What would you do if, out of the blue and more than sixteen years after the fact, three former colleagues posted an open letter falsely accusing you of making up a significant professional accomplishment – in my case being the lead drafter of the “working definition of antisemitism?” (First known as the EUMC “working definition of antisemitism,” it is now called the IHRA “working definition of antisemitism.”)
My initial reaction to the open letter was surprise, and that this was both sad and silly. But then I saw the letter reposted and cited elsewhere. Should I set the record straight, or not?
I knew the debate about the uses and abuses of the anti-Semitism definition has become intense this last year, with some mainstream Jewish organizations in the US pressing for its broad adoption, and the Secretary of State for Education in the UK raising the possibility of suspending funding for universities that didn’t adopt the definition. Just weeks before the open letter, the head of an important academic institute for the study of anti-Semitism in the UK was vilified unfairly in a Jewish Chronicle op-ed after he publicly objected to the threat against universities. I defended him. In retrospect, then, I probably shouldn’t have been surprised about the ad hominem attack on me too.
My first instinct was to ignore the open letter, although I was torn. Why get into a food fight over a title? Even if I hadn’t been the lead drafter of the definition, I’d still be speaking out against how some are weaponizing it in a way never intended – to chill, censor or suppress political speech. It was harder to maintain that stance of silence (but I did) after the letter was sent by the public relations director of an agency to a major publication that had quoted me about the Israel/Palestine campus debate. The agency’s representative demanded that the reporter either remove me entirely from the news story or change the text to reflect that I wasn’t the lead drafter. The reporter asked what I thought, I sent him easy-to-find evidence, and that ended the matter. I still didn’t want to engage – this was, after all, a distraction. ‘Who wrote what’ isn’t as important as the question of how we best fight anti-Semitism today.
Colleagues and friends, concerned both about the increasingly toxic nature of the debate about the definition and my reputation, said I had to respond. I still wasn’t sure. But I decided to write this op-ed after I saw that Jewish students from J Street U had written a statement acknowledging the problem of anti-Semitism, but opposing the application of the definition on American campuses. They said “[a]s Jewish students and allies, we may not agree on BDS, Zionism, or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but we can agree that seriously fighting anti-Semitism must not mean unfairly and unconstitutionally targeting our fellow students in order to intimidate them and suppress their speech.” They promoted their statement with a cute Tweet, saying “Ken Stern said in 2019 that the IHRA definition was ‘never intended to be a campus speech code.’ He’d know. He wrote it.” The Tweet contained a video of Bernie Sanders from a presidential debate saying “I wrote the damn bill!” Someone replied no, Ken Stern didn’t, linking to the open letter. What lesson does it say to students that they can’t rely on someone’s credibility, easily proved, if I remained silent? Would I be betraying them, on some level?
The question of the authorship is a sideshow. But my role as lead drafter has, unquestionably, given me a platform to address the intended uses and troubling abuses, especially the weaponization of the definition against political speech. I continue to believe the definition has appropriate applications for data collection, for giving guidance on hate crimes (because it says you don’t have to analyze whether someone really hated Jews, but rather if they intentionally selected a Jewish target, including in response to an event in Israel), and for diplomatic purposes, like when the leader of a country calls for wiping Israel off the map.
I disagree with my former colleagues, in particular about how the definition should be used on campus. We also apparently disagree about it being employed to suppress political speech outside the campus, for instance via laws requiring those who contract with state governments sign a new-day loyalty oath that they are against boycotting Israel, or as former Secretary of State Pompeo proposed, as a basis for declaring certain human rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch anti-Semitic and threatening their funding. I remain most concerned that strong proponents of the campus application of the definition, like the Simon Wiesenthal Center, applaud when political speech is censored, and that others – including mainstream Jewish organizations and former colleagues – remain silent, apparently not seeing a problem.
I run a Center for the Study of Hate, and we know from the emerging field of hate studies that when people have their identity tethered to an issue of perceived social justice or injustice, their thinking changes. They tend to reject complexity, crave simplicity and certainty, and see things as good/bad, “us” versus “them,” and create sacred symbols. A definition, by definition, makes the difficult simple, and now has become a sacred symbol too. The DEFINITION YES or DEFINITION NO debate, like a black hole, is sucking away the ability to look at other, more comprehensive ways to combat anti-Semitism. The definition has become like a flag. I guess if one was the lead designer of a flag and is then perceived to be stepping on it, others who had a hand in the stitching would be upset too.
I’m happy to engage anyone, including my former colleagues, about the use and abuse of the definition, and more importantly the larger issue of how we should be tackling anti-Semitism, especially as white supremacists feel newly emboldened after the Capitol Insurrection. Criticize my approach or that of others who agree with me. But don’t rewrite history, or engage in ad hominem attacks.
For those who want to know about the definition’s creation, I’ll note this (in addition to pointing you to chapter seven of my book The Conflict over the Conflict: The Israel/Palestine Campus Debate, which tells the story): When I was the American Jewish Committee’s (AJC) anti-Semitism expert, the organization accurately described my role in creating the definition. For example, AJC published and promoted my 2006 book on anti-Semitism, which documented that I “created [the definition] in consultation with many other experts around the globe.” AJC was happy to have my “lead drafter” work listed in my biography (archived here). The 2006 AJC book also has the exact text of the definition presented to the EUMC, which was not, as the three former colleagues suggested, significantly different from the text EUMC agreed to.
In 2011, at the behest of AJC’s legal committee, I wrote an opinion piece about the abuse of the definition to censor speech against Israel on campus. Colleagues, including AJC’s PR director, not only approved the article — co-authored with then AAUP president Cary Nelson — but also the tag line that identified me as “lead drafter.” Under intense pressure, AJC later withdrew the co-authorship as “ill-advised.” An agency has a right to change its mind about a policy position. It shouldn’t try to revise history — history that in fact is easily documented.
Kenneth S. Stern is the director of the Bard Center for the Study of Hate, and the author most recently of The Conflict over The Conflict: The Israel/Palestine Campus Debate. For 25 years, he was the American Jewish Committee’s expert on antisemitism, and he was also the lead drafter of the “Working Definition of Antisemitism.”