The BDS Movement: How Do We Define Anti-Semitism?

Created: 17 September, 2015
Updated: 18 October, 2022
9 min read

Criticism of Israel and Zionism is increasingly being considered 'the new anti-Semitism.' BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) supporters claim that conflating anti-Israel and anti-Zioinist sentiments with anti-Semitism unconstitutionally silences dissent and abridges freedom of speech, and dangerously conflates the state of Israel with all Jewish people.

Also see: The BDS Movement: A Call for Human Rights or Anti-Semitism in the U.S.?
website, proceeds of the book will "benefit LDB and its campaign to fight campus anti-Semitism." While noting that the definition has numerous criteria, his short answer in an interview for IVN is that "anti-Semitism is negative attitude toward Jews and actions based on them."

Kenneth Marcus, is the founder and president of the recently formed civil rights organization, the Louis D. Brandeis Center. In September 2015, he released his book, The Definition of Antisemitism. According to the Brandeis

Anti-Semitism has been around since at least the beginning of Christianity, he said, and since then the images and myths of anti-Semitism have been available -- and used -- as scapegoats for different cultures during different times.

Marcus' view on BDS is that it is antisemitic at its core, and wants to destroy Israel, though he would not elaborate on specifics.

Marcus wrote in JNS.org:

"Definitions are especially important for contemporary anti-Semitism, because confusion surrounds the relationship between Jew-hatred and animosity towards Israel. Virtually all authorities agree that some, but not all, of the hate directed against Israel crosses the line into anti-Semitism."

He also stated that Arabs, too, are discriminated against throughout the world, as a minority in populations, including in Israel and the U.S., but would not elaborate on if he thinks the Palestinians have a human rights case.

In 2004, Marcus was appointed by the Bush administration to the Commission on Human Rights, and as the staff director,

helped to develop a definition of anti-Semitism that was later adopted by the State Department as a 'working definition.'

During this time, Marcus was also instrumental in advocating the inclusion of religious people who share ethnicity, like Muslims, Jews, and Sikhs, to protections provided by Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments Act. Numerous cases have recently been brought to court under these titles, mostly on college campuses, as actions against alleged anti-Semitism. U.S. states have also been passing anti-BDS legislation to deny funding for educational institutions that engage in BDS activity, defining BDS as an anti-Semitic movement that advocates the "elimination of the Jewish State," Israel.

The working definition is centered on the 3 D's: Demonization, Delegitimization, and Double Standard. This is the controversial definition debated and passed over in the California university system.

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In a letter to California state Senator Jeff Stone, who sponsored California's anti-BDS resolution, 22 organizations, including the PJTN and the Brandeis Center, tied the adoption of the new definition to the success of anti-BDS bills, saying:

"We are grateful for your role in authoring SCR-35. However, we are extremely troubled by the efforts of some groups to remove from the resolution any reference to the U.S. State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism, or worse, to replace it with the Merriam Webster dictionary definition. We think that doing so would be disastrous, and would completely undermine and pervert the original intent of this very important resolution."

Naomi Dann, the media coordinator for the Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), who advocates for BDS, said in an interview for IVN that she opposes the 3 D's definition of anti-Semitism because "the language is so vague that it can limit any kind of criticism." The troubles members of JVP have with the definition are that it conflates Israel with Jewish people around the world, and dilutes efforts to combat anti-Semitism based on ethnic and religious identity.

"This working definition is in fact the product of long-term lobbying efforts by Israel advocacy groups who seek to codify criticism of the State of Israel as anti-Semitic. This is a deeply dangerous assertion that conflates Israel with Jewish people around the world. Classifying criticism of the state of Israel as anti-Semitic curtails freedom of speech and dilutes the power of the term, which should be reserved for hatred, violence, intimidation or discrimination targeting Jews because of their ethnic and religious identity." - Jewish Voice for Peace

Max Fisher's piece, 8 Fascinating Trends in How Jewish Americans Think About Israel, relays data from a Pew poll, suggesting that only 30% of American Jews have a strong identity with the state of Israel. Those who think that the land of Israel is a divine right of Jewish people (including Evangelical Christians) are more likely to have a strong identity with the state of Israel, and are less likely to believe the Palestinians have a right to their own state. 'Caring about the state of Israel' ranked number 5 as an important aspect of Jewish identity, while remembering the Holocaust, living ethically, and working for justice and equality were the most important. Only 19% of American Jews see observing Jewish law as essential to being Jewish, in the Pew poll.

In response to JVP's concerns, Dann said, the State Department sent JVP a letter clarifying that the 3 D's definition was meant to be used in foreign relations, outside of the U.S., and not domestically, due to possible threats to First Amendment rights.

Marcus agreed, in his interview, that the 3 D's definition is mostly used in foreign policy, but he contends that it can also be useful domestically in cases where anti-Israel sentiment crosses the line into anti-Semitism. Though, he wrote in his JNS.org piece, it should be used judiciously:

"As with any standard, the State Department definition should be used judiciously. One must consider context. Moreover, one must recognize that some incidents that meet the definition of anti-Semitism (or of racism or sexism) may also be constitutionally protected free speech. To say that an incident is hateful is not necessarily to conclude that it must be banned. In some cases, the First Amendment requires public universities to permit bigoted speech. Even then, however, it is important to recognize this speech for what it is."- Kenneth Marcus

The Federal Government has used the 3 Ds definition to refute the credibility of actions the UN Human Rights Council has taken up against Israel, purporting double standards, evidenced by a greater number of human rights violations given to Israel than other nations, and resolutions dedicated solely to Israel. In 2013, the EU dropped their version of the 3 D definition, which it had adopted in 2005. An EU official told The Times of Israel that it was never an official definition, and that they do not need to develop their own definitions, but will rely on international standards. The Jewish Center for Public Affairs (JCPA) recently held a global forum to make anti-Semitism in international crime punished by extradition and prosecution. It claims elements of the 'working definition' like 'holding a double standard, and demonizing Israel. "In this context," The Times of Israel quoted Alan Baker, who led the intitiative " there is a fine line between anti-Semitism and criticism of Israeli policies. We can’t claim that every ‘legitimate criticism’ of Israel is anti-Semitism. And we shouldn’t.” Baker continued saying that "calling Israel an apartheid state, however, is a “false and untrue” and therefore “crosses a border." The Times noted, "Baker, a former legal adviser at the Foreign Ministry, is adamant that anti-Semitism requires its own convention since it does not compare to Islamophobia or other forms of discrimination." Of the 160 diplomats invited to JCPA's event, not a single one showed up, not even Israel.

An example of how the new definition is being used is the AMCHA Initiative, founded in 2011 to monitor, investigate, and combat anti-Semitism on campuses. AMCHA uses the 3 D's definition, plus a few other criteria for anti-Semitism: advocating for BDS; and violations of Title VI by allowing Jewish students to be "targeted for discrimination, harassment, or intimidation." They have identified campuses they deem 'unsafe' for Jewish students, and have identified over 200 Middle Eastern studies professors whom they charge with anti-Semitism.

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The AMCHA's scathing investigation into a Near East Studies program at UCLA was harshly denounced by 40 U.S. Jewish Studies professors in Forward, a publication focused on "issues, ideas and institutions that matter to American Jews." In the letter, the signing professors call AMCHA's monitoring and investigations a "scourge" and "deplorable."

"[AMCHA's] technique of monitoring lectures, symposia and conferences strains the basic principle of academic freedom on which the American university is built. Moreover, its definition of antisemitism is so undiscriminating as to be meaningless. Instead of encouraging openness through its efforts, AMCHA’s approach closes off all but the most narrow intellectual directions and has a chilling effect on research and teaching. AMCHA’s methods lend little support to Israel, whose very survival depends on free, open, and vigorous debate about its future."- Jewish Studies professors, in Forward

AMCHA's investigative conclusions were that the UCLA Near East Center is anti-Semitic, has an anti-Israel bias, and is violating its obligation to provide balanced perspectives. Under such conditions, AMCHA concludes, Title VI funding to UCLA should be reviewed by the Department of Education.

There is controversy over whether the state definition helps or harms work to address anti-Semitism. Proponents, like Marcus, cite that the BDS movement, and anti-Israel activity, creates a space that can turn anti-Semitic, and the 3 D's definition should be used to analyze anti-Israel speech.Jewish advocates, like JVP, say the 3 D's definition dangerously conflates Jews around the world with an Israeli identity, and washes out work being done to address anti-Semitism based on religion or ethnicity. Civil rights advocates argue that the definition can be used to intimidate those, like BDS supporters, critical of Israeli policies, and silence those who speak out for Palestinians.The criteria supporting a new definition of anti-Semitism are argued to be too vague or even outright discrimination. Who will decide what statements 'delegitimize' or 'demonize' Israel? How will one test if a critic of Israel is also a critic of other nations' human rights violations, or guilty of anti-Semitism by holding a double standard? Does support for BDS automatically make one anti-Semitic? Are Jewish people who support BDS, or have harsh criticisms of Israel, anti-Semitic? Will anti-Semitism be redefined, and who will define it? Editor's note: This article is part 2 of a 4-part series on the BDS movement. You can view party one here. Stay tuned for the rest of the series.

Photo Credit: Ryan Rodrick Beiler / Shutterstock.com

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