Students protesting at Columbia University on April 18, 2024. One group waves Palestinian flags and another gorup waves Israeli and United States of America flags. Low Library is in the background.

Debates over what, in fact, constitutes anti-Semitism are complex, deeply fraught, and often intensely personal.

In the ever-escalating public debate over Israel’s deadly incursion into Gaza and the “Pro-Palestinian” protests (an imperfect descriptor that has become media shorthand) that have erupted in its wake, critics and opponents of those protests have increasingly painted them with claims of anti-Semitism—claims that have dominated headlines and public discourse in recent days.

This May, President Joe Biden made a special address on the subject of anti-Semitism, condemning the racist ideology—but also effectively giving weight to associations between the recent protests and anti-Semitism.

Debates over what, in fact, constitutes anti-Semitism are complex, deeply fraught, and often intensely personal. But while there have been well-documented instances of undeniable anti-Semitism within these protests (chants, for instance, of “Go back to Poland”), the assertion that the protests are by nature anti-Semitic is dubious and hotly contested.

Among those pushing back most forcefully against such accusations of anti-Semitism are Jewish academics and faculty members, who not only reject the broad association of recent protests with anti-Semitism but accuse those making such assertions of cynically “weaponizing” anti-Semitism to discredit the protests and their political opponents.

And there can be little doubt that claims of anti-Semitism have become flagrantly woven into politics, with partisans using claims of anti-Semitism to their political advantage. As the New York Times recently noted:

Amid the widening protests and the unease, if not fear, among many Jews, Republicans have sought to seize the political advantage by portraying themselves as the true protectors of Israel and Jews under assault from the progressive left.

“The [International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance] definition will delegitimize and silence Jewish Americans.”

The recent pushback by Jewish faculty and students is proof that the space of debate over what constitutes anti-Semitism remains a hotly contested one, including or especially within the wider Jewish community—and that there are many American Jews on all sides who refuse to let their political opponents define anti-Semitism for them.

“Stifling” Criticism of Israel

Earlier this month, a group of nearly 700 Jewish college faculty penned a letter to President Biden urging him not to sign the highly controversial Anti-Semitism Awareness Act, recently passed by the US House, which would codify a definition of anti-Semitism promulgated by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) that includes, broadly, criticisms of Israel.

The Jewish faculty wrote:

Criticism of the state of Israel, the Israeli government, policies of the Israeli government, or Zionist ideology is not—in and of itself—antisemitic.…We hold varied opinions on Israel. Whatever our differences, we oppose the IHRA’s definition of antisemitism. If imported into federal law, the IHRA definition will delegitimize and silence Jewish Americans—among others—who advocate for Palestinian human rights or otherwise criticize Israeli policies. By stifling criticism of Israel, the IHRA definition hardens the dangerous notion that Jewish identity is inextricably linked to every decision of Israel’s government. Far from combating antisemitism, this dynamic promises to amplify the real threats Jewish Americans already face.

The recent letter is hardly the only example of Jewish academics fighting back against what they characterize as the appropriation of the definition of anti-Semitism by political actors seeking to discredit criticism of Israel.

This April, days before Columbia University president Minouche Shafik appeared before Congress to address claims, mostly brought by Republican members, of widespread anti-Semitism on US college campuses—an appearance assessed by many faculty and students as a capitulation to the political right—a group of 23 Jewish faculty from Columbia and Barnard College wrote a letter to Shafik imploring her to resist falling into what these academics characterized as a “trap”:

As diverse Jewish faculty members, we have a range of relationships to Jewish identity, culture, faith, practice, and institutional affiliation, and we have a range of views on and connections to Israel. But we are united in our understanding of—and objection to—the ways charges of antisemitism are being weaponized. And we share alarm at and opposition to policies and practices on our campus that harm and marginalize people who express solidarity with Palestine and Palestinians. These policies and practices also erase the presence of progressive Jews at Columbia—and indeed, throughout Jewish-American history—and exacerbate the very threat of antisemitism they claim to deter.

Similar calls have been raised by Jewish academic faculty in various articles and op-eds, including by Columbia professor Alisa Solomon, writing for The Nation:

I am a professor at Columbia, a Jewish one at that, and I have watched with alarm as politicians have ginned up exaggerated charges of antisemitism to advance an ultra-conservative agenda. The reality is that, while there have been some isolated cases of heinous and unacceptable antisemitism on campus (as well as more coming from non-community members outside the gates), these politicians are not helping to make the campus safe for Jews or anyone else; they are seeking to undermine faculty governance, academic freedom and intellectually honest research and teaching.”

Yet another Jewish academic to resist the “weaponization” of anti-Semitism by the political right is Annelise Orleck, a faculty member at Dartmouth College and former chair of its Jewish Studies program, who was captured on film being thrown violently to the ground by police while participating in a pro-Palestinian protest on campus and was charged with criminal trespass.

Speaking with Democracy Now, Orleck also rejected claims that the student protest movement is anti-Semitic:

I think this movement has a large and disproportionate percentage of Jewish students and faculty involved, because we all feel very strongly that we don’t want—we don’t want this genocide in Gaza in our name.…And you should know that many Jewish faculty at Dartmouth signed a letter insisting that the president not speak in our name and not use antisemitism to rationalize bringing these violent forces onto our campus.

Meanwhile, in an op-ed for the Harvard Crimson, titled “For the Safety of Jews and Palestinians, Stop Weaponizing Antisemitism,” longtime Harvard Hillel director Bernie Steinberg wrote:

During my long career as a Jewish educator and leader—including thirteen years living in Jerusalem—I have seen and lived through my community’s struggles. Now, as an elder leader, with the benefit of hindsight, I feel compelled to speak to what I see as a disturbing trend gripping our campus, and many others: The cynical weaponization of antisemitism by powerful forces who seek to intimidate and ultimately silence legitimate criticism of Israel and of American policy in Israel.

Nor is this Jewish resistance to the “weaponization” of anti-Semitism limited to faculty. Last week, more than 750 students across 140 universities signed an open letter rejecting claims that campus protests for Palestine have been anti-Semitic.

Those Jewish voices critical of the protests are no more monolithic than those they seek to curtail.

Contested Space

To be sure, the voices of these faculty and students rejecting claims that the pro-Palestinian movement is anti-Semitic are not the only ones weighing in on the debate.

Last week, over 500 Jewish students at Columbia—roughly 10 percent of the school’s Jewish student population, according to the New York Times, signed a letter arguing that “Judaism cannot be separated from Israel,” and condemning “our Jewish peers who tokenize themselves by claiming to represent ‘real Jewish values,’ and attempt to delegitimize our lived experiences of antisemitism.”

Some Jewish groups, like the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), have argued forcefully that anti-Semitic incidents, speech, messages, and intent abound within the pro-Palestinian student protest movements. The ADL has further accused other Jewish groups aligned with the pro-Palestinian movement—like Jewish Voice for Peace, which calls itself an “anti-Zionist” Jewish group—of anti-Semitism.

But those Jewish voices critical of the protests are no more monolithic than those they seek to curtail—and the recent flurry of letters, op-eds, and articles by American Jews who reject the “weaponization” of anti-Semitism demonstrates that.

Meanwhile, those American Jews who do conflate the recent protests with anti-Semitism have, intentionally or not, provided justification and amplification of Republican-led political maneuvers clearly seeking to capitalize on claims of anti-Semitism for partisan advantage.

The definition of anti-Semitism, and the questions of to what extent, if any, criticisms of Israel generally and of Zionism specifically might cross a line are certainly part of a contested space, with Jews on all sides of the debate. But now, via initiatives like the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act, American partisans—led mostly by non-Jewish Republicans—seek to adjudicate that debate via legislation. If successful, anti-Semitism could come to be redefined according to just one camp among many—and not, primarily, by Jews.