Testimony on IHRA by JVP-NNJ prepared for delivery to NJ Senate committee


JVP-NNJ members went to Trenton on March 18 to testify against two bills that would declare many criticisms of Israel to be antisemitic. At the last minute the Committee chair suspended the hearings, so this testimony was not delivered.

Testimony in Opposition to Senate Bills S1292 and S2937

(as prepared for delivery)

Stephen R. Shalom and Renée Steinhagen

Jewish Voice for Peace, Northern New Jersey

Senate Committee on State Government, Wagering, Tourism and Historic Preservation

March 18, 2024

Chairperson Beach, Vice-Chair McKeon, and members of the Committee,

We are Stephen R. Shalom from Montclair and Renée Steinhagen from Jersey City, members of Jewish Voice for Peace, Northern New Jersey. Jewish Voice for Peace is an organization of Jews and allies committed to principles of social justice for Jews and Palestinians.

Inadequate Notice

We are here to speak against S1292 and S2937, but we would first like to express our strong objection to the anti-democratic way in which these bills have been added to the agenda at the very last minute. That is not consistent with government transparency. There needs to be adequate time for stakeholders to react and comment. There are many NJ residents and organizations concerned about these bills, but there was not enough notice for them all to be here today or to communicate with their elected representatives.


We are living at a time of rising virulent antisemitism in the United States. Consider an example. Not so long ago, a prominent individual hosted a dinner[1] for two guests, one who was an openly pro-Hitler,[2] Holocaust revisionist[3] who called for “holy war”[4] against the Jewish people, and the other a person who declared that he would go “death con 3” against Jews.[5] Who was this prominent dinner host? Was it a well-known Palestinian advocate? Was it a noted critic of Israel? No, it was the presumptive presidential candidate of the Republican party. And many top leaders of that party were reluctant to condemn[6] him for consorting with rabid Jew haters. So it is natural that people, who want to live in a tolerant, diverse community are concerned about antisemitism.

We must be careful, however, not to let our justified outrage at pernicious bigotry get hijacked by those who are looking for a way to defend the Israeli government from criticism over its horrendous treatment of Palestinians.

Since October 7, heightened tensions and anxieties have added to antisemitism, Islamophobia, and anti-Palestinian bigotry. There have also been severe restrictions on free speech. The bills that are being considered today, Senators, do not properly address the problem of antisemitism, which is longstanding and embedded in our culture, and instead they sharply increase, rather than reduce, the threats to the First Amendment rights of many New Jerseyans, including mine and my fellow members of JVP, Northern New Jersey.


These bills call for the adoption of a particular definition of antisemitism, that of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, along with a set of examples of what constitutes antisemitism.[7] Now much of the definition and some of the examples are uncontroversial, but parts of the definition and particularly many of the examples are quite problematic and seem not to be about antisemitism at all but about trying to silence critics of Israeli state policy by weaponizing charges of antisemitism.

At this very moment, Israel is inflicting a pace of death that in the words of the New York Times, “has few precedents in this century.”[8] Of the roughly 600,000 people facing starvation across the globe, 95% are now in Gaza, under Israeli siege, according to humanitarian aid organizations.[9] Israel would like nothing more than to deflect attention from these horrors and turn the focus to charges of antisemitism. We should not allow them to do so.

Our suspicions that the IHRA examples are not aimed at antisemitism, but at protecting Israel are confirmed by the fact that seven of the eleven examples are about Israel.

Consider the seventh example that deems it antisemitic to claim that “the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.” But it is not antisemitism to point out the deeply racist nature of Israel’s Nation State Law[10] which declares: “The exercise of the right to national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish People.” Nor to observe that Benjamin Netanyahu[11], Israel’s prime minister, has asserted that “Israel is not a state of all its citizens … Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people and them alone.” Nor to claim that it is racism to have on the books, as Israel does, more than 70 laws that discriminate against Palestinians.[12] Nor to report the findings of the well-regarded international organization Human Rights Watch that Israel is guilty of the crime of apartheid.[13] Or similar findings from Amnesty International[14] and the respected Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem.[15]

Now of course all these facts can be debated. But that’s the point: is it really the place of the New Jersey State Legislature to take a position on this scholarly and political debate by declaring one of the positions to be antisemitic? Surely this is not what a free society does.

And should the Legislature be trying to tell public colleges and universities what positions they should take – as S2937 does? Not if we believe in academic freedom.

The Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism

Serious opponents of antisemitism understand that enacting the IHRA definition and examples into law is a violation of civil liberties and a distraction from the real task of fighting bigotry against Jews. In 2020, a group of 210 distinguished scholars in antisemitism studies and related fields, including Jewish, Holocaust, Israel, Palestine, and Middle East Studies, rejected the IHRA definition as harmful and proposed in its place the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism.[16] The signatories had a wide variety of views on the Palestine-Israel conflict. In their rich discussion, which I urge Senators to read in full, they note some examples of things that are not antisemitic:

“Criticizing or opposing Zionism as a form of nationalism, or arguing for a variety of constitutional arrangements for Jews and Palestinians in the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. It is not antisemitic to support arrangements that accord full equality to all inhabitants “between the river and the sea,” whether in two states, a binational state, unitary democratic state, federal state, or in whatever form.”

128 Scholars Statement

A little over a year ago, another group of 128 scholars[17] specializing in antisemitism, Holocaust Studies, Modern Jewish History, and related fields expressed their growing concern over “politically motivated efforts to instrumentalize the fight against antisemitism at and against the United Nations” by trying to push for adoption of the IHRA. They stated:

“We find this definition deeply problematic. Vague and incoherent, the IHRA WDA does not satisfy the basic requirements of a good definition. Rather than ensuring greater clarity, the IHRA WDA has been generating confusion about what constitutes antisemitism.

“As a result, the IHRA WDA has become highly controversial and contested, including among Jews.”


The evidence is overwhelming that the IHRA definition has been misused to discredit and silence legitimate criticism of Israel’s policies. But don’t take our word for it.

Consider the testimony of Kenneth Stern, one of the original drafters of the IHRA definition.[18] He warned that right-wing advocates of Israel have been weaponizing the definition, using it in their persistent effort to close down free speech on Israel in the USA. Pro-Israel groups “will hunt politi­cal speech with which they disagree and threaten to bring legal cases.”

Or consider the words of Antony Lerman, former head of the World Jewish Congress’s Institute of Jewish Affairs.[19] He notes that in practice the IHRA definition is “a charter for pursuing a racist agenda against Palestinians, chilling freedom of speech, denying them their inalienable rights, and doing them immeasurable harm. Meanwhile, it makes Jews no safer from real antisemitism.”

Lerman further notes that most of the IHRA examples “simply involve the denial of free speech, such as not being able to say that Israel is a ‘racist endeavor’ …. You might disagree with that statement, but there’s no basis for saying that it is antisemitic. To outlaw such arguments is simply a case of chilling free speech.”

The American Civil Liberties Union has also condemned adopting the IHRA definition as an infringement on the First Amendment.[20] It is true, they note, that other countries have embraced the IHRA definition, but in those countries “universities have routinely censored speech in a manner that would be unconstitutional if conducted by an American public university.” The ACLU strongly cautioned “against adopting the IHRA definition, or any definition of discrimination that threatens to censor or penalize political speech laying at the heart of the First Amendment.”

Not a Legally Binding Document

The IHRA definition states in its opening lines that it is not a legally binding document. Nevertheless, this warning has been widely ignored, and that is exactly what the New Jersey State Legislature is now proposing to do: namely, to give legal backing for a document that is not supposed to be a legally binding document.

We draw attention to the fact that the Union for Reform Judaism, the largest Jewish movement in North America, while endorsing the IHRA definition, is critical of the appended examples, particularly those that they believe conflict with protected speech. [21] In particular, they note that the definition should not be legally binding, and they pledge that:

“we will oppose any effort to use the definition to silence, marginalize, or shun those seeking to positively contribute to the public conversation – even if they espouse views with which we strongly disagree – around the issues we confront as Jews and as concerned citizens.”

It is clear from above that Resolutions S1292 and S2937 violate the First Amendment, and work to restrict protected criticism of the conduct and policies of the Israeli government. They are bills that every New Jerseyan ought to oppose – and had this not been rushed out of committee with minimal notice, many more would oppose it. They are bills that should not be approved by this Committee or by the State Senate.

Thank you, Senators. May I now turn the floor over to my JVP colleague?

Safety and Bringing People Together

My name is Renée Steinhagen, and I am speaking to you in my personal capacity, and as a member of JVP-NNJ. I am a child of the Holocaust, whose parents survived the death camps, met in a displaced persons camp in Germany, and came to the United States as refugees. All the adults in my early life were also German and Austrian survivors. As the years went on and Israeli society became more and more militarized and dependent on US military support, and Israeli aggression became more and more profound, especially after 1967, they became obsessed with the belief that Israel’s conduct was going to only increase antisemitism in the United States. They all became critics of Israeli state policy, and all died hoping that Israel would become a secular state providing peace, justice, and equality for all those living within its jurisdiction. This was a goal they felt was necessary for the future security of all Palestinians, Israelis, and diaspora Jews, such as themselves. Ethno-nationalism had been a disaster for the Germans and ethno-nationalism would be a disaster for the Israelis.

It is within this context I talk with you today.

By effectively making the Israeli government immune from criticism, the IHRA definition, contrary to its stated intent, exacerbates intolerance, without any benefit in terms of promoting safety for Jews or others in New Jersey and without helping to bring people together. This is the case, because by effectively shielding the Israeli State from criticism, it facilitates unchecked violence that fosters hostility, rage, and outright hatred of Jews around the world. This is made even worse by the fact that Israel proclaims to speak for all Jews regardless of their political, religious, or personal beliefs.

Defining JVP-NNJ Members as Antisemites

Many members of JVP-NNJ, like myself, deny that Israel speaks for us. To the contrary, we oppose Israel as ethno-nationalist state that practices Jewish supremacy, apartheid policies, discrimination, and violent occupation, and is now conducting a war against the Palestinian people in violation of many international norms and laws. At this time, we are on the streets protesting and demanding a ceasefire, increased humanitarian aid, and an end to United States military funding. Many of us have been protesting Israeli military policy and occupation for years. I, for one, lived and worked in Israel in the early 1980’s, and was on the streets of Tel Aviv, with significant numbers of Israelis, protesting Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, where Israel indiscriminately bombed West Beirut, killing tens of thousands of civilians, and there too Israel prevented food, water, and humanitarian aid from getting into the city. To enact these two bills would brand me as an antisemite. You may have a different view from me on the Israel-Palestine question, but please don’t call me an antisemite. I, and other JVP members, are Jews who identify as Jews; and, for many of us, it is our identity as Jews that compels us to criticize Israeli policy. To characterize our actions and political beliefs as inspired by antisemitic hate is a lie and a travesty that you must oppose.

These bills must stop here today for good—that is for the good of all of us, and especially for a Jew like me.

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2022/11/25/us/politics/trump-nick-fuentes-dinner.html

[2] https://newrepublic.com/post/170149/white-nationalist-nazi-nick-fuentes-back-twitter

[3] https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2023/03/03/nick-fuentes-holocaust-denier-cpac/11391311002/

[4] https://newrepublic.com/post/174372/white-supremacist-nick-fuentes-calls-holy-war-jews

[5] https://www.timesofisrael.com/kanye-west-says-hell-go-to-death-con-3-on-jewish-people-after-instagram-ban/

[6] https://www.pbs.org/newshour/politics/we-asked-57-republican-lawmakers-if-they-condemn-trumps-dinner-with-fuentes-and-ye-heres-what-they-said

[7] https://holocaustremembrance.com/resources/working-definition-antisemitism

[8] https://www.nytimes.com/2023/11/25/world/middleeast/israel-gaza-death-toll.html

[9] https://theconversation.com/israeli-siege-has-placed-gazans-at-risk-of-starvation-prewar-policies-made-them-vulnerable-in-the-first-place-222657

[10] https://www.holocaustremembrance.com/resources/working-definitions-charters/working-definition-antisemitism

[11] https://www.npr.org/2019/03/11/702264118/netanyahu-says-israel-is-nation-state-of-the-jewish-people-and-them-alone

[12] https://www.adalah.org/en/law/index

[13] https://www.hrw.org/report/2021/04/27/threshold-crossed/israeli-authorities-and-crimes-apartheid-and-persecution

[14] https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/campaigns/2022/02/israels-system-of-apartheid/

[15] https://www.btselem.org/publications/fulltext/202101_this_is_apartheid

[16] https://jerusalemdeclaration.org/

[17] https://media.euobserver.com/9e86df02ddf67c6046d190b65e4380df.pdf

[18] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/dec/13/antisemitism-executive-order-trump-chilling-effect

[19] https://jacobin.com/2023/01/israel-new-antisemitism-anti-zionism-ihra-definition-antony-lerman

[20] https://www.aclu.org/documents/reject-definitions-of-anti-semitism-that-encompass-protected-speech

[21] https://urj.org/press-room/reform-jewish-institutions-affirm-ihra-working-definition-antisemitism

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