January 25, 2021
The rise in antisemitic incidents in North America and around the world over the past several years is of deep concern to us as Reform Jews. From vandalism to violence, in person and online, communities with robust Jewish populations and those with a smaller Jewish presence alike have grappled with the pain created by antisemitism and its proponents.
As an important part of combatting the growth of antisemitism the Union for Reform Judaism, Central Conference of American Rabbis, Women of Reform Judaism, and ARZA: Association of Reform Zionists of America, endorse the use of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance "Working Definition of Antisemitism" (IHRA) as a tool for monitoring and raising awareness.
For years, this definition has been used in U.S. and international reporting on antisemitism around the world to help ensure its accuracy and comprehensiveness, and we affirm our own support today. The IHRA definition can be a key tool in combatting antisemitism, by helping individuals, communities, and officials recognize the context in which antisemitic acts and harassment takes place. At the same time, antisemitism evolves, and no single, fixed, static definition can fully capture the ways in which antisemitism can be manipulated and perpetuated by those with nefarious intent or those who are simply ignorant of the harmful ideology they are propagating.
Even as we strongly endorse the IHRA definition, we share concerns expressed by other supporters, both in the Jewish community and in broader civil society, that the examples appended to the definition were drafted in a time and context different from the one before us today and can obscure even as they strive to illuminate. The examples seek primarily to clarify when Jews are targeted for harassment because of their real or actual connection to Israel or Zionism. A stated commitment to Israel’s well-being does not preclude antisemitic attitudes. At the same time, questioning Israeli government policies does not automatically denote one’s views as antisemitic. While clarity on this is needed, and we fully recognize that antisemitism today emanates from the left and the right and the threats from all sources must be addressed, the examples’ focus on Israel must not divert attention from the more frequent manifestations of antisemitism, too often violent, emanating from new streams in the hate movements that have threatened synagogues and other Jewish and non-Jewish community institutions in the U.S. today – streams primarily associated with the far right.
In addition, several of the definition’s examples involve protected speech. Our commitment to principles of free speech and concerns about the potential abuse of the definition compel us to urge its use only as intended: as a guide and an awareness raising tool. The definition should not be codified into policy that would trigger potentially problematic punitive action to circumscribe speech, efforts which have been particularly aimed at college students and human rights activists. If the effect of application of the IHRA definition is to limit free speech, it threatens to divide the broad coalition needed to combat antisemitism.
IHRA’s opening words introducing the “working definition” clarify the intent that it serves as a “non-legally binding working definition of antisemitism” with examples as a “guide.” That clear guidance and the endorsement of others like UK Antisemitism Advisor Lord Jon Mann have highlighted that keeping the definition non-legal is a strength and makes it more effective.
The bottom line is that we endorse the IHRA definition as a powerful tool serving the cause of combatting antisemitism best, when those standards are maintained and the definition is used to strengthen efforts to enforce and enhance America’s existing anti-hate crime laws. The IHRA definition can be an effective educational, reporting, and training tool to enhance key steps the Congress and Administration should take to combat antisemitism including: improved reporting; enhanced security of Jewish communal institutions and those of other vulnerable groups; and urging social media platforms to more forcefully stem online antisemitism, Holocaust denial, and racism more generally.
The challenges posed by rising antisemitism are so great that we need all people of good will to join in the fight against it. As we endorse the IHRA definition as a powerful and positive tool in this struggle, we also pledge that we will oppose any effort to use the definition to silence, marginalize, or shun those seeking to positively contribute to the public conversation – even if they espouse views with which we strongly disagree – around the issues we confront as Jews and as concerned citizens.
About the Union for Reform Judaism
The Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) builds community at every level—from the way we collaborate with congregations, organizations, and individuals to how we make connections across North America to advance contemporary and inclusive Jewish life. Providing vision and voice to transform the way people connect to Judaism, we help congregations stay relevant and innovative, motivate more young Jews to embrace Jewish living, agitate for a more progressive society, and foster meaningful connections to Israel.
Founded in 1873, URJ has grown into the largest and most powerful force in North American Jewish life, with nearly 850 member congregations and work that inspires, connects, and educates millions of people. Our legacy, reach, leadership, and vision mean that we can unite thousands of years of tradition with a modern, evolving Judaism to strengthen Jewish communities today and for future generations.
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