At any event, neither fights over free speech nor the Israeli-Palestinian conflict tend to bring out anyone’s better angels. Hypocrisy abounds. Many averred free-speech warriors have been quite willing to sanction explicit and de jure censorship on campus aimed at suppressing pro-Palestinian speech; many of those indulging in naked harassment or discrimination of Jewish students have learned to yell “Free speech!” as if it provides a catchall dispensation—especially if they drape their conduct in the cloak of “criticism of Israel.”
Ideally, the uncontroversial truth would be that anti-Israel conduct is neither necessarily anti-Semitic nor necessarily not anti-Semitic—it depends on the details of the case. To declare all anti-Israel sentiment intrinsically anti-Semitic would be as absurd as to insist that none of it is, or to proclaim that otherwise anti-Semitic conduct is cleansed of its character because it styles itself as “anti-Israel.”
It is also the case that the First Amendment protects anti-Semitic speech—whether in an “anti-Israel” guise or not. In a sense, the IHRA definition shouldn’t matter to the free-speech debate, because if we’re talking about speech qua speech, both anti-Semitic speech and non-anti-Semitic speech are equally entitled to constitutional protection. “I hate Jews” is as protected as “I hate Zionists” is as protected as “I hate Dodgers fans.”
The legal question is when conduct—anything from vandalizing a Hillel to assaulting a student to refusing to write a letter of recommendation—ought to be attributed to an anti-Semitic motive. If a man on campus assaults me on the street, he’s a criminal. Is he an anti-Semitic criminal? If he takes a swing while yelling “I hate Dodgers fans,” then he probably isn’t. If he does it while yelling “I hate Jews,” then he definitely is. What if he punches me while screaming “I hate Zionists”? This is the core of the dilemma. But resolving it doesn’t change the fact that all three statements—were they simply uttered in the town square or written in a blog post—are equally protected speech.
The trouble with the IHRA definition is that, while it nominally respects these distinctions, it is far too flimsy to work as a tool of law enforcement. Originally designed for monitoring and data-collection purposes, the IHRA definition is a political document in the truest sense: vague to the point of incoherency, and riddled with so much imprecision and hedging that it could justify labeling anything or nothing anti-Semitic.
The definition itself sets a cloudy tone right at the outset, stating that “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews.” “A certain perception”—well, what perception is that? It “may” take the form of “hatred toward Jews”—what other forms “may” it take? Later, the document gives a set of contemporary “examples” of anti-Semitism—including things like dual-loyalty accusations or Holocaust denial—but clarifies that these examples only “could, taking into account the overall context,” possibly be thought of as anti-Semitism—offering no guidance as to when they “could” or “could not” be deemed anti-Semitic. And while some of the examples seem to cover extreme forms of vitriolic criticism of Israel (such as comparing Israel to Nazi Germany), the definition confirms that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”