Hundreds of people gather in front of the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles, California, on May 18, 2021, to protest in solidarity with Palestinians on strike in Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Justin L. Stewart / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
In multiple cities across the U.S., the right-wing push for new laws to silence criticism of Israel for its human rights violations has reached a crescendo. As part of a growing international effort, Israel lobby groups have convinced local jurisdictions in several U.S. states to adopt the controversial and overbroad definition of antisemitism used by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), which classifies virtually all expression in support of Palestinian rights as anti-Jewish.
In California, the West Hollywood, Manhattan Beach and Los Angeles city councils each adopted the IHRA definition in the last two months. In Maryland, the Montgomery County Council did the same on November 2.
The adoption of the IHRA definition comes amid recent high-profile incidents of antisemitism, namely Kanye West’s incendiary comments about Jewish people, and former President Trump hosting outspoken white nationalist and Holocaust denier Nick Fuentes at his Mar-a-Lago estate just a week after announcing his 2024 run. Indeed, those in Montgomery County who voiced support for the definition referenced West’s hateful comments as an example of why it needed to be enshrined as policy.
However, while purporting to combat antisemitism, the IHRA definition is primarily designed to shield Israel from criticism and ultimately from efforts toward BDS — Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions. Seven of the IHRA definition’s eleven contemporary examples of antisemitism focus on the Israeli state — conflating Israel with Judaism as a whole. Among them are “applying double standards” to Israel, or claiming that Israel is “a racist endeavor.” Israel lobby groups are weaponizing the IHRA definition to punish and threaten constitutionally protected speech, in particular that of Palestinians describing Israel’s brutal military rule and denial of Palestinian freedom.
Even the lead drafter of the IHRA definition, Kenneth Stern, has argued against its use in legislation or policy, stating that it serves as “an attack on academic freedom and free speech.” When adopted by municipalities, the IHRA definition expands the scope of policing by giving law enforcement yet another tool and pretense to surveil communities who speak out for Palestinian rights.
For instance, when West Hollywood officials adopted the IHRA definition, they claimed that it “serves as an important tool for law enforcement [to] identify, measure, monitor, and ultimately combat antisemitism.” Much like the post-9/11 “counter-terror” surveillance programs that devastated Muslim, Arab, Black and South Asian immigrant communities in the name of national security — will the IHRA definition measure public safety in terms of how many people that law enforcement can censor, surveil and wrongfully criminalize?
For decades, the state of Israel has faced increasing international condemnation for its racial discrimination and violent displacement of Palestinians. International watchdogs Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have both released reports accusing Israel of committing apartheid. Now, the IHRA definition is attempting to smear those criticisms themselves as racist. Black and Brown activists challenging racist surveillance by the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) recognize the irony of this development.
Akhil Gopal, a member of the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition based in the Skid Row neighborhood of downtown Los Angeles, compares the logic of the IHRA definition to similar legislation that criminalizes predominantly Black communities for criticizing police violence. “The IHRA definition mirrors ‘Blue Lives Matter’ bills, which treat law enforcement as a marginalized class. It is part of an effort to embed pro-Israel advocates within legal anti-discrimination, civil rights and hate crime infrastructures as a supposedly marginalized identity, in order to weaponize the language of ‘hate’ and ‘extremism’ against Palestinians,” Gopal told Truthout. “When the IHRA definition is adopted by municipalities, it encourages law enforcement to surveil communities for supposed infractions. As a coalition, we have been organizing to expose how surveillance is not just an invasion of privacy, but an inherent part of criminalization.”
According to research attained by Stop LAPD Spying, at least one academic paper funded by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has already suggested using the IHRA definition as an indicator of extremism in its widely denounced federal surveillance program, Countering Violent Extremism (CVE). Community organizations, civil liberties groups and policy experts have fiercely opposed CVE since it was launched, citing the ways in which the program criminalizes constitutionally protected speech, religious practices and political activism. The adoption of the definition by DHS would be a dangerous expansion and continuation of the “war on terror’s” devastating impact on Muslim and immigrant communities across the U.S.
Celine Qussiny, a member of the Palestinian Youth Movement (PYM) in Los Angeles, explains that she has worked with Stop LAPD Spying, Black Alliance for Just Immigration, Vigilant Love, and other community organizations “to oppose CVE, which racially profiles our communities and deputizes mental health providers, teachers, and other service providers to report community members to law enforcement under false pretenses of extremism.” If the IHRA definition were to be incorporated into CVE, “we can expect an increase of reports accusing pro-Palestine speech and activism as ‘extremist.’ This is not only an attempt to intimidate our communities and allies from building power through local organizing, but to also restrain free speech, consequently diminishing the health of our communities.”
Palestine Legal, a civil rights organization dedicated to providing legal support to the movement for Palestinian rights, has recently discovered through public records requests that pro-Israel organizations have sent PYM’s flyers and materials to law enforcement, asking that Qussiny’s organization be put under police surveillance and shut down. The attempts to push the IHRA definition into law are just the latest example of the long-standing right-wing effort to redefine antisemitism as characterized primarily by criticism of Israel, rather than as an interconnected element of white supremacy and all forms of racial bigotry. Roughly half of the incidents of suppression Palestine Legal responds to each year include false accusations of antisemitism, totaling 1,017 incidents from 2014 to 2021.
The adoption of the IHRA definition in multiple cities is not only dangerous, but also surprisingly regressive considering the broad array of institutions that have rejected it. Both Palestinian and Jewish human rights organizations, as well as major newspaper editorial boards, have opposed codifying the IHRA definition of antisemitism into law, including the ACLU, the National Lawyers Guild, the Center for Constitutional Rights, Palestine Legal, Jewish Voice for Peace, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post.
Qussiny and Gopal’s organizations continue to resist the IHRA definition, and hope community opposition will prevent it from continuing to spread across the U.S. and beyond. As a first step, elected officials who have voted to adopt the IHRA definition should reverse their decisions. Rather than preventing attacks against Jewish people and Judaism, their adoption of the IHRA definition will criminalize Palestine solidarity while expanding the repressive tools police use against communities of color more broadly.