In a win for the campus Jewish community, University of Minnesota students voted to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism during this year’s all-campus election, held from March 22-26.
The margin of victory was 16 percent, with 1,705 votes for and 1,231 against. The definition will now go to the U’s Board of Regents for review, though they are not obligated to hold by the students’ vote and adopt it for the university.
“While we still have work ahead of us to make the University of Minnesota a safer place for Jewish students in the years to come, we are happy the first steps are being taken,” said Minnesota Hillel’s student president Kelsey Bailey.
“I am extremely proud of the 1,000+ conversations our student leaders had during their campaign to raise awareness of this issue, and the outcome they were ultimately able to accomplish,” said Benjie Kaplan, the executive director of Minnesota Hillel.
A coalition of Jewish campus groups led by Minnesota Hillel has been advocating for the U to adopt the definition to help admin address years of antisemitism on campus, as well as the rising numbers of hate crimes against Jews and other minorities. Hillel collected over 800 student signatures to place the definition on the election ballot.
“Leaders of the Jewish organizations on campus felt that by defining the problem…they could help the University better tackle issues of antisemitism and hate,” Kaplan said.
“It is not uncommon for Jewish students to be aggressively questioned on the basis of their religious beliefs and ostracized from social groups,” reads a Minnesota Daily op-ed by Jewish students in the coalition. “Many of our peers hide away Jewish identifiers like their Star of David or yarmulke, a skull cap, to escape inevitable harassment.”
The IHRA is an organization of representatives and experts from 34 countries (most of which are European) that serves as a think tank for Holocaust education and remembrance efforts around the world. In 2016 it adopted a “non-legally binding working definition” of antisemitism to be used as an educational tool to help governments identify and respond to anti-Jewish hate.
The definition has been around since 2005, when it was created for European researchers to accurately collect and describe data on antisemitic incidents. It was later adopted by the U.S. State Department for the same purpose.
The primary language of the definition states: “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”
Since 2016, a variety of institutions, organizations, and governments have adopted the definition in Europe, including the European Students’ Union (an umbrella organization of 45 student unions spanning 40 countries) and universities like Oxford and Cambridge.
More recently, the definition has spread to U.S. campuses. Seventeen universities have adopted it in 2020 and 2021 so far, including the University of Minnesota, out of a total of 25 universities that have passed some version of the language.
But with its spread, the definition has been met with controversy, including at the University of Minnesota.
Critics of the definition focus on the vagueness of the language, and the “contemporary examples” of antisemitism, many of which have to do with when criticism of Israel becomes antisemitism. The definition can be used by right-wing actors to shut down legitimate academic and campus free speech, the critics say.
“Since more than half of the 11 examples of antisemitism in the IHRA definition are about Israel, we remain concerned that it will be used to silence all criticism of Israel,” said a Minnesota Daily op-ed written by a group of Jewish students opposed to Hillel’s campus referendum.
“Where the IHRA definition is codified into policy, it discourages students and professors from discussing Israel and Palestine, and from investigating issues of nationalism and world conflict more broadly,” they wrote.
Notably, Kenneth Stern, an antisemitism expert who worked for the American Jewish Committee and the lead author of the 2005 pre-IHRA definition, agrees with critics and opposes the definition’s use on college campuses, despite his former organization supporting it.
However, leading Jewish organizations like the Anti-Defamation League support the widespread adoption of the IHRA definition and believe it can be useful without infringing on free speech.