Biden’s antisemitism strategy gets a lot right — but has one problem

By failing to push back on problematic definitions of antisemitism, the White House is missing a golden opportunity in the fight against hate.

President Joe Biden takes part in a ceremony at Yad Vashem, Israel's largest Holocaust memorial, Jerusalem, July 13, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
President Joe Biden takes part in a ceremony at Yad Vashem, Israel's largest Holocaust memorial, Jerusalem, July 13, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

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On Thursday, the White House released its much-anticipated national antisemitism strategy, after a months-long process that attracted intensive scrutiny over which definition — or definitions — of antisemitism its task force would choose to undergird policy recommendations. 

Establishment and right-wing American-Jewish groups had been pushing for the Biden administration to use only the highly controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism. This definition, which gives examples of antisemitism that mostly relate to speech on Israel, has for years been promoted by the Israeli government and pro-Israel actors for widespread adoption and codification. 

Progressive Jewish groups, meanwhile, had urged the White House to either use no definition at all, or to include other definitions that did not pose a threat to free speech, such as the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism or the Nexus Document.

As it happened, existing definitions received the most perfunctory treatment in the strategy — a brief paragraph, which featured the document’s solitary mention of the IHRA definition and noted the U.S. government’s embrace of it, while also nodding to the more progressive Nexus definition.

Pro-Israel demonstrators protest Ben and Jerry's for boycotting Israeli settlements in the West Bank, New York City, August 12, 2021. (Luke Tress/Flash90)
Pro-Israel demonstrators protest Ben and Jerry’s for boycotting Israeli settlements in the West Bank, New York City, August 12, 2021. (Luke Tress/Flash90)

The strategy also did not formally adopt the IHRA definition, as IHRA’s boosters claim, merely calling it the “most prominent” of the popularly-circulating definitions. This is cause for celebration, marking an important victory in a heated struggle over a definition of antisemitism that is deployed to stymie criticism of Israel. At the same time, however, the battle against the IHRA definition and the threat it poses is far from over.

Multiple Western governments, universities, and other institutions have adopted the definition despite concerted campaigning from academics, activists, progressive groups, and civil and human rights outfits, all of whom have warned of its weaponization to police speech and activism on Palestine, and to undermine academic freedom.

The chilling effect caused by the IHRA definition’s conflation of antisemitism and criticism of Israel — as well as by the campaign to promote it — is just one of its failings, however. The other is that it is woefully inadequate to tackle antisemitism’s continued resurgence and entrenchment across the public sphere — in politics, online, and in the street.

The IHRA definition has become the lazy man’s weapon of choice for giving the appearance of caring about antisemitism, and by extension about Jews. But it offers nothing for beating back the wave of antisemitic conspiracy theories, canards, and sentiment that have been unleashed by the ascendant global far right over the past few years. It does not educate about the root causes of antisemitism; it does not unpack the sources and fuel of conspiracy theories or explore why, if you peel back their preposterous logic far enough, you will usually find age-old, insidious ideas about Jews at the center of them; and it does not offer any suggestion whatsoever that the safety of Jews is inherently bound up in the safety of all — a point that the White House strategy makes crystal clear throughout.

What the IHRA definition does do, however, is provide Israel and the wider hasbara apparatus with a highly effective tool for bashing Palestinians and the Palestinian liberation movement, and grant the global far right an equally effective tool for whitewashing its own antisemitism. The definition’s adoption at various levels by the likes of Hungary, Poland, and the U.S. under the Trump administration — and the public appreciation they won from Israel for doing so — highlights not only its meaninglessness, but also its dangerous capacity for allowing antisemites to deny their anti-Jewish prejudice with barely more than a wink and a nod.

Indeed, as problematic as it is, the IHRA definition remains a symptom, rather than the cause, of much of what ails the fight against antisemitism. The IHRA publicity machine is part of a much broader effort to shield Israel’s oppression of Palestinians by portraying any negative commentary about Israel as a manifestation of latent — or even explicit — antisemitism. The corollary of this process, which benefits actual antisemites, is that hasbarists feel able to propose that the absence of criticism of Israel indicates a lack of animus toward Jews.

There are too many examples of this mechanism at work to list here. But a recent episode encapsulates perfectly, and horribly, why positioning the Israeli government as the ultimate authority on and solution to antisemitism — and lobbying for the universal adoption of a definition of antisemitism based on this inner logic — is so terribly bad for Jews around the world.

In the latest installation of the long-running antisemitic campaign to portray the Hungarian-Jewish financier George Soros as a singular, sinister threat to global society and politics — an outlandish accusation rooted in age-old tropes about Jews, money, and shadowy influence — Elon Musk tweeted that Soros “wants to erode the very fabric of civilization,” comparing him to a Marvel supervillain who, like Soros, is a Holocaust survivor. The tweet, for which Musk later apologized because it “was really unfair to Magneto,” was described in Vox as “perhaps the world’s loudest dog whistle.”

Minister of Diaspora Affairs and Minister for Social Equality Amichai Chikli in the Knesset, Jerusalem, March 6, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Minister of Diaspora Affairs and Minister for Social Equality Amichai Chikli in the Knesset, Jerusalem, March 6, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Condemnation swiftly followed — and so did applause, including from the Israeli Minister for Diaspora Affairs and Combating Antisemitism, Amichai Chikli, who tweeted that “the Israeli government and the vast majority of Israeli citizens see Elon Musk as an amazing entrepreneur and role model.” Criticizing Soros, Chikli continued, is “quite the opposite” of antisemitism. Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, too, rejected criticism of Musk, and slammed his own ministry for its tweet contending that Musk’s remarks had an “antisemitic feeling.” Musk was also backed by the likes of famed lawyer Alan Dershowitz, who pointed to Musk’s lack of “hostility to Israel” by way of a defense.

What should we make of the fact that officials in the Israeli government, which is the key driver of the campaign to adopt the IHRA definition, embrace comments such as those made by Musk — especially given that Israel has an established track record of backing anti-Soros conspiracy theories? Should Jewish safety be entrusted to an oppressive regime that lauds and gives cover to one of the most pernicious and widespread antisemitic campaigns poisoning political discourse around the world? And what does it say about the pro-IHRA camp that their focus continues to be on anti-Zionism and the Palestinian liberation movement, when one of the richest, most powerful men in the world seems bent on turbocharging antisemitic conspiracy theories? 

The White House strategy, by largely sidestepping the IHRA definition, mostly avoids exacerbating these issues. But by failing to name these problems head on, it missed a golden opportunity to push back on much of the misdirection undermining the global fight against antisemitism.