International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance muzzles critics of Israel | opinion

A com exclusive article.

In a country that prides itself on freedom of speech, the right to criticize Israel’s apartheid system and illegal occupation of Palestinian territories would seem to be a given. But in New Jersey, that right hangs by a thread.

Earlier this year, New Jersey Senators Andrew Zwicker and Greenstein introduced a resolution calling on the state to define antisemitism.

The resolution, which is cosponsored by Senators Beach and Codey, seeks to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA)working definition of antisemitism.

Antisemitism is generally defined as prejudice against or hatred of Jews, but the IHRA working definition of antisemitism expands antisemitism to also include condemnations or criticisms of Israel as a nation, its occupation of Palestine, the establishment of an apartheid state, and its ongoing blockade of Gaza that amounts to collective punishment and violates international law.

While the UN moves to mark the 75th anniversary of the Nakba for the first time ever, Speaker Kevin McCarthy attempted to block Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib’s educational community event at the Capitol Visitor Center last week on grounds of “antisemitism.”

The event, which was held nonetheless, sought to uplift Palestinian voices and educate members of Congress and their staff about the ongoing Nakba — the “catastrophe,” in reference to the founding of the state of Israel in 1948 and the resulting destruction and displacement of Palestinian society.

Such incidents are not uncommon, and civil rights advocates have long warned about the dangerous precedent that equating antisemitism with criticisms of Israel sets.

Conflating protests of Israeli apartheid with antisemitism will “muzzle and silence advocates for Palestine, certainly for a positive regard [of Israel],” Wassim Kanaan, the Vice Chair of American Muslims for Palestine said.

Not only does this silence debate and criticism of Israeli apartheid, but it also yields a glaring inaccuracy and injustice to Judaism as a religion and Jews as a religious group, Kanaan said.

“Judaism is a religion,” Kanaan said. “Equating state policy and the policy of a country with the teachings of a religion is inherently wrong because they are two completely different things, it’s important to allow people who share a religious identity to be able to differ on political topics, and still maintain their identity of who they are.”

David Letwin, the cofounder of Jews for Palestinian Right of Return, believes that the IHRA definition of antisemitism is a false definition and that adopting it will be harmful not just to critics of Israel, but also to Jews as a whole.

“It will just contribute to the ongoing campaign of enablers of the Israeli regime to silence people who stand up for Palestinian Liberation,” Letwin said.

Letwin also said that by defining any criticism of the Israeli government as antisemitic, it then becomes standard that all Jews, regardless of their political beliefs, are supportive of the Israeli regime and complicit in its crimes, just by virtue of identifying as Jewish.

“It follows logically, that if [criticism of Israel] has nothing to do with Judaism or Jewish identity, then opposing the racist settler colonial political ideology of [Israel] has nothing to do with anti-Jewish discrimination, or violence or stereotypes,” Letwin said.

Civil rights advocates and ordinary citizens are unable to criticize Israeli apartheid without fear of repercussion or retaliation, Letwin said.

“All it has to do is put fear into people, that they could lose their jobs, that they could be subject to public pressure,” Letwin said. “Could their homes be attacked? Could they be attacked personally? It creates an environment in which people become frightened to speak out because they don’t want to be slandered and smeared as an anti-Semite. So then they say to themselves, well, maybe I better not say that or what will be the consequences? If I speak up? Could I lose my job?”

What is necessary, then, is not an erasure of the idea to define antisemitism, but a clear distinction between antisemitism and criticisms of Israel — something which the IHRA definition does not do.

For Kanaan and Letwin, the adoption of a definition of antisemitism must protect the rights of Jewish people from white supremacy, while also not infringing on Palestinians’ or any other group’s basic civil rights.

“It’s not that we need to have a definition of antisemitism that protects Palestinians. We need a definition that doesn’t vilify Palestinians,” Kanaan said.

“We see the white supremacist movements in this country. The right constantly vilifies people of the Jewish faith,” Kanaan said, “and so we need to make sure that they’re protected, but not at the expense of vilifying Palestinians.”

Dina Sayedahmed is the communications manager and Maryam Ali is a legal intern at CAIR-NJ.