Washington – A debate over the definition of antisemitism that has paralyzed Britain’s Labour Party made its way across the Atlantic this week, amid news that the Trump administration would apply a similar standard on discrimination toward Jews under scrutiny there at the US Department of Education.
The matter in question is whether opposing Jewish self-determination in the ancestral Jewish homeland of Israel, a political movement known as Zionism, should be considered antisemitic. Several Western government agencies, including the foreign and justice ministries of the US, Britain and Germany, have policies that deem anti-Zionism a discriminatory practice that uniquely denies Jews the right to govern themselves.
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But the Trump administration is now applying that standard in America’s schools, where anti-Israelism has raged in recent years in the form of the BDS movement meant to delegitimize the Jewish state in advancement of the Palestinian cause.
A policy paper released last month by Kenneth Marcus, the assistant secretary of education for civil rights, announced that department would adopt the US State Department definition of antisemitism that applies a test of “three Ds” to determine Jewish discrimination: Delegitimization of Israel, demonization of Israel, and the subjection of Israel to double standards.
That definition classifies opposition to Israel’s existence as a form of antisemitism, according to former officials from the Obama administration, which adopted the definition.
The Senate has advanced legislation in recent months which supports the application of this standard at the education department.
Marcus also announced the reopening of a years-old case involving anti-Israelism, directed toward Jewish students at Rutgers University, in which the department would repackage its argument based on the new policy.
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Palestinian groups and several liberal journalists were swift to criticize the move as an attack on free speech, and as an attempt by Israel advocates to stifle opposition.
The debate mirrors a two-year-old scandal in Britain that has traumatized its left-wing Labour Party and has challenged its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who himself has been accused of antisemitism by numerous British dignitaries, including members of his own party and former chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.
There, several complaints of antisemitism were filed against Labour members of Parliament and went unanswered until internal pressure within the party raised the prospect of adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Association’s – a similar model.
Corbyn – who throughout his career has campaigned against Zionism and Israel – has refused to adopt the full definition, including condemned examples of comparing Israel to Nazi Germany and questioning the state’s right to exist.
The Labour leader and his supporters campaigned for a “free speech” clause which protects these criticisms of the Jewish state from accusations of antisemitism.
In the US Senate, a similar debate over free speech recently led to amendments to the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, which would amend the Export Administration Act of 1979 to shield Israel and Israeli businesses from international boycotts of virtually any kind. Specifically, the bill would criminally penalize US persons seeking to collect information on another party’s relationship with Israel in pursuance of a boycott.
The bill has been opposed by the nation’s leading civil rights organization, the ACLU, over concerns it might violate the first amendment.
The 1979 act was originally written to protect US companies from Arab League sanctions on Israel, during a period in which Arab states were moving to brand Zionism as racism. They successfully did so at the United Nations in 1979, in a resolution which was later revoked by the General Assembly in light of the Madrid Conference, and which Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in 2015 said “badly damaged” the reputation of the international body.
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