The Jerusalem Declaration’s Fatal Flaw
LAST MONTH, an international group of scholars released the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism (JDA), a proposal meant to challenge the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) “working definition” of antisemitism, which conflates certain criticisms of Israel and Zionism with anti-Jewish discrimination. The JDA, which has been endorsed by more than 200 scholars, offers a definition of antisemitism that recognizes the importance of protecting advocates for Palestinian human rights from accusations of antisemitism when criticizing Israel. Pushing back on the IHRA definition is an urgent task, given that it continues to be adopted by Western governments, universities, and cultural institutions, and is actively used to stifle pro-Palestinian activism. But while the JDA represents a significant improvement over the IHRA definition—for instance, in its explicit recognition of the legitimacy of the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which critics often accuse of antisemitism—the proposal remains problematic in ways that should be of great concern to those engaged in both the fight against antisemitism and the struggle for Palestinian freedom.
The central flaw of the JDA is that it accepts the premise of the IHRA definition that there is any direct relationship between antisemitism and speech about Israel/Palestine. As Barry Trachtenberg, one of the signatories of the JDA, acknowledged in a piece for this magazine, the “heavy focus on Israel has raised legitimate concerns that the JDA inadvertently reinforces the false association of criticism of Israel or Zionism with antisemitism.” Though I understand the reasons why the authors of the JDA chose to focus explicitly on the contested terrain of speech about Israel/Palestine, I believe the risks of this approach outweigh the benefits. To truly undermine the IHRA definition, the JDA could have reframed the definition away from Israel/Palestine, and instead focused on white supremacy and other well-established sources of anti-Jewish racism and violence. Such a definition would be entirely capable of determining why a given statement about Jews might be antisemitic, without putting people, particularly Palestinians, in the position of having to defend why a statement about Israel/Palestine is not antisemitic—a dangerous position in which victims of oppression are treated like perpetrators. But in framing the definition around Israel/Palestine, the authors, whatever their intentions may be, have kept the door open for bad-faith actors to police what acceptable speech on Israel/Palestine looks like.
Trachtenberg argues that by focusing on speech about Israel/Palestine, the JDA “opens up space for Palestinians to speak about their oppression and to confront their oppressors.” But the document still leaves a significant window of opportunity for those who would strategically conflate Palestine advocacy with antisemitism. The most concerning part of the JDA is Point 10 of Section B, which includes this example of antisemitism: “Denying the right of Jews in the State of Israel to exist and flourish, collectively and individually, as Jews, in accordance with the principle of equality.” This is likely intended to replace a more restrictive example of antisemitism given by the IHRA definition—“Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination”—which is often taken to mean that opposition to the existence of a Jewish state is antisemitic. Yet the vagueness of the JDA’s language still risks silencing criticism of Israel. After all, what exactly does “exist and flourish” mean?