Why using more than the IHRA definition strengthens, not undermines, the fight against antisemitism

The rise in antisemitism across the United States in the wake of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks and Israel’s military response in Gaza is well documented. At the same time, despite widespread agreement on the need to combat antisemitism, many pundits, stakeholders, civil and human rights activists and Jewish American communal leaders are grappling with the seemingly simple question of “What is antisemitism?”

The Biden administration’s National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism, released last May, is the nation’s first systematic action plan dedicated to combating and ending Jew-hatred across the United States. The administration’s plan emphasizes the importance of understanding antisemitism, stating, “In order to confront and counter antisemitism, Americans must recognize and understand it.” 

The National Strategy has drawn widespread support from all but a few Jewish American organizations. Even among its supporters, however, there is continuing disagreement about the core issue of how to define antisemitism.

The latest example is a letter to House lawmakers from Jewish organizational leaders, organized by the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), that not only expressed support for the International Holocaust Remembrance Association’s (IHRA) non-legally binding working definition of antisemitism but also urged the rejection of any “alternative” definitions. In a recent article, JFNA CEO Eric Fingerhut falsely accused proponents of the Nexus Document’s definition of antisemitism of trying “to undermine the IHRA definition.” Not satisfied with the administration’s continued embrace of the IHRA definition, they are pushing lawmakers to reject any non-IHRA definitions. 

To set the record straight: Nexus fully supports the National Strategy, including its appreciation of the need to use multiple tools to understand and fight antisemitism. 

Adding value

The National Strategy drew on multiple sources for understanding what antisemitism is, including the IHRA definition. The framers of the National Strategy understood that support for the IHRA definition is widespread and well-entrenched amongst major Jewish stakeholders and civic and governmental bodies worldwide. As a “non-legally binding working definition,” it has played an important role in training, educating and helping to identify instances of antisemitism. A strategy to counter antisemitism that omitted the IHRA definition altogether would lack credibility with large swaths of the Jewish American population. Although several human rights and pro-Palestinian groups have lobbied against the IHRA definition for many years due to concerns that it limits freedom of speech, especially in support of Palestinian rights, the administration decisively rejected calls to disavow the definition altogether. 

At the same time, the National Strategy’s framers also understood that the IHRA definition is too limiting to carry the weight of fighting antisemitism on its own, so they endorsed additional definitional resources — including the Nexus Document — to help sharpen and clarify the strategy’s application.

One of the IHRA definition’s strengths, as the JFNA letter notes, is that it recognizes the importance of context. Each of the IHRA’s illustrative examples is a practice that the document says “could, taking into account the overall context,” be antisemitic — not that it always is in all contexts. As the eminent antisemitism scholar David Hirsh observes, the IHRA suggests that certain forms of discourse raise “alarm bells” about antisemitism, but beyond that it does not make decisive conclusions. “The alarm bells tell you where to look,” Hirsh continues, “they do not make final or fixed judgments.” 

This initial flagging of incidents of potential antisemitism is very important, but the IHRA does not provide any guidance beyond that regarding what sort of contextual elements point to a given incident being antisemitic or not. Nobody could look at the IHRA’s core definition — antisemitism loosely defined as “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews — and feel confident they have all the contextual tools necessary to adjudge complex and complicated cases.

This is one of the places where the Nexus definition adds value. To begin, our articulation of antisemitism is considerably more robust than the IHRA’s standing alone. Whereas the IHRA definition only broadly gestures that antisemitism includes “certain perceptions of Jews,” which “may include hatred toward Jews,” Nexus is significantly more concrete and muscular: 

“Antisemitism consists of anti-Jewish beliefs, attitudes, actions or systemic conditions. It includes negative beliefs and feelings about Jews, hostile behavior directed against Jews (because they are Jews), and conditions that discriminate against Jews and significantly impede their ability to participate as equals in political, religious, cultural, economic, or social life.” 

More broadly, the Nexus definition can be used to help leaders identify difficult cases of antisemitism by explaining how principles for identifying antisemitism might be applied in different contexts. For instance, criticism of Israel is legitimate, as both the IHRA and Nexus affirm, but an action does not automatically get a get-out-of-antisemitism-free card just because it styles itself as “criticism of Israel.” Nexus’ Guide to Identifying Antisemitism in Debates about Israel addresses the question of when criticism of Israel or opposition to Zionism is antisemitic. “Anti-Zionism,” it states, “can be antisemitic if it employs an antisemitic trope, targets and harms Jews, or specifically denies the Jewish right to self-determination.” At the same time, the Guide cautions against overgeneralizing the subject. Jewish identity, including attitudes towards Zionism, is complex, as the ADL itself has pointed out. That’s why, as the IHRA notes, it is essential to pay attention to context.

These distinctions and nuances are not simply academic matters. They are critical for developing strategies to fight antisemitism. If those with whom we disagree about Israel — sometimes vehemently — are labeled antisemitic without regard to nuance or context, we cannot form cross-community alliances against Jew-hatred with them. A viable strategy against antisemitism must recognize this. It cannot ignore the tremendous racial, ethnic, religious and political diversity that exists in this country, a diversity that is reflected in an intense debate about Israel within the Jewish community and beyond. 

A more comprehensive range of tools and approaches — including the Nexus Document — can lead to a broader coalition committed to fighting antisemitism, an essential win in a moment when Jews are feeling lonely and isolated. 

A few months ago, one of us wrote about how the Biden administration’s national strategy to combat antisemitism was made for moments like this. We’ve seen horrifying incidents of antisemitism in the streets and online, on college campuses, at protests and outside synagogues. In this crisis, there is no dispensing with the need to fight antisemitism with the broadest coalition possible. The Biden administration understood how the Nexus Document can help build that coalition, and it’s a shame that some Jewish organizations are resisting this effort when we are all ultimately striving for the same goal.

David Schraub, a member of the Nexus Task Force, is an assistant professor at Lewis and Clark Law School, where he teaches constitutional and anti-discrimination law.

Jonathan Jacoby directs the Nexus Leadership Project and the Nexus Task Force.