The following is the text of a letter that APN sent to the leaders of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in response to a request to sign on to the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism (with the accompanying examples).
25 November, 2020
Dear Arthur, William, and Malcolm,
We are writing to inform you that Americans for Peace Now will not adopt the full version of the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism (with the accompanying examples) and to explain why.
First, it is important for us to clarify that we are alarmed by the recent rise in antisemitic acts and antisemitic speech. Of particular concern is the horrifying trend we have all been witnessing in the past several years of violent antisemitic acts by neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other right-wing extremists.
We welcome the Conference of Presidents’ commitment to fighting antisemitism, and agree that action to confront this scourge is an important priority for an umbrella organization that brings together diverse American Jewish groups.
While we endorse joint action to confront antisemitism, we strongly believe that the IHRA Working Definition is the wrong vehicle for such action.
The problem is not with the definition itself but rather with the accompanying examples, which CoP members are requested to endorse as an integral part of the definition. Some of these examples go far beyond what can reasonably be regarded as antisemitism. They cross the line into the realm of politics and are already being used to score political points in the United States, and to quash legitimate criticism of deplorable Israeli government policies.
Americans for Peace Now is a pro-Israel organization through and through. It is a Zionist organization that proudly supports Israel’s peace movement, Shalom Achshav (Peace Now), our Israeli sister organization. Our mission is to secure Israel as a democracy that is the national homeland of the Jewish people. Our leaders’ public positions and life experiences attest to this.
Proudly pro-Israel, we denounce Israeli government policies that we believe are detrimental to Israel’s future and wellbeing. We vociferously criticize these policies, and encourage American citizens – particularly fellow American Jews -- to do the same. As Zionist American Jews, we criticize such policies because of our deep concern for Israel’s future.
One of the IHRA’s “examples” regards as antisemitic “applying double standards” to Israel or requiring of Israel “behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.”
We cannot accept this example.
This formulation uses a broad brush to paint legitimate criticism of Israel and Israeli government policies as antisemitic.
First, who is to decide what is double standard and what is not, and what behavior is expected or demanded of other democratic nations?
Second, most of the behaviors that Israel is criticized for are related to its occupation of the West Bank. Other democratic nations do not hold a disenfranchised civilian population under military occupation for 53 years, with no horizon of freedom and independence, while escalating the process of settlement construction in that occupied territory. Branding criticism of Israeli actions associated with the occupation as antisemitism on the grounds that they apply a double standard is unacceptable.
Third, we do believe that Israel should be held to a high standard. We are staunch supporters of Israel’s founding ethos, the ethos of creating an exemplary society, “based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel,” in the words of its Declaration of Independence. We do expect Israel’s policies to be ethical. We do believe that the 53-year-old military occupation of the West Bank – an occupation that no other democratic nation in the world exercises today -- is a moral albatross on the shoulders of Israel, the national homeland of the Jewish people. We not only say it. We take action to end the occupation and encourage others to do so as well. We believe that this is precisely the kind of action that true Zionists, who yearn for a democratic Jewish state in the Land of Israel, must take. Suggesting that this is an example of antisemitism is an abomination.
We also cannot agree with the categorical, sweeping assertion that “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor” is antisemitic.
We do believe that some anti-Zionists are motivated by antisemitism. But to depict any and all anti-Zionist views as antisemitic is wrong and wrongheaded. While we strongly disagree with those who state that the pursuit of a national home for the Jews in historic Palestine is illegitimate or even racist, we also strongly disagree with depicting this attitude as antisemitic. This attitude is shared by millions of Palestinians – many of them loyal citizens of the state of Israel, who paid a heavy price for the creation of the Jewish state. Their grievance-rooted attitudes, even if historically baseless, are not antisemitic. Typically, such attitudes do not stem from hatred of Jews but rather from a bitter conflict over a disputed piece of land.
We cannot accept the imprecise, overreaching wording of the definition’s examples. We can’t accept it because we are witnessing how it is already being abused, indeed weaponized, to quash legitimate criticism and activism directed at Israeli government policies by tarnishing individuals and organizations as antisemitic.
A case in point is the question of boycotts and other means of protest to express displeasure with Israeli government policies, often referred to as BDS. Americans for Peace Now opposes boycotts, divestment and sanctions directed at Israel (we endorse boycotting goods manufactured in Israeli West Bank settlements, outside of sovereign Israel). While opposing BDS, and while recognizing that some of those who practice BDS may do so out of antisemitic motives, we consider the tool as a democratically-legitimate tool to express protest. We believe it is outrageous to consider supporters of BDS as per-se antisemites. We believe it is a self-defeating practice, which cheapens the meaning of antisemitism and weakens the consensus American Jewish leaders wish to galvanize around it.
In fact, as we write this letter, we are witnessing our federal government, in the waning days of the Trump administration, waging a campaign that targets distinguished human rights organizations, falsely alleging that they advocate BDS against Israel, and labeling them – or should we say libeling them – as antisemitic. We shall not lend our support to a document that serves as the anchor for such McCarthyite witch hunts.
We at Americans for Peace Now realize that we will be in the minority in dissenting from the IHRA definition. We regret it. We wish that when discussing delicate matters such as labeling people and entities as antisemitic, the Conference of Presidents would use a scalpel rather than a bulldozer. The broad-brush approach that the IHRA Working Definition suggests does not serve well the cause of fighting antisemitism or the interest of the Conference of Presidents.
We thank you for considering our position regarding this matter.
We wish you and yours a happy and healthy Thanksgiving, and, as always, we thank you for your service.
President and CEO
Chair of the Board