The Danger of Expanding the Definition of Anti-Semitism

In the rush to condemn anti-Semitism, lawmakers may end up making basic Christian truths illegal to proclaim.

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Last week the U.S. House of Representatives, in a 320-91 vote, approved the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act (ASAA), requiring the Department of Education to expand the definition of anti-Semitism as demanded by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). This bipartisan measure, expected to be adopted by the Senate, comes at a time when police authorities are seeking to suppress anti-Israel protests that have been raging at college campuses across the country where protesters have been demanding their respective universities divest from support for the Israeli military. 

The protests mirror those of the 1980s that called for Washington to divest from the South African apartheid government. In the end, they were successful, as both houses of Congress overrode President Ronald Reagan’s veto of the Comprehensive Apartheid Act, which levied economic sanctions against the Republic of South Africa—something the students at Brown University accomplished in late April as they subsequently dismantled their encampment.

The ASAA was decried as a “ridiculous hate speech bill” by staunch conservative Florida Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz: 

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Antisemitism is wrong, but this legislation is written without regard for the Constitution, common sense, or even the common understanding of the meaning of words. The Gospel itself would meet the definition of antisemitism under the terms of this bill!

Judaism rejects that Jesus is the Messiah and, thus, the divine Son of God. The Sanhedrin—the Jewish body politic—brought Jesus to the Governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, to be crucified for the crime of blasphemy since He called God His Father (Matthew 26:57-68). While the Romans were the ones who materially crucified the Lord, Jews were responsible for bringing Him to Pilate because only the Roman authorities could carry out this type of humiliating capital punishment. And it was not just the Jewish rulers that called for the crucifixion of Christ; it was the crowds of Jerusalem, too, when they shouted: “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” (Matthew 27:22-23; Mark 15:13; Luke 23:21).

As a Christian, more so as a Catholic priest, upholding and preaching on these historical facts does not make me an anti-Semite any more than preaching against any LGTBQ+ legislation makes me a fascist. As a Christian, more so as a Catholic priest, upholding and preaching on these historical facts does not make me an anti-Semite any more than preaching against any LGTBQ+ legislation makes me a fascist.Tweet This

The legislation was also opposed by Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY), a Jewish progressive who is the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee. He stated: 

This definition, adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance or IHRA, includes, quote, contemporary examples of antisemitism, close quote. The problem is that these examples may include protected speech in some context, particularly with respect to criticism of the state of Israel. 

The IHRA’s website classifies anti-Semitism as “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.” 

Aside the ambiguity of the IHRA’s definition, it does not link anti-Semitism to other forms of racism. In addition, the wording seems to be more concerned on silencing critics of Israel than halting actual anti-Semitic threats from far-right white supremacists, as with the massacre of eleven Jewish worshippers at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue in 2018.

In other words, criticism against the State of Israel, such as the Israeli military offensive in Gaza that has reportedly killed nearly 35,000 Palestinians and injured approximately 78,000, could be deemed as anti-Semitic; or opposition to illegal settlement activity targeting Christian community buildings and land can be deemed as anti-Semitic and punishable under the law. 

Making any direct and clear criticism against the Israeli government does not make one anti-Semitic any more than criticizing U.S. government policy, domestic or foreign, makes one anti-American; just like pointing out the inconsistencies of Black Lives Matter does not make one a racist.

The fact that the ASAA was passed amid the university students’ protests is no coincidence. Notwithstanding agitators who have literally displayed anti-Jewish sentiments in both word and act, calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, or “demand[ing] an end to the genocide of Palestinians,” as the Jewish Voice for Peace has continually done, does not equate to being an anti-Semite. Indeed, last October, thousands of members of the latter “shut down the main terminal of Grand Central Station during rush hour…in one of New York’s largest acts of civil disobedience in twenty years.” 

Neither does it make “[a]ny Jewish person that votes for Democrats [haters of] their religion, [or] hate everything about Israel,” as stated by Donald Trump. This came after Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, the country’s highest-ranking Jewish official, sharply criticized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s handling of the war in Gaza.

There is a paradox, if not a danger, in expanding the definition of anti-Semitism that could not just be counterproductive for Jews but, given our overly sensitive society, could incur further acts of racism on all fronts.

[Photo Credit: Getty Images]


  • Fr. Mario Alexis Portella

    Fr. Mario Alexis Portella is a priest of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore and Chancellor of the Archdiocese of Florence, Italy. He was born in New York and holds a doctorate in canon law and civil law from the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome. He is the author of Islam: Religion of Peace?—The Violation of Natural Rights and Western Cover-Up (Westbow Press, 2018).

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