Crucial to the defense of Israel’s indefensible policies toward Palestinians is the suppression of free speech. When we criticize Israel, they yell “antisemitism” and try to shut down our speech. Nonviolent protest against Israeli policy, especially advocacy of BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions), is tarred as antisemitic. Unfortunately, a definition of antisemitism that severely constrains criticism of Israel – the so-called IHRA definition – has been adopted by the Biden State Department; the state governments of Florida, South Carolina, and Kentucky; more than two dozen college and university student governments; and some thirty foreign countries.
This is why the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism is so important. Taking antisemitism seriously, the Declaration limits its definition to real instances of prejudice and discrimination against Jews. And the Declaration spells out: advocating BDS is not antisemitic. Criticizing Israel is not antisemitic. Being angry at Israel is not antisemitic.
Political speech does not have to be measured, proportional, tempered, or reasonable to be protected under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, and other human rights instruments. Criticism that some may see as excessive or contentious, or as reflecting a “double standard,” is not, in and of itself, antisemitic. In general, the line between antisemitic and non-antisemitic speech is different from the line between unreasonable and reasonable speech.
The Jerusalem Declaration is the careful, thoughtful product of a process involving distinguished Jews from a range of political perspectives. Some support BDS; some don’t. Some support a one-state solution; some support a two-state solution. Some want to cut off U.S. aid to Israel; some don’t. Some use terms like apartheid, settler colonialism, and Jewish supremacism; some don’t—but regardless of their views on these questions, they all agree that taking one or another of these positions does not make someone antisemitic. The positions may be right or may be wrong, but they’re not antisemitic.
Some may be unhappy with the Declaration for failing to proclaim our position on one or more of the contentious issues about Israel-Palestine—but in fact, this silence is part of its strength. If the Declaration had said “We support BDS and supporting BDS is not antisemitic,” this would have convinced no one. The pro-Israel Lobby would have replied, “Of course those who promote BDS do not call themselves antisemitic.” The Declaration, however, cannot be dismissed as a self-serving justification from the BDS movement, because it includes opponents of BDS among its signatories. It cannot be dismissed as anti-Zionists defending anti-Zionists, because it is signed by both Zionists and anti-Zionists. What unites those who put out this Declaration was an opposition to the misuse of the term antisemitism as a weapon to squelch debate on Israel-Palestine.
It is too bad that the statement called itself the “Jerusalem Declaration,” which is rather tone deaf to the contentious status of the city. However, in terms of its content, the Declaration is a valuable contribution to those of us struggling for Palestinian rights.