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Students believe the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance's definition of antisemitism targets Palestinian activists and does not adequately define the term. 

Credit: Ezra Troy

The Undergraduate Assembly indefinitely tabled a student-proposed resolution for Penn to adopt a definition of antisemitism after critics alleged the definition could censor criticism of Israel and advocacy for Palestinian rights.

The resolution, proposed during a general body meeting on Sunday night by College seniors Yarden Wiesenfeld and Sam Kim, would have tasked the UA with urging Penn to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism. Multiple students attended the meeting to speak against the proposal, arguing that the IHRA's definition has been used to target Palestinian activists and does not adequately define antisemitism. The resolution was tabled after about an hour of debate.

The IHRA's definition — which was quoted in the student-proposed resolution — states that antisemitism is "a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities." 

The IHRA further lists 11 examples of what it considers contemporary antisemitism — including "denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor" — although these examples were not included in the text of the resolution. These examples concerned critics for allegedly conflating criticism of Israel with antisemitism.

In 2018, however, the IHRA released a statement clarifying that its definition of antisemitism must include all of its 11 examples, and that the language of its definition cannot be changed, otherwise it is no longer the IHRA definition.

Many students who spoke in opposition to the proposed definition are members of Penn Against the Occupation, a student organization working to foster "open discussion and meaningful action toward ending the Israeli occupation of Palestine." Both Wiesenfeld and Kim are affiliated with the Penn chapter of Students Supporting Israel, a pro-Israel advocacy group.

College first year and PAO member Zane Pasha, who spoke at the meeting, said that the IHRA's definition could silence criticisms that many Palestinian students at Penn share: that Israel occupies Indigenous Palestinian land, establishes systems of apartheid, and discriminates against Palestinians.

College senior and PAO member Elsa Wefes-Potter, who also spoke at the meeting, added that adopting the definition could limit the ability of Palestinian students to freely express their identities should those identities exist in opposition to the Israeli government or its policies.

In an emailed statement to The Daily Pennsylvanian, however, Wiesenfeld wrote that the definition would not censor criticism of Israel.

"The IHRA definition cannot — and should not — be used to silence or censor criticism of Israeli policy; in fact, IHRA explicitly states, 'criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic,'" Wiesenfeld wrote.

Wiesenfeld wrote that she and Kim proposed the resolution to spur Penn to more proactively combat antisemitism, noting recent spikes in antisemitic incidents across Pennsylvania and the United States. Wiesenfeld added that she feels Penn must establish criteria for identifying acts of hate against minority groups aside from its general condemnation of hate speech in the Code of Student Conduct

"It is critical to have a definition of antisemitism that will educate Penn students on how to identify acts of hate against the Jewish community," Wiesenfeld wrote.

College senior and PAO member Rachel Steinig said the IHRA definition of antisemitism is controversial within the Jewish community because some feel that it conflates antisemitism with anti-Zionism, the movement or group of movements opposed to the existence of Israel as a Jewish state.

Like Pasha, Steinig pointed to the examples included with the IHRA definition as a method of censoring Palestinian activists and individuals who are critical of Israel. She added that such definitions of antisemitism have previously been weaponized against Palestinian activists on college campuses.

Former President and 1968 Wharton graduate Donald Trump signed an executive order in 2019 to adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism to target anti-Israel movements on college campuses.

In 2011, a former student sued the University of California, Berkeley on the grounds that the University created a hostile environment for Jewish students by failing to prevent anti-Israel demonstrations on campus. The same year, the Zionist Organization of America filed a similar complaint against Rutgers University arguing that demonstrations for Palestinian rights created an antisemitic environment. 

Kenneth Stern, the lead drafter of the IHRA's definition of antisemitism, previously wrote an opinion column in The Guardian condemning the use of the definition to silence criticism of Israel. 

College junior and PAO member Marissa Ephron, a former Daily Pennsylvanian reporter, said she felt concerned that adopting the definition could lead to censorship of pro-Palestine scholars like Angela Davis in Penn classrooms and that it could result in misplaced condemnation of students who oppose the definition as antisemitic.

"I am Israeli. I am Mizrahi Jewish. And it's just really somewhat ridiculous to me to insinuate in some way that those who would oppose this definition are antisemitic," Ephron said.

Ephron said the definition would also fail to protect Jewish students from white supremacy, a source of antisemitic hate and violence, because the definition does not address white supremacy as a form of antisemitism.

"Any understanding of antisemitism needs to be understood within the framework of white supremacy and within the framework of racism," Ephron said. "The fact that there are six to seven out of the eleven examples included in this IHRA definition that solely focus on Israel really shows that there is a misunderstanding of where the dangers to Jews in this present day and in the past lie."

Steinig said she felt it is inappropriate for the UA to vote on a definition of antisemitism, as many members are not Jewish and may not understand the nuances of the definition, adding that it would also be difficult to vote on a definition that is not unanimously supported by Penn’s Jewish community.

“There are such deep divisions on this issue that it’s simply not possible for there to be a definition of antisemitism that all of the Jewish community members at Penn would support,” Steinig said.

UA President and College senior Mercedes Owens said the proposal was primarily presented as a means of educating members of the executive board on the topic, regardless if they reached a vote.

When Wiesenfeld and Kim initially approached her about the resolution, Owens said she was transparent about her lack of knowledge on the subject and her concern on whether the UA could deliberate on the topic.

“While we obviously condemn acts of violence against any community, we don’t have the authority or education to define systems of inequality on the University level, or the national level,” Owens said.

Owens said she ultimately allowed Wiesenfeld and Kim to present the proposal despite her concern because she doesn’t believe in making decisions for the rest of the assembly, adding that students have the right to present topics to the UA.

Both Kim and Wiesenfeld expressed disappointment in the outcome of the vote.

“I don’t think it’s ever appropriate to be neutral when it comes to racism and hate speech,” Kim wrote in an emailed statement to the DP.

While the resolution has been tabled indefinitely, Owens said she encourages Wiesenfeld and Kim to reach out to Penn administration if they want to pursue the proposal.

Kim wrote that although Wiesenfeld and Kim are still in the process of defining their next steps, they are determined to push Penn to recognize a definition of antisemitism.

Steinig, who was pleased with the outcome of the vote, said she would support adopting the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism because she feels it is more explicit on what antisemitism looks like and includes examples of how antisemitism can manifest in such forms as conspiracy theories.

“If a definition of antisemitism is to be adopted, it should be adopted with the primary goal of protecting Jewish students at a university,” Steinig said. “Not with the primary goal of targeting activists.”