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What Is Antisemitism? Evangelicals Favor Different Definitions

European Evangelical Alliance becomes latest Christian group to sign onto IHRA working definition. Others favor Jerusalem Declaration alternative.
What Is Antisemitism? Evangelicals Favor Different Definitions
Image: Yoni Reif / Courtesy of WEA
WEA leaders lay a wreath at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial last month.

In a solemn ceremony last month at the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, the European Evangelical Alliance (EEA) laid a wreath of remembrance.

It was also a pledge.

“In awe and profound shame,” the alliance wrote on its Yad Vashem laurel, “yet with the promise for future solidarity.”

Alongside dialogue partners from the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations (IJCIC), the EEA warned that antisemitism is rising around the world. Taking a concrete step April 26 in opposition, it announced its adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of the issue.

With 37 member nations—including the United States, Germany, and Poland—the IHRA has been building a coalition around the following description:

Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.

The EEA was joined in Jerusalem by Thomas Schirrmacher, secretary general of the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), as well as Goodwill Shana, chairman of its international council. Though the two leaders also laid a wreath, the global organization did not sign onto the IHRA definition like its European affiliate.

The vast majority of evangelicals share the goal of combating antisemitism. But not all agree with IHRA’s usage.

“Though its specified aim is to provide a guide to help identify antisemitic statements or actions,” said Salim Munayer, regional coordinator of the WEA’s Peace and Reconciliation Network for the Middle East and North Africa, “it has been deployed to stifle discussions about whether the State of Israel should be defined in ethno-religious terms, and to delegitimize the fight against the oppression of Palestinians.”

The definition was first published in 2005 in order to evaluate and measure the growth of antisemitism in Europe. It was adopted officially by the IHRA in 2016. At issue is not its wording, but the 11 given examples that illustrate offense.

Some are clearly uncontroversial, such as calling for the killing of Jews, denying the scope of the Holocaust, or perpetuating conspiracy theories about Jewish world domination.

But of the 11, seven concern the State of Israel.

Some of these examples of antisemitism are also uncontroversial, such as holding Jews collectively responsible for government policies or accusing Jews of being more loyal to Israel than to their nations of citizenship.

But Munayer highlights two examples he finds problematic:

  • 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.
  • Applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.

Israel deserves critique on these very two points, said Munayer. In 2018, its parliament ratified a constitution-level Basic Law declaring “Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People,” despite an Arab population of 20 percent.

And within the past year, prominent human rights groups, including the Jewish-led and Jerusalem-based B’Tselem, have labeled Israel an “apartheid state” for its unequal treatment of Jews and Palestinians across its sovereign and occupied territories.

“The implication of the definition is that Palestinian resistance is not motivated by a desire for justice and fairness,” said Munayer, “but by some irrational hatred of Jews.”

The IHRA recognizes the legitimacy of criticism of Israel, stating clearly that if such criticism is “similar to that leveled against any other country,” it “cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”

But though the IHRA states its definition is non-legally binding, there has been a “chilling effect” on free speech, said Kenneth Stern, the former American Jewish Committee (AJC) expert on antisemitism who had the leading role in drafting the original text. Pro-Israel groups have used it to “hunt political speech with which they disagree” and to bring legal cases against alleged antisemitism on college campuses.

The World Council of Churches (WCC), though consistently condemning antisemitism as it also interacts with the IJCIC, rejected the IHRA definition on similar grounds in 2018.

Stern’s comments followed one year later, when former US President Donald Trump’s 2019 executive order incorporated the IHRA definition into US civil law. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo then declared the “Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions” (BDS) movement against Israel to be antisemitic, and announced plans to similarly label Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

The administration of current US President Joe Biden “enthusiastically embraces” the definition, stated current Secretary of State Antony Blinken last year.

Antisemitism is rising in the US, according to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). The 2,717 incidents recorded in 2021—ranging from slurs to terrorism—were the highest tally since tracking began in 1979, and a 34-percent increase from the prior year. This included 88 assaults, up from 33 in 2020.

Last year’s outbreak of violence between Israel and Gaza produced a reactionary spike in incidents, said the report, but overall political polarization is the main cause of increase.

Munayer recognizes this as a real threat. But he recommends instead the adoption of the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism (JDA), developed in response to the IHRA controversy by scholars in the fields of Holocaust history, Jewish studies, and Middle East studies. It now has more than 350 signatories.

Its 11-word definition is more concise, but not radically different:

Antisemitism is discrimination, prejudice, hostility, or violence against Jews as Jews (or Jewish institutions as Jewish).

Like the IHRA definition, it provides examples of antisemitic violations. But the JDA also describes what does not qualify.

The Holy Land is the focus also, the subject of 10 of the declaration’s 15 examples. Clearly condemned is any attempt to deny the right of Jews to flourish as Jews in the State of Israel, under the principle of equality.

But “on the face of it,” states the JDA, it is not antisemitic to support the BDS movement, to point out systemic racial discrimination, or even to oppose Zionism as a form of nationalism. The principle of Jewish self-determination is honored, but statehood applications with Palestinians can take many forms—whether one state, two states, or other constitutional solutions.

At issue, say supporters of the IHRA definition, is the current Israeli state.

“The JDA is vague where precision is needed,” said Gerald McDermott, author of Israel Matters and editor of The New Christian Zionism. “It allows for genuine antisemitism, when denial of Israel’s legitimacy is intended.”

He takes particular aim at the BDS movement, which claims Israel was formed through the displacement of settler colonialism and is today an apartheid state. Munayer calls this the “harsh reality” of the native population; McDermott says it crosses the line of antisemitism, especially when considering the views of BDS founder Omar Barghouti, the freedom Palestinian citizens have in Israel compared to their own territories, and Israel’s offers of most West Bank land for a Palestinian state.

Robert Nicholson, president of Philos Project, agrees with McDermott.

“Befriending Jews while denying their longstanding attachment to Jerusalem,” he said, “is like wishing the Irish a happy St. Patrick’s Day while denying them self-determination on the Emerald Isle.”

But something even more sinister is at stake, said Tomas Sandell, founding director of the European Coalition for Israel (ECI). The “new antisemitism” appears in the guise of human rights language.

“In the medieval period, Jews were the wrong religion; during the Enlightenment, they were the wrong race,” he said. “Today, it is applied to their existence in the wrong kind of nation-state.”

The track record of many who say they oppose Zionism suggests they do not like the IHRA putting their antisemitic views under scrutiny, Sandell said. Right-wing, neo-Nazi Jew hatred is obvious. But the left-wing variety is also on the rise. He claims the JDA is playing with words, akin to parsing how close one can drive near the edge of a cliff without falling off.

In the AJC’s 2020 survey, 75 percent of Jews identified a “serious threat” from the extreme right. A far smaller but still significant 32 percent also saw threat from the extreme left.

Sandell, an Evangelical Free church member from Finland, created ECI in 2003 to rally Christians against antisemitism in the European Union and to support the state of Israel. Unlike in the US, he said, there is very little to gain from doing so in Brussels.

But last year, the coalition launched a campaign for individual churches to adopt the IHRA definition that drew the support of the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey, London vicar Nicky Gumbel who pioneered the Alpha course, and prominent author Os Guinness.

This past January, ECI partnered with the Evangelical-Protestant Church of Germany to condemn antisemitism at the very site where Hitler, 80 years earlier, planned the implementation of his Final Solution to the Jewish Question.

Current Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby sent a recorded message, and Schirrmacher of the WEA and Arto Hämäläinen, chairman of the World Missions Commission of the Pentecostal World Fellowship (PWF), attended in support.

The latter credited Sandell for stimulating the PWF’s adoption of the IHRA definition last October. The World Assemblies of God Fellowship did the same in February. Momentum continued in March when Johnnie Moore, a public relations executive and founder of the Congress of Christian Leaders who represented the US at ECI’s Berlin meeting, helped lead adoption of the definition by the board of NRB (National Religious Broadcasters).

“Let’s make sure there is an evangelical firewall around the Jewish community,” Moore told NRB convention attendees during its annual Breakfast Honoring Israel, “that they have to get through us first.”

Not all evangelicals are comfortable, however.

“The IHRA definition started out as a commendable effort, and I share its values,” said Gary Burge, professor of New Testament at Calvin Theological Seminary and author of Whose Land? Whose Promise? What Christians Are Not Being Told About Israel and the Palestinians. “But it may now be serving political interests, silencing reasonable, protected speech around the world.”

He noted the similar objection by Jewish Voices for Peace.

It is a personal issue for Marwan Aboul-Zelof. The Lebanese-Palestinian pastor of City Bible Church in Beirut has an uncle in Bethlehem and an aunt in Gaza. Other relatives remain in a Christian village near Haifa, their ancestral home. Today a church planter with Tim Keller’s City to City network, the US citizen has a “true and genuine love for the Jewish and Israeli people.”

But he agrees with the human rights assessment of apartheid, labeling the version of Zionism that uproots current Palestinians from their homes as “racist.” Preferring the JDA definition, he recognizes how using that word might wrongly label him as antisemitic under the IHRA definition.

Like others, his primary concern is freedom of speech. While all people have the right to protection from hateful incitement, other international frameworks like the UN’s Rabat Plan of Action balance freedoms more effectively.

Yet whereas Jews can return to Israel, his family is denied.

“There should be a right to return for both Semitic peoples,” Aboul-Zelof said. “The IHRA definition elevates one people’s right of self-determination at the expense of the other.”

Israel calls it Aliyah, and it is deeply personal for Jews.

But unlike their kin, Messianic Jews have not bothered much with definitions, said Mitch Glaser, president of Chosen People Ministries. “Pockets” of their community would prefer the JDA, he said, but the majority interpret almost any criticism of Israel as antisemitic and would thus prefer the IHRA definition.

The community’s focus is on theology, said Monique Brumbach, general secretary of the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations. Countering the “insidious” forms of supercessionism that replace Israel with the church, Messianic believers work with Gentile believers to engage in the painful task of repentance and reform.

“We don’t split hairs over antisemitism,” she said. “We’re not terribly divided.”

But American Jews may be more so.

While 51 of the 53 member organizations in the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations have adopted the IHRA definition, the 10 members of the Progressive Israel Network have opposed its codification into law.

The Union for Reform Judaism—America’s largest Jewish denomination—tried to find a middle ground.

“We strongly endorse the IHRA definition,” it stated, while taking issue with some of the examples. “We also pledge that we will oppose any effort to use the definition to silence, marginalize, or shun those seeking to positively contribute to the public conversation—even if they espouse views with which we strongly disagree.”

Mark Silk, professor of religion in public life at Trinity College and a Religion News Service contributing editor, may be emblematic. Despite his concern that the IHRA definition could be misused to brand legitimate criticism of Israel as antisemitic, he nevertheless voted for it as a member of the community relations council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford.

The benefit of reflection outweighed the potential for abuse, he decided.

Calling the IHRA and JDA efforts a “totally Jewish way to do things,” the process of proposal, argument, and consensus is in principle a good thing—if used well.

But there is a “huge push” to adopt both the definition and the examples, he said, citing the Zionist Association of America, the AJC, the ADL, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

“Some groups,” Silk said, “might use it as a hammer.”

Will evangelicals?

For many, adoption of the IHRA definition represents an admission of past wrongs. At the NRB convention, Moore, who cooperates closely with the Wiesenthal Center, reminded attendees of the “complicity of the church” and “Christian Europe” in the atrocities of the Holocaust. The EEA stated the same, extolling the definition as a practical guide to eliminating hatred against all peoples.

And in opposing BDS, Sandell also summoned history.

“When you call for boycotts of Jewish goods,” he said, “it brings back very bad memories in Europe.”

Munayer longs for reconciliation, for which he created the Jerusalem-based Musalaha ministry in 1990 in order to bring together Muslims, Jews, and Christians (with an emphasis on Palestinian evangelicals and Messianic believers). He recognizes the Jewish right of self-determination, and as a follower of Jesus rejects violent forms of resistance.

But like Silk, he believes there is pressure from both Jewish and Christian Zionists to adopt the IHRA definition, which will ultimately hurt the cause of peace.

“It prevents real discussion on the history and present situation in the land,” said Munayer. “Truth is an integral part of reconciliation, but this quasi-legal weapon prevents the possibility of dialogue.”

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres praised the IHRA definition as “a basis for law enforcement.” The drafters of the JDA, in contrast, said their effort should not be codified into law—either in the criminalization of hate speech or in the suppression of public debate.

The JDA drafters say their declaration can, however, serve as an interpretive text for those who have already adopted the IHRA definition yet seek a “corrective” to its “shortcomings” at identifying when political speech about Israel or Zionism should remain protected.

There is also a third definition recently proposed by a task force convened by journalism scholars at USC Annenberg in California. Sandell sees them as just muddying the waters. And though he also interacted with the WCC to persuade the council to reconsider its rejection of the IHRA definition, he does not see any coordinated “push” to adopt it.

Instead, he said it is a zeitgeist, the German word used to convey the prevailing spirit of the age. Momentum is building, Jews are once again under threat, and Christian leaders are waking up to reality, said Sandell. “Jump on the bandwagon.”

Back at Yad Vashem, leaders recalled the Holocaust not simply as history but as a living reminder of the human responsibility for one another. The ceremony featured EEA and IJCIC leaders reading from Psalm 23 as well as multilingual singing of “By Gentle Powers,” a German composer’s arrangement of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s final poem. One stanza:

And though you offer us the cup so heavy
So painful, it’s the most that we can stand
Not faltering, with thanks we will accept it
And take it as a gift from your good hand.

Additional reporting by Jeremy Weber

[ This article is also available in Português. ]

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