Deputy Assistant Secretary
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Dear Ms. McDonald:
On behalf of California Scholars for Academic Freedom,f we write with concern regarding your remarks on February 1st supporting the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism. It was unclear whether this is your personal viewpoint or the viewpoint of the administration, but you spoke of the IHRA definition, “with its real-world examples,” as “an invaluable tool” for fighting antisemitism. While we would agree that strong tools must be found for opposing antisemitism and all forms of racism, we strongly disagree with the silencing of critical views of Israel that the adoption of the IHRA definition entails. CS4AF is an organization of over 200 scholars in higher education in California that seeks to defend academic freedom. Our judgment is that the IHRA definition is harmful to academic freedom and campus speech rights and that, more specifically, it constrains legitimate support for Palestinian human rights and undermines, rather than aids, the struggle against antisemitism.
What is most wrong about adopting the IHRA definition of antisemitism is that doing so conflates Judaism with Zionism. Judaism (a religion) is not Zionism (a political ideology), and an increasing number of Jews criticize and oppose Zionism. The State of Israel does not, moreover, represent the Jewish people, nor does criticism of the Israeli state entail the destruction of, or any harm to, the Jewish people. To the contrary, such criticism acts as a call to realize more inclusive and substantive principles of justice in the region.
Once any criticism of the State of Israel is taken to be an act of antisemitism, the very principles of free speech and political dissent are violated. When this happens on US campuses, the ideal of the university as a site for open debate on key issues of social concern is lost. Open criticism of Israeli state policy has included its rationale for differential rights of citizenship, land appropriation and illegal settlements, and of its dispossession of Palestinians from their homes. These criticisms are legitimate political speech. Indeed these criticisms are a hallmark of a democratic public sphere. To quell such criticism, or indeed, to brand critics of Israeli policy or even Zionism as anti-Semites, is to treat the Israeli state as beyond criticism. To equate these criticisms with anti-Semitism is to punish those who oppose occupation and colonial rule and support human rights.
Put succinctly: the IHRA definition of antisemitism illegitimately constrains legitimate political expression, thereby establishing an immunity from criticism for the Israeli state that no other state currently enjoys—and that none should.
We urge you to consider that the best way to combat antisemitism is to establish doing so as integral to a general policy against racism, including xenophobia, anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian racism, anti-Black racism, and racism against Indigenous peoples. We also note that the most dangerous forms of antisemitism in the US now are to be found in the rise of white supremacists, and of conspiracy theorists on the right who believe in a cabal of Jewish financiers with fantastical power, stoked by Evangelicals who wish to export Jews to Israel and deny them their rights of belonging in the US.
Finally we note that many Jewish organizations, including Jewish Voice for Peace, as well as the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, oppose Jewish supremacy and practices of the Israeli state that deny Palestinians’ rights of self-determination on their own lands.
To conduct a campaign to suppress and stigmatize those who legitimately recognize the violation of Palestinian human rights and the significance of the Palestinian struggle against ongoing colonial rule is to misuse the charge of “antisemitism.” It is most important at this particular historical moment to be scrupulous in the use of language and in making political claims. By such campaigns, white supremacists who champion Zionism for racist reasons, including anti-Semitic reasons, are set free to express themselves, while those with historically grounded and well-reasoned criticisms of the Israeli state are stigmatized and their speech inhibited.
As an organization committed to the defense of academic freedom, California Scholars for Academic Freedom is compelled to speak against the project of constraining legitimate political speech legitimated by the IHRA definition. The IHRA definition is an attack on speech rights with regard to both the struggle against anti-Semitism and the struggle for Palestinian freedom and equality.
We urge you to reconsider your public statement and to join us in supporting protections for legitimate and protected speech, and in working against all forms of racism—including anti-Semitic and anti-Palestinian hate—in a principled, consistent, and robust manner.
We urge you to reject the IHRA definition in favor of a framework supported by international law and human rights frameworks.
California Scholars For Academic Freedom
**CALIFORNIA SCHOLARS FOR ACADEMIC FREEDOM (cs4af) is a group of over 200 scholars who defend academic freedom, the right of shared governance, and the First Amendment rights of faculty and students in the academy and beyond. California Scholars for Academic Freedom investigates legislative and administrative infringements on freedom of speech and assembly, and it raises the consciousness of politicians, university regents and administrators, faculty, students and the public at large through open letters, press releases, petitions, statements, and articles. Our vigilance extends to violations of academic freedom anywhere in the United States and abroad, for we recognize that violations of academic freedom anywhere are threats to academic freedom everywhere.
* California Scholars for Academic Freedom is a group of scholars committed to academic freedom and rights to education of faculty and students not only in California and the United States but internationally as well. We recognize that violations of academic freedom anywhere are threats to academic freedom everywhere. California Scholars for Academic Freedom investigates legislative and administrative infringements on freedom of speech and assembly, and it raises the consciousness of politicians, university regents and administrators, faculty, students and the public at large through open letters, press releases, petitions, statements, and articles.