The council was following a global trend. Institutions around the world are increasingly adopting the IHRA definition which purports to be a tool for identifying and combating anti-Semitism.
In reality, it is merely the latest attempt to criminalize support for Palestinian liberation. Indeed, the West Hollywood City Council’s vote – and the public outcry it generated – provides valuable insight into the growing threat the adoption of this flawed definition poses to political activism and education.
The council’s actions were foreshadowed by the West Hollywood Public Safety Commission which, on 8 August, voted to recommend that the City Council adopt the IHRA definition. During that meeting, Public Safety Commissioner Tony Berger asked fellow commissioner Robert B. Oliver, who brought the proposal, what the purpose of a safety commission making such a recommendation would be.
“It’s not in our purview to do anything like this,” Berger said. “Aren’t we trying just to protect everybody?”
Oliver, who is currently running for West Hollywood City Council, said his proposal was to recommend to the City Council that the city adopt the IHRA definition as a “non-legally binding working definition to inform the different agencies of our city what anti-Semitism is.”
During public comment on 19 September – when the West Hollywood City Counci eventually voted to pass the IHRA definition in accordance with the public safety commission’s recommendation – Palestinian West Hollywood resident Rami Kabalawi said he felt the IHRA definition silenced Palestinians and was concerned with prohibiting criticisms of Israel rather than authentically challenging anti-Semitism.
Kabalawi told the council: “If it’s codified, it will position Palestinian freedom of speech as explicitly anti-Jewish and create a situation of divisiveness that is fueled not about ending bigotry, but classifying our right to speak out as a form of it.”
Many fear that Kabalawi is right.
What is the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, and why is its passage by the West Hollywood City Council such a troubling development?
The story behind the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism begins with a working definition of anti-Semitism conceived of by the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenobophia – a European Union agency – in the early noughties.
While the EUMC working definition is uncontroversial, it features several alleged examples of “anti-Semitism” that are simply criticisms of the Israeli state. This working definition was never formally endorsed by the EUMC.
However in 2016, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, an intergovernmental organization formed in the late 1990s, adopted the EUMC’s definition of anti-Semitism as its own.
Despite its relatively unofficial status, the EUMC definition went on to form the basis for other non-binding definitions of anti-Semitism, such as that initially displayed by the US State Department on its website. The State Department now lists the IHRA definition on its website.
Recycled language conflating criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism culled from this definition continues to be used in updated attempts to censor speech in support of Palestinian liberation. Just as Zionist organizations pushed for the University of California to adopt the so-called State Department definition of anti-Semitism in 2015, today there is a concerted push by Zionist organizations and individuals to ensure that governments and local councils adopt the IHRA definition.
The IHRA definition gives 11 examples of alleged anti-Semitism but seven of these are about criticism of Israel:
- Accusing the Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust.
- Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.
- 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.
- Applying double standards by requiring of Israel a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.
- Using the symbols and images associated with classic anti-Semitism (e.g. claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis.
- Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.
- Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.
As the rights organization Palestine Legal puts it on its website, Israeli lobby groups have consistently used the strategy of redefining anti-Semitism to include criticisms of Israel as a means of stifling speech, and each version of these redefinitions is “fundamentally the same.”
Rowan Gaudet writes that the IHRA definition, which has repeatedly been used as a cudgel to silence and stigmatize international activism for Palestine since its adoption in 2016, is a “dangerous weapon” and “a grave threat to the Palestinian solidarity movement the world over.”
Small wonder that organizers felt compelled to voice their dissent.
A member of the local chapter of the Palestinian Youth Movement (PYM), who has requested anonymity, said that upon hearing of the effort to adopt the IHRA definition, PYM immediately forged a coalition with SoCal Students for Justice in Palestine, Students for Justice in Palestine at University of California - Los Angeles, the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, and Jewish Voice for Peace at UCLA to take action.
Akhil Gopal from the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition told The Electronic Intifada that opposing the adoption of the IHRA definition was in line with the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition’s work around opposing racist and discriminatory surveillance practices being implemented by government and police bodies throughout Los Angeles.
“The adoption of the IHRA definition is connected for us to the LAPD’s Providing Alternatives to Hinder Violent Extremism (PATHE) program or the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program, because with the adoption of IHRA, the state is trying to weaponize existing bureaucracy and infrastructure used for civil rights or to maintain a ‘multicultural’ set of liberal values to stigmatize Palestinian resistance as a form of bigotry,” Gopal said.
According to the anonymous PYM organizer, the organization co-created a call to action along with the aforementioned organizations and reached out to the community to encourage individuals to call into the Public Safety Commission meeting to ask the commission to reconsider their recommendation and to explicitly denounce the IHRA definition.
On 11 September, JVP UCLA tweeted a message urging followers to oppose the West Hollywood City Council’s adoption of the IHRA definition. The tweet included a link to a digital toolkit explaining how individuals could express their criticisms to the council.
The Public Safety Commission moved forward with its decision, regardless and despite the fact that a majority of community members spoke out against the council’s potential implementation of IHRA during public comment.
In doing research to prepare for the city council meeting, members of PYM discovered that the West Hollywood City Council seemed close with the Israeli American Civil Action Network (ICAN), a connection suggesting that anti-Palestinian groups wield an undue influence over the West Hollywood City Council
ICAN had endorsed councilmember Lindsey Horvath for LA county supervisor.
In its statement of endorsement, the organization said it had worked with Horvath to “oppose the discriminatory boycott movement targeting Israel, Israelis, and the Jewish community” and “urging the state of California to rewrite the ethnic studies curriculum to remove anti-Semitic content,” among other causes.
Since 2019, Zionist organizations have opposed the potential inclusion of material related to Palestine, boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS), and Arab American studies in an ethnic studies model curriculum for the state of California as anti-Semitic.
In 2021, material about Palestine and Arab American studies was excised from the curriculum at the behest of these organizations.
ICAN chair Dillan Hosier also notably opposed the candidacy of Chelsea Byers for a seat on West Hollywood City Council due to “a long history of fringe and radical activism that, in our view, is anchored in anti-Semitic belief.”
Yet the examples listed by Hosier include opposing US funding for Israel and participating in a protest where “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” was chanted. The chant is a protest standard about the inevitable liberation of all of Palestine from Zionist settler-colonialism.
On 1 August, West Hollywood mayor Lauren Meister introduced an item for the city council to co-sponsor ICAN’s “combating anti-semitism summit” later that month. Once funding was duly secured, council member Lindsey Horvath announced her intention to call on the city council to adopt the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism during that “summit.”
The latter had previously criticized the United Teachers of Los Angeles’s potential endorsement of a BDS resolution. The boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign, the federation wrote in a statement, “is regarded by many as unjust and anti-Semitic because it denies Israel’s right to exist, demonizes and dehumanizes Zionists, Jews and Israelis, and it holds Israel to a moral and political double standard.”
The language used was strikingly familiar to that featured in the IHRA definition.
Organizing against vagueness
Learning about the West Hollywood City Council’s seemingly cozy relationship with Zionist organizations showed organizers that “we were up for a fight,” according to one PYM organizer.
And the council seemed more than willing to play dirty. Organizers said the council arbitrarily changed the terms for participating in public comment when it became clear that the majority of those in attendance were there to speak out against the adoption of the IHRA definition.
Benjamin Kersten from JVP UCLA told The Electronic Intifada that, “council members knew what they were going to say and really didn’t consider the voices of those of us speaking out against the IHRA definition.”
Kersten said comments from council members suggested the council was more intent on framing anti-Semitism “as a Jewish vs. Palestinian issue” rather than engaging with Jewish voices opposed to the adoption of IHRA.
The West Hollywood City Council eventually passed the IHRA definition but organizers are not discouraged.
However, the push to promote the IHRA definition elsewhere continues. On 1 November, the Los Angeles City Council also adopted the definition.
As the SoCal SJP organizer explained, “IHRA’s power comes from vagueness – the way we can beat it is by continuing to out-organize it, build relationships with the community and expose it.”
Omar Zahzah is a writer, poet and organizer.