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Before Invoking Antisemitism, We Need To Define It

The Harvard Center for Jewish Studies is located in the Museum of the Ancient Near East, formerly the Harvard Semitic Museum.
The Harvard Center for Jewish Studies is located in the Museum of the Ancient Near East, formerly the Harvard Semitic Museum. By Jessica C. Salley
By Derek J. Penslar, Contributing Opinion Writer
Derek J. Penslar is the William Lee Frost Professor of Jewish History and the director of the Harvard Center for Jewish Studies. He is a member of the Nexus Task Force and a signatory to the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism.

This op-ed is part of a special opinion package, “Antisemitism at Harvard, According to Seven Jewish Affiliates.” View the full package here.

Since Oct. 7, Harvard has been buffeted by controversy over the relationship between antisemitism, criticism of Israel, and the assertion of Palestinian rights.

There are two intertwined but separate components to the controversy: When criticism of Israel becomes antisemitic, and if and how a university should restrict speech on its campus. A better understanding of what is — and is not — antisemitic will improve how we discuss both.

Over the last twenty years, three Jewish groups have produced definitions of antisemitism that have competed for global attention. The best-known of these was adopted in 2016 by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. In 2021, there appeared two more definitions, contained in the Nexus Document and the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism. As an expert on Jewish and Israeli history, I serve on the Nexus Task Force, which created the Nexus Document before I joined, and was a signatory to the JDA.

The three documents have a lot in common. They generally share the view that antisemitism is, in the words of the JDA, “discrimination, prejudice, hostility or violence against Jews as Jews (or Jewish institutions as Jewish).” They agree that attributing malevolent qualities to Jews as a group, depicting Jews as disloyal or treacherous, and caricatures of Jews as grotesque are all antisemitic.

The documents differ sharply, however, when it comes to the relationship between antisemitism and critique of Israel.

Following the IHRA definition, calling Israel racist or subjecting it to criticism not directed toward any other democratic country is antisemitic. The JDA and ND definitions, however, leave more room for criticism of Israel, and in that sense they are more conducive to the essential, though difficult, conversations happening within the Harvard community.

“Supporting the Palestinian demand for justice,” proposing different political arrangements for Jews and Arabs within historic Palestine, and “evidence-based criticism of Israel as a state” are not usually antisemitic following the JDA definition. The ND points out several reasons besides antisemitism why Israel’s actions receive more global attention than those of other nations mired in conflict.

Both the JDA and ND agree that, in the words of the ND, “even contentious, strident, or harsh criticism of Israel for its policies and actions, including those that led to the creation of Israel, is not per se illegitimate or antisemitic.”

Mainstream Jewish organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, the Jewish Federations of North America, and the World Jewish Congress have championed the IHRA definition. Some pro-Israel organizations like StandWithUs that support the IHRA definition deride the JDA and ND for taking a permissive stance toward what they regard as dangerous forms of hatred against Jews.

Nonetheless, like the IHRA definition, the JDA and ND present certain criticisms of Israel as clearly antisemitic.

Placing Israel at the heart of conspiracy theories, presenting Israel as solely responsible for global crises, attributing Israel’s actions to Jews worldwide, and any form of harm, intimidation, or abuse of a Jew because of an alleged or real connection to Israel constitute antisemitism under these definitions.

The JDA and ND both affirm that denying Jews the rights to self-determination, safety, security, and equality in the state of Israel is antisemitic. In the spirit of these documents, whether historic Palestine becomes home to separate Jewish and Arab states, or a single state in which Jews and Palestinians share power, or a confederation with Jewish and Palestinian components, Jews have every right to a homeland.

These definitions are guidelines, not binding codes of conduct, but Harvard should be mindful of them as it strives to balance the right to self-expression with respect for others in its community.

The intimate environment of a residential university where students learn and live together is different from the public sphere, where people are much more free to avoid highly emotional political speech if they feel threatened or harassed. On a campus, free speech is a cherished value, but so is fair speech. In considering limits to or consequences of the exercise of speech, the time, place, and manner of a statement about Israel is no less important than whether it is antisemitic.

It is understandable that many Jewish students at Harvard are on edge. But the enormous media attention paid to antisemitism at Harvard has obscured the vulnerability of pro-Palestinian students, who have faced harassment by actors outside of the University and verbal abuse on and near campus.

According to the JDA, “what is true of racism in general is true of antisemitism in particular.” Where there is antisemitism, other forms of group hatred flourish as well. Conflating criticism of Israel with antisemitism magnifies divisions within our Harvard community and stymies a common struggle against hatred.

Addressing antisemitism at Harvard will require a holistic approach to fostering substantive, informed, and civil conversation about contentious issues. By defining what antisemitism means on our campus and acting accordingly, we can define in turn what kind of community we want Harvard to be.

Derek J. Penslar is the William Lee Frost Professor of Jewish History and the director of the Harvard Center for Jewish Studies. He is a member of the Nexus Task Force and a signatory to the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism.

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