By Kenneth L. Marcus
(JNS) President-elect Joe Biden has two new tools that can help him in his professed priority to strengthen international ties, support human rights and combat antisemitism. The new tools play well to Biden’s foreign-relations experience and enduring belief in internationalism, which favors intergovernmental alliances, democratic cooperation and a liberal rule-based order.
First, in late December, Congress passed legislation elevating the State Department’s special envoy on antisemitism to ambassadorial status. This should enable the Biden administration to fight antisemitism more effectively on a global scale.
The outgoing special envoy, Elan Carr, did a remarkable job raising public awareness about the world’s oldest hatred. His predecessors in prior administrations–Ira Forman, Hannah Rosenthal and Greg Rickman–were also strong.
The enhanced position should enable Biden to succeed Carr with a high-profile successor who can work even more effectively with foreign peers. The candidates reportedly under consideration are highly qualified, including the Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman and Sharon Nazarian.
Second, just today, the European Commission and the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) released an excellent new handbook on fighting antisemitism. It presents the IHRA Working Definition of Anti-Semitism, along with its guiding examples and relates those to the contexts of 22 real-world antisemitic incidents and crimes. The European Union had already called on its member states, as recently as December 2020, to use this definition to identify antisemitic incidents.
The handbook is issued to bolster this call within the European Union and to show how the working definition, including its guiding examples, can be used as a powerful defense against antisemitism. Its strength is in its real-world examples and best practices for policymakers.
This European contribution will reinforce longstanding U.S. efforts to make the working definition more widely adopted as the global standard. The George W. Bush administration had used a predecessor version of the IHRA definition for international affairs. The Obama administration had developed its own, nearly identical definition for this same purpose. The Trump administration adopted the IHRA definition by executive order, applying it domestically as well as internationally.
While the European Commission’s directives apply, as its name suggests, to the European Union, the United States is an IHRA member-state so the document applies here as well. This gives important elevation to the status of the IHRA definition in this country. While the Trump administration tended to go its own way, asserting leadership through mechanisms such as the Executive Order on Combating Anti-Semitism, the Biden team gravitates more towards international efforts such as this one.
The handbook observes that the working definition has been used by parliaments, governments, ministries, courts, law-enforcement agencies, city councils, civil-society organizations and (crucially) universities. For U.S. domestic purposes, the most important section addresses higher education, which has been a flashpoint for anti-Jewish incidents here.
It also observes that antisemitism in educational institutions often remains “invisible, unaddressed and unchallenged.” This is especially true when it is guised as anti-Zionism or criticism of Israel. This is a key reason why definitions are needed. Notably, the U.S. government began using the Working Definition in its oversight of higher administration during the outgoing administration.
The handbook reveals that the working definition is quickly gaining higher-education traction worldwide. For example, the German Rectors’ Conference, representing 94 percent of students at German universities, adopted the definition, declaring that it “provides a clear basis for recognizing hatred of Jews and is thus an important tool in combating it.” The rectors observed that the definition “takes into account” Israel-related antisemitism. The Romanian Ministry of Education promotes the adoption, by universities, of a code of conduct on antisemitism that incorporates the definition. Cambridge University decided, in November 2020, to adopt the definition as a “test to establish whether behavior that is in breach of the University’s rules is antisemitic.”
Although U.S. universities have lagged behind, they are now beginning to follow their European peers. For example, in August 2020, Florida State University’s president publicly endorsed the working definition and its contemporary examples. And in September 2020, New York University agreed to incorporate the IHRA definition into its revised non-discrimination and anti-harassment policy as part of its settlement agreement with the U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights. These institutions are overcoming political resistance from critics of Israel, as well as erroneous charges that the definition would stifle free debate. Used properly, the definition can facilitate free speech while educating all participants in the ways that some speech can be hurtful and some conduct hateful.
These new tools can help Biden integrate domestic and international agendas. The former U.S. vice president has spoken passionately about the need to address antisemitism. Working with allies who have demonstrated with this new handbook their commitment to the human-rights values that he champions, he can use the new antisemitism ambassador to strengthen American international leadership.
Kenneth L. Marcus is founder and chairman of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law and author of “The Definition of Antisemitism.” He served as Assistant U.S. Secretary of Education for Civil Rights (2018-2020).