US interfaith coalition opposes antisemitism definition shielding Israel from criticism

US interfaith coalition opposes antisemitism definition shielding Israel from criticism
The community groups argue this definition is too broad, would be an infringement of the right to freedom of speech in the US, and shields the Israeli state from criticism of illegal actions against Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. (AFP)
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Updated 15 November 2022
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US interfaith coalition opposes antisemitism definition shielding Israel from criticism

US interfaith coalition opposes antisemitism definition shielding Israel from criticism
  • Montgomery County Council in Maryland is considering adopting a definition that equates criticism of the Israeli state and its policies with antisemitism
  • Opponents argue that the Israeli state is a political entity and so, like all states, it should have to face legitimate criticism of its actions

WASHINGTON: Members of a coalition of 38 community and interfaith groups in Montgomery County, in the US state of Maryland, have called on members of the County Council to scrap a proposal to adopt a definition of antisemitism that equates it with criticism of the Israeli state and its policies in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Representatives of the organizations held a press conference on Monday at the entrance to the council offices to highlight the issue, explain their opposition to the resolution and urge council members to reject it.

The resolution calls for the County Council to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism. However, the community groups argue this definition is too broad, would be an infringement of the right to freedom of speech in the US, and shields the Israeli state from criticism of illegal actions against Palestinians in the Occupied Territories.

The IHRA’s “working definition,” which is not legally binding, considers criticism of Israel, including calls to boycott the country or its products, to be antisemitic. The US State Department has adopted the IHRA definition, and pro-Israel groups in the US have encouraged many US states to so likewise at state and local levels.

Opponents of the IHRA definition argue that the Israeli state is a political entity and so, like all other states, should be subject to legitimate criticism.

In July, Montgomery County Council removed the IHRA resolution from its agenda as a result of intense pressure from the community, including hundreds of emails that were sent to council members.

The council initially included a revised version of the resolution on the agenda for its meeting on Tuesday this week, but it was once again removed and shelved until an unspecified date.

Hena Saloom, co-chair of Maryland for Palestine, a grassroots organization that supports Palestinian rights, and one of the organizers of Monday’s press conference, said: “The IHRA definition, while seemingly innocent, is used as a weapon to silence and censure Palestinians and Palestine advocates by conflating criticism of Israel and Zionism with antisemitism.”

The definition is a “tool to silence and smear those who are advocates in exercising their right to political free speech,” she added.

Saloom urged Montgomery County Council to reject the IHRA definition and called for a public meeting to debate the resolution, so that the voices of coalition members can be heard and their views taken into account.

“We support a resolution to combat antisemitism but we don’t support the IHRA definition of antisemitism,” she said.

The interfaith coalition includes groups such as the New Synagogue Project Jewish Voice for Peace and the Montgomery County Muslim Council, among others.

Yosef Berman, a rabbi and member of the New Synagogue Project, which is based in Washington and has many members in Montgomery County, said antisemitism and white nationalism are on the increase in the US.

“We continue to see a rise in antisemitism and white-Christian nationalism that has become part of mainstream Republican discourse and conspiracy theories targeting many of our communities,” he said.

“All of us standing here believe we need to confront antisemitism and we need to do so alongside countering anti-Muslim bigotry, white supremacy and all racism.”

The County Council resolution also equates criticism of Zionism as a manifestation of antisemitism, stating: “Modern forms of antisemitism can manifest through anti-Zionism when denying the Jewish right to existence and self-determination.”

Joshua Cooper, a mathematics professor at the University of South Carolina and a member of Jewish Voice for Peace, said that the use of language such as that contained in the County Council resolution is in itself antisemitic.

“I find this language very offensive,” he said, adding that as a Jewish person, “I want nothing to do with the government in Tel Aviv. It’s a smear on the historic commitment to justice of Judaism and the Jewish people to say this.

“The County is essentially saying that Jews who don’t support Zionism are actually bad Jews. They are helping the real antisemites, who go around shooting up synagogues and producing really dangerous rhetoric that whips the far right into horrifying behavior.”

Arab News contacted Montgomery County Council for its comments but did not immediately receive a response.