What, exactly, does it mean to be antisemitic?


In May, the United States House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed an Antisemitism Awareness Act by a vote of 320-91. The bill would require the federal Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights to use the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism when “investigating complaints of discrimination” against educational programs that receive federal financial assistance.

The IHRA’s working definition states that antisemitism is not only hatred of and discrimination against Jews, but also includes describing Israel as a “racist endeavor”; “drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis”; and “applying double standards” to Israel that would not be applied to “any other democratic nation.” If the Senate passes the bill and President Biden signs it, it could become illegal to teach about criticism of Israel and Zionism, including criticisms leveled by prominent Jews.

Among those who voted against the legislation were Representatives Jerry Nadler of New York, Jan Schakowsky of Illinois and Sara Jacobs of California) who all identify as Jews. Speaking in the House chamber, Nadler argued that the “bill threatens to chill constitutionally protected speech. Speech that is critical of Israel — alone — does not constitute unlawful discrimination.” Nadler fears that the bill, if it becomes law, “could result in students and faculty self-censoring their political speech.”

In a news release explaining her vote, Schakowsky declared, “As a proud Jewish Member of Congress representing a large and diverse Jewish community, I take very seriously the widespread and growing threat of antisemitism, particularly following the October 7th terrorist attacks on Israel. I strongly condemn Hamas’s brutal attacks and recognize the urgent need to address the rising antisemitic incidents against Jewish communities both in the U.S. and abroad. Unfortunately, H.R. 6090, the Antisemitism Awareness Act, does absolutely nothing to counter antisemitism and is another Republican attempt to pit the Jewish community and Democrats against each other.”

Jacobs explained that she opposed the bill because “I do not believe that anti-Zionism is inherently antisemitism. I support Israel’s right to exist, but I also know many people who question whether Israel should exist as a Jewish state who are deeply connected to their Judaism … Conflating free speech and hate crimes will not make Jewish students any safer. This bill would stifle First Amendment rights to free speech and free assembly. And it would distract from real antisemitism and our efforts to address it.”

Critics of Israel and Zionism who could be labeled antisemites under the proposed law include prominent Jews like philosopher Hannah Arendt; Rabbi Elmer Berger, former head of the American Council for Judaism; Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein.

In a 1930 letter to Dr. Chaim Koffler, head of a Zionist organization in Austria, Freud described the actions of Zionist settlers in Palestine as “baseless fanaticism” that is “in part to be blamed for the awakening of Arab distrust.”

In a letter to Arnold Zweig, a Jewish-German writer, Freud wrote, “I have never been a Zionist nor do I think I shall become one.”

In 1923, Einstein visited Palestine, and in 1929, he wrote Chaim Weizmann, “Should we be unable to find a way to honest cooperation and honest pacts with the Arabs, then we have learned absolutely nothing during our 2,000 years of suffering and deserve all that will come to us.” In 1946, in testimony before the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry, Einstein said, “The state idea is not according to my heart. I cannot understand why it is needed. It is connected with narrow-mindedness and economic obstacles. I believe that it is bad. I have always been against it.”

Arendt argued for a binational Palestine with two national identities as both a Jewish and Palestinian homeland.

Berger was a reform rabbi, executive director of the American Council for Judaism and a founder of American Jewish Alternatives to Zionism. In “The Jewish Dilemma” (1945), he argued that Zionism represented a surrender to the racial myths about the Jews as unassimilable. “I oppose Zionism because I deny that Jews are a nation …,” Berger wrote. “Jewish nationalism is a fabrication woven from the thinnest kind of threads and strengthened only in those areas of human history in which reaction has been dominant and antisemites in full cry.”

I don’t agree with everything that Freud, Einstein, Arendt and Berger wrote, but I would hate to see them mislabeled as antisemites. Any definition of antisemitism that includes them would probably also include me.

Dr. Alan Singer is a professor of teaching, learning and technology and the director of social studies education programs at Hofstra University.