Voices | Time to write the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism into law

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By Rhoda Smolow | JNS

Anti-Semitism: Lobro78 / iStock / Getty Images Plus; Smolow: via JNS.org
Rhoda Smolow is the national president of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America.

In May 2016, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance gifted the world an opportunity to abandon subjective decisions of what does or does not qualify as anti-Semitism. The IHRA — a united front of 31 nations whose common goal is to promote Holocaust education and remembrance — negotiated the working definition of anti-Semitism, which empowers moral and well-intentioned democracies to create policies that effectively combat the spread of this stubborn global contagion.


Many nations, including the United States, adopted the non-legally binding working definition. The stronger option is to give the working definition the force of law. It is a choice that every nation can make, and many have. Governments that have taken the distinct step to codify this working definition demonstrate a seriousness and determination in combating the evolving societal challenges of anti-Semitism.

Sadly, the United States has failed to take this step.

For decades, the United States has led the world in leveraging its awesome influence, economic might and moral foundations to force light into dark corners of the world where Jews are targets for discrimination. This powerful nation, however, has not yet fully examined the question of what constitutes anti-Semitism or harnessed the power that comes with applying a definition in curing our own societal ills.

Today our nation is in the throes of an important conversation about how America can be truer to its ideals. The focus on race, ethnicity, socioeconomics, gender and other factors is healthy and reflects a mature society willing to struggle with what America will stand for in the 21st century. We must add to this conversation how America defines anti-Semitism so we can rise above it once and for all.

This is not to suggest that America has failed to take the rise in anti-Semitism seriously. To the contrary, law-enforcement agencies track anti-religious hate crimes and publish data annually that serves as a crude barometer of how anti-Semitism manifests in violence. And this Congress passed critical legislation designed to combat anti-Semitism at the earliest ages and through the most effective means — education — through the Never Again Education Act. But the fact remains that we are at war with an enemy that we have yet to define.

It also warrants recognition that no opposition exists in either party to the IHRA working definition being used by the United States in its assessment of anti-Semitism by our allies and adversaries. Neither the House nor the Senate has objected to U.S. Secretaries of State John Kerry, Rex Tillerson or Mike Pompeo relying upon it to monitor and combat anti-Semitism.

Congress is also on the record in recognizing the IHRA working definition as foundational in crafting federal law. The Combating European Anti-Semitism Act of 2017 — passed on suspension by the House in 2017, agreed to by unanimous consent in the Senate in 2018 and signed by the president in 2019 — is constructed in part upon the IHRA working definition and its further clarifications on how anti-Semitism manifests itself.\

Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle have been vocal in their support of this definition. Prior to the House vote on that bill in May 2017, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) rose to speak on the floor and observed that “words do matter when it comes to the way we talk about this challenge.” Earlier this year, Sens. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) and James Lankford (R-Okla.), co-chairs of the Senate Bipartisan Task Force for Combating Anti-Semitism, called the IHRA working definition a “helpful tool to train law enforcement and inform educators about how to identify and combat anti-Semitism.”

It is time for the United States to write the IHRA definition into law. When we finally do so, we will say to each other that we are unafraid to draw lines of what is and is not hate. While no law can drive hatred from the heart and fill it with respect, acceptance, kindness and love, good laws demonstrate what we value as a nation, where we are headed and how we will arrive there.

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