With antisemitism skyrocketing, American universities need to adopt the IHRA working definition of antisemitism now

Since Hamas’ massacre in southern Israel on Oct. 7, there has been a frightening increase in antisemitic incidents in the United States and around the world. To be clear, antisemitism was already on the rise previously, but the shocking public displays of anti-Jewish discrimination in the last three months have made addressing it an even more urgent public policy concern.  

In these challenging times, American colleges and universities in particular, as well as leading international institutions such as the United Nations, are falling far short.

Like most Jewish Americans of my generation, I didn’t experience antisemitism until I went to college. We millennials were raised in a golden age of assimilation and acceptance. Animus toward Jews was history to us; gone were the days of the casual country club antisemitism of our parents’ generation, as were the institutional barriers of our grandparents’ generation. 

That golden age, I fear, is over. Antisemitism is reawakened.

The Combat Antisemitism Movement (CAM), for which I serve as the chief of staff, released a report on Friday in partnership with the Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry at Tel Aviv University highlighting the particular failures of our universities and international institutions.

Antisemitism has become virulent on campus. Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and Cornell are only a few of our nation’s leading academic institutions that have experienced significant antisemitic events recently, along with dozens of other institutions from coast to coast. Seventy-three percent of college students reported experiencing or seeing antisemitism on their campuses since the beginning of this school year.

Despite this, the administrations at most colleges and universities are doing the bare minimum to combat antisemitism and ensure the safety and inclusivity of Jewish students. Indeed, Harvard and Penn’s presidents were forced to step down due to their nonchalance about antisemitism.

Antisemitism can only be confronted and combated if we can first identify it. Many good-intentioned people today fail to recognize contemporary forms of antisemitism that are not dressed in the language of neo-Nazism or the imagery of the Holocaust. The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism is the most widely accepted definition of the phenomenon, allowing for a universal framework for understanding what constitutes antisemitic behavior in the 21st century. 

The IHRA is an international institution with 35 member states, including the U.S. Despite this, since several examples of contemporary antisemitism under the IHRA’s definition deal with Israel-related antisemitism, and because our institutions of higher learning are increasing held captive by views drenched in anti-Zionist forms of antisemitism, many U.S. colleges and universities have balked at adopting and using it. In fact, among American institutions of higher learning, only Boston University’s student government adopted the definition in 2023, lacking the effect of official use — and in a year when these institutions should have been particularly anxious to tackle antisemitism.

This stands in stark contrast to educational institutions abroad. Seven international colleges and universities adopted the IHRA’s working definition in 2023, bringing the global total to 345 institutions of higher learning; this includes the vast majority of universities in the United Kingdom, whose administrations have incorporated the IHRA working definition of antisemitism into their codes of conduct.

Forty-five countries, including the U.S. and most Western democracies (25 of 27 EU member states), have adopted the IHRA’s working definition; so have 34 U.S. states and 89 municipal governments, including Los Angeles, Miami, Washington, D.C., Kansas City and Dallas, among others. In May 2023, Virginia’s legislature adopted the working definition on a bipartisan basis as a tool to identify antisemitism, which can be an evasive target, and train “first responders, educators, and other public servants” on how to respond. As of December 2023, some 1,216 entities have adopted or endorsed the IHRA working definition, including 97 new adoptions and endorsements in 2023.

An organization that has been conspicuous in not doing so is the United Nations. Quite the contrary. The U.N. shared a draft plan of a strategy to combat antisemitism last year, which was rejected as insufficient by every national and global Jewish organization with whom it was shared. This was in large part because it did not adopt the IHRA working definition and failed to address contemporary antisemitism sufficiently.

This is par for the course for the U.N., whose General Assembly condemned Israel 14 times in 2023, twice as much as the rest of the world combined; whose Human Rights Social Forum was chaired by Iran; whose agency for women was dilatory (and tepid) in condemning Hamas’ sexual violence committed on Oct. 7; and whose organization tasked with assisting Palestinian “refugees” employs thousands of people who openly celebrated Hamas’ assault on Israel, the worst on attack on Jewish people since the Holocaust.

When anti-Israel protesters in Sydney, Australia, yelled “Gas the Jews!” or a demonstrator in Warsaw, Poland held a sign reading “Keep the World Clean” with an accompanying drawing of the Star of David in a garbage can — all redolent of Nazi language, as obsessed as the Nazis were with rendering the European continent judenrein (“cleansed of Jews”) — was this behavior antisemitic or simply legitimate criticism of Israel? 

The streets of major American cities and the quads of our campuses have been inundated by demonstrators chanting “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” and “There is only one solution! Intifada! Revolution!” Hamas’ genocidal war cries calling for the eradication of the Jewish state, home to the world’s largest Jewish population. Needless to say, the term one solution strongly evokes the Third Reich’s “Final Solution”; and the Second Intifada was a campaign of suicide bombings against Israeli civilians launched after Palestinian rejection of a US-brokered Israeli offer of peace and statehood. This, they crow, is the “one solution.” This, to quote the former leaders of some of the aforementioned institutions, is the context we depend upon.

Largely due to historical antisemitism, today America is home to the world’s second largest Jewish community, and collectively the United States and Israel represent more than 80% of the global Jewish population. That is why this issue demands our attention and leadership at home. The surge in antisemitism at home and abroad is disheartening, but it is also a call to action. This moment demands leadership.

Institutional adoption and use of the IHRA working definition of antisemitism is a crucial first step in identifying and crafting effective policies to combat this scourge. That is why the U.N., colleges and universities, municipal governments, states and national governmental bodies must adopt the definition. History demands we mustn’t wait.

Arthur Maserjian is the chief of staff of the Combat Antisemitism Movement.