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How Weaponizing Antisemitism Puts Jews at Risk

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As Gaza solidarity encampments take root at dozens of campuses across the U.S., many Democratic and Republican lawmakers—in addition to President Joe Biden—have accused protestors and colleges of rampant antisemitism.

That’s woefully misguided—and dangerous. Indeed, the blanket assertion by pro-Israel advocates is intended as a political cudgel: weaponizing antisemitism to shield Israel from criticism of its attack on Gaza, which has left at least 35,000 Palestinians dead in the wake of the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, wounded tens of thousands more, and forcibly displaced nearly 2 million Palestinians who now face famine conditions. The conditions in Gaza are such that many scholars have said that the situation amounts to a genocide.

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Ultimately, the weaponization of antisemitism intensifies the discrimination and exclusion against vulnerable communities in the U.S.—including Jews. 

Indeed, those accusing protesters of antisemitism do not appear to consider the many Jews among the protestors in the encampments as Jews, arguing in effect that Jews can only be Jews if they support Israel or do not express pro-Palestinian sentiment.

This is absurd, for the idea that all Jews should hold the same views by virtue of their identity is an antisemitic idea itself. Alarmingly, President Biden has at times exacerbated the false equivalency between Jews and Zionists. In February, on Late Night With Seth Meyers, he said that “were there no Israel, there would not be a Jew in the world who would be safe.”

This claim is ahistorical—and ignores the fact that many Jews feel more unsafe today because of the policies of the right-wing government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and claims that Israel represents Jews anywhere. 

The weaponization of antisemitism by Israel and its allies, including the U.S. government, draws on the deeply problematic “working definition of antisemitism” adopted in 2016 by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). A central force in the institutional world of global Holocaust memory, this international organization of 35 member states (almost all of them in Europe) deals with Holocaust Education, research, and remembrance.

The IHRA definition is the basis for the recently proposed Antisemitism Awareness Act, which some 700 Jewish college faculty have signed an open letter urging Biden not to back. The definition includes 11 examples of antisemitism, seven of which mention Israel and thus blur the distinction between Jews and the State of Israel. By contrast, the IHRA definition includes no mention of white supremacists, even though they pose the greatest danger to Jews in the U.S.—as the 2018 Tree of Life Synagogue massacre of 11 Jews in Pittsburgh demonstrated.

This silence, combined with the focus on Israel, facilitates the IHRA definition’s use as a particularly insidious weapon to target people whom white supremacists in the U.S. also single out: Muslims and Arabs.

Take, for instance, the recent attack by a House Committee on Education and the Workforce on Rutgers University-Newark’s Center for Security, Race and Rights (RUCSRR) and its director, Distinguished Professor of Law Sahar Aziz. RUCSRR has come under scrutiny for alleged antisemitism.

Over 500 law professors from across the U.S., who describe themselves as a “racially, religiously, and ideologically diverse” group, condemned these allegations in a letter to the House Committee last month. These law professors note that the Committee is targeting the only center in a U.S. law school devoted to the civil and human rights of South Asians, Muslims, and Arabs, and that Professor Aziz is the only Muslim Arab woman among 130 professors in the law school.

They also point out that since its founding in 2018, RUCSRR has organized nearly 90 events on a wide range of topics, including on the prosecution of Nazi criminals. Yet without any evidence, the House Committee describes Palestinian speakers or speakers who have expressed pro-Palestinian views as antisemitic.

The Committee, the professors argue, is engaged in the “mobilization of Islamophobic tropes to fuel and sustain spurious allegations of antisemitism to discredit and delegitimize critics of Israeli policy and Military action.” 

Notably, the House Committee has been engaged in similar baseless attacks on dozens of U.S. colleges in the last few months—with Committee member Rep. Elise Stefanik, a Republican who has expressed white supremacist views in the past, playing a key role.

None of this ensures the safety of Jews in the U.S. On the contrary, the Islamophobia and racism inherent in the weaponization of antisemitism risks making antisemitism a meaningless charge, and therefore much harder to combat, at a time when genuine examples of it are rising. 

The Gaza solidarity encampments across the U.S. are anti-racist spaces, where Jews, Palestinians, Arabs, Christians, Muslims, Black people, men, women, LGBTQI people, and others stand in solidarity with each other and against Israel’s war on Gaza. (There have been isolated cases of antisemitism on campuses, which remain few and far between.) They stand for truth and justice—demanding that their government and their universities cease their support of Israel’s extremely destructive assault on Gaza. And they point to a different future of equality and peace around the world. By doing so, they also stand as a genuine expression today of a real struggle against antisemitism.

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