forum, in the Jerusalem Convention Center, June 10, 2018. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

To date, 35 states have laws on the books that do at least one of two things: require state contractors to sign a certification that they do not boycott Israel; and/or require the state to create a blacklist of companies engaged in a boycott — even of the territories Israel occupies — and have the comptroller divest from or refuse to do business with them. The laws are often couched as anti-discrimination laws, with preambles that call boycotts of Israel (or Israeli-controlled territories) inherently antisemitic, a spurious claim made possible only by the misuse of tools like the IHRA redefinition.

Forcing consensus where none exists

There are many routes to the conclusion that the effort to build a Jewish nation-state was misguided or misapplied. But to avoid discussions and punish critics, the definitional warriors push legal and regulatory standards designed to rule that conclusion automatically unsafe for Jews. Indeed, some lawmakers are pressing social media companies to include Zionism as a “protected characteristic/identity,” on par with core identities the U.S. already protects: “race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy, sexual orientation, or gender identity), national origin, age (40 or older), disability and genetic information (including family medical history).” No other nationalists or ideologists would be granted such a status.  

The battle over definitions has taken place in many settings with one curious feature repeating itself: Jewish groups line up on both sides of the debate, as they did in battling over the wording of an American Bar Association resolution condemning antisemitism. Some seek to straddle the divides, but that is getting increasingly difficult. Even some who look at Israel’s current prime minister and do not see Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd (who led South Africa into apartheid) will instead see Victor Orban, marching his country away from democracy and liberal values. 

Some who have pushed expansive definitions or guides to antisemitism have begun to draw back when they have seen how they are misused. One large group of Jewish leaders — generally from the center and left — recently opined that “it is profoundly irresponsible to conflate charges of antisemitism with criticism of Israeli policies.” Mentioning BDS, the group proclaims that “non-violent actions that press for changes in Israeli policies are not ipso facto antisemitic,” but still maintains that “it is antisemitic to advocate the destruction of Israel or to deny the right of the Jewish people to self-determination.”

Anti-antisemitism, as employed by significant parts of today’s mainstream American Jewish establishment, thus centers Jewish identity around its perceived enemies — precisely the problem that the Israel orientation was supposed to solve. To be sure, sociologists are already at work to find out if the strategy works. Our impression, as professors and parents, is that the easiest way for an older generation to lose influence over the thoughts and words of a younger one is to patrol them too harshly.

Many younger American Jews, especially those of a progressive bent, no longer view the word “apartheid’ as taboo when describing Israel. Anti-antisemitism will likely not silence the doubts of those who see the gradations of citizenship, privileges, and rights imposed by Israel in the territory it controls. Young Jews who have come to insist vocally that Black lives matter are likely to view silencing tactics as attempts to persuade them that Palestinian lives do not. Even older ones who cannot bring themselves to use the A word, and who only recently learned which order to place the letters L, G, B, T, and Q, will likely be horrified to now be told by those who speak for Israel that none of those letters are welcome.

Activists protest Israel's attacks on Gaza in front of the White House, Washington, DC, August 9, 2014. (Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Activestills.org)
Activists protest Israel’s attacks on Gaza in front of the White House, Washington, DC, August 9, 2014. (Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Activestills.org)

Centering Jewish identity around Israel — and the defense of it at all costs — has been the central impetus of the American Jewish establishment for decades. And for a while, it was a logical and powerful unifying message that infused pride and new life into a society nearly decimated. But Israel is not the unifying force it once was. Today, the unquestioned defense of Israel by Jewish leadership is causing ruptures in a community that can’t afford it.

Volleying charges of disloyalty at Jews who challenge Israel as anything but a saintly, untouchable project, or charges of antisemitism at non-Jews (and even Jews) who criticize the state, is not only dishonest, it is deeply damaging. Framing Jewish identity around the negative theme of anti-antisemitism is likely to mobilize some of the older generation and a smattering of the younger one — but it will backfire over the long term.