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To the Editor:

In their recent piece in Inside Higher Ed, Michael Barnett and Nathan J. Brown criticize the White House’s recently released national strategy to counter antisemitism. Their critique, unfortunately, is laced with serious distortions and fails to meaningfully discuss the challenges involved in addressing the spike in antisemitism nationally, or on U.S. college campuses specifically.

The White House strategy represents the U.S.  government’s first ever multi-agency, whole-of-society effort to address what is often called the world’s most ancient, persistent form of hate — and the groundbreaking strategy has received broad support for its comprehensive approach toward tackling this issue. But instead of understanding the White House’s effort as a historic first step to confront the alarming spike in antisemitism in this country, Barnett and Brown instead attack it, claiming it won’t adequately shield them from accusations of antisemitism when they write controversial articles about the Israel-Palestine conflict.

As someone with decades of experience advising university leaders about their responsibility to protect diverse campus populations, I know how difficult it is to focus attention on complex, seemingly intractable problems like antisemitism and jumpstart real systemic change on campus. The organization I now work for, Hillel International, has been working for 100 years to build strong, vibrant, and inclusive Jewish communities on college campuses that form an essential bulwark against antisemitism. Barnett and Brown’s article, however, doesn’t engage with these issues; instead it mischaracterizes the White House strategy and misleads readers about the real issues. 

The first distortion concerns the details of the strategy itself. The authors’ piece claims that the White House punted on the issue of when criticism of Israel slips into antisemitism. To the contrary, the strategy forthrightly declares that “the United States has embraced” the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, which has been adopted by 39 nations, the European Union, the Organization of American States, and dozens of U.S. state and local governments. Together with the Administration’s continued application of Executive Order 13899 which, as Barnett and Brown acknowledge, requires consideration of the IHRA definition in applying Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, it is perfectly apparent where the White House strategy comes down on using the IHRA definition.

Of course, Barnett and Brown are not really seeking more clarity of standards against antisemitism. Their real objection, in fact, is that IHRA is too clear in restricting what their article characterizes as “any questioning of Zionism'' or “strong criticisms of Israeli policy.” They claim that the White House embrace of IHRA will be used by “governments and school administrators to sanction and punish critics of Israel for being antisemitic.”

This is their second, more basic distortion, one that is often expressed by other IHRA critics who appear to hope that their audience will not read what IHRA actually says, and instead rely on their mischaracterizations of IHRA’s text. It is false to suggest that the IHRA definition bars any questioning of Zionism or gives Jews privileges afforded to no one else. What IHRA, in fact, says is that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.” The definition also goes to great lengths to declare its use as a “non-legally binding working definition intended to serve as a guide” with examples that “may serve as illustrations…taking into account the overall context.”

At Hillel, we educate students and university administrators about the IHRA definition and also encourage them to learn about other definitions that offer different understandings. But it is one thing to educate, compare, and contrast; quite another to distort facts on the ground. The reason why Barnett and Brown don’t mention a single example of any faculty or students actually being punished based on IHRA anytime, anywhere in the United States is because it has never happened. 

Which leads to a third distortion: the article is grounded in misleading claims that Israel’s defenders “play the antisemitism card” to silence their critics and could accuse anyone assigning students to read their article on Israel-Palestine of discrimination. It takes nerve indeed to criticize the White House’s efforts to stanch the surge in bigoted, often violent antisemitism across the United States by invoking fears of non-existent sanctions and punishments being imposed on academics. 

To the contrary, many humanities and social science departments at prominent institutions are not only hospitable to anti-Israel viewpoints; too often they marginalize and erase any contrary perspectives. Barnett and Brown themselves acknowledge that the notion of Israel as a “state deeply entrenching injustice and inequality” is a “common view” in the academic circles in which they work. Those of us who engage daily with the realities faced by Jewish students on college campuses know they are the ones who often face bullying, marginalization, and discrimination, especially when they express their connection to Israel.

From 2016 to 2021, Hillel tracked a threefold increase in antisemitic incidents on American college campuses, up from 109 to 244. In 2021, 43 percent of Jewish students surveyed by Hillel and ADL reported that they witnessed or experienced antisemitism on their campus, and 15 percent of college students reported that they felt the need to hide their Jewish identity from others on campus. The numbers are indicative of gut-wrenching real-life incidents: Jewish students pelted by rock-throwing while celebrating Passover; an Israeli student allegedly told by her professor during class introductions that “it’s not your fault you were born in Israel”; Jewish students forced out of a support group for sexual assault survivors simply for supporting Israel. Sadly, these are not isolated incidents, but part of a dangerous trend that the White House strategy is properly focused on addressing. 

Despite Barnett and Brown’s distortions, there is at least one point on which we all can agree: a more reasoned engagement with these important issues is needed. Fortunately, they need not worry that the White House’s strategy addressing the spike in antisemitism will stand in the way.

--Mark Rotenberg
Vice president of university and legal affairs
Hillel International

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