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Evangelicals wrestle over the definition of anti-Semitism as the European Evangelical Alliance adopts the IHRA working definition

Most Evangelicals are devoted to combating anti-Semitism, but not all believers define it the same way

World Evangelical Alliance leaders lay a wreath at Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, April, 2022 (Photo: Yoni Reif/WEA)

Anti-Semitism is easy to spot when it comes in the form of physical violence. Other forms of anti-Semitism, however, are often subject to an ongoing debate. 

Such debate was recently reignited among Evangelical leaders following a decision by the European Evangelical Alliance (EEA) to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of anti-Semitism. 

By contrast, the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) did not adopt that same definition shared by the United States and 36 other nations, including Poland and Germany.   

The WEA serves more than 600 million Evangelicals belonging to churches forming 143 national alliances. The global body recently organized a meeting in Jerusalem with representatives from 11 major Jewish organizations. In a statement following the meeting, the leaders shared a commitment to “addressing and opposing all forms of normalization of hatred, including anti-Semitism and attacks on religious communities.“

But what exactly is anti-Semitism? 

This is the IHRA definition: “Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

But Salim Munayer, a Palestinian and regional coordinator of the WEA’s Peace and Reconciliation Network for the Middle East and North Africa, said the IHRA’s definition “has been deployed to stifle discussions about whether the State of Israel should be defined in ethno-religious terms, and to delegitimize the fight against the oppression of Palestinians.”

On the other hand, Tomas Sandell – founding director of the European Coalition for Israel (ECI) – disagrees with Munayer. Sandell recognizes that the “new anti-Semitism” appears in the guise of human rights language.

“In the medieval period, Jews were the wrong religion; during the Enlightenment, they were the wrong race,” he told Christianity Today. “Today, it is applied to their existence in the wrong kind of nation-state.

The definition, first introduced in 2005 and officially adopted in 2016, serves as a tool to help evaluate and measure the growth of anti-Semitism in Europe. It provides 11 given examples that illustrate anti-Semitic offenses – two of which are regarded by Munayer as especially problematic: 

  • Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.

  • Applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.

“Israel deserves critique on these very two points,” Munayer told Christianity Today. “The implication of the definition is that Palestinian resistance is not motivated by a desire for justice and fairness, but by some irrational hatred of Jews.”

The IHRA definition legitimizes criticism of the State of Israel as long as it is “similar to that leveled against any other country.”

Munayer prefers a definition drafted by the Jerusalem Declaration on Anti-Semitism (JDA), in response to the debate over the IHRA’s manifestation: “Anti-Semitism is discrimination, prejudice, hostility, or violence against Jews as Jews (or Jewish institutions as Jewish).”

The JDA definition declares that “criticizing or opposing Zionism as a form of nationalism” and “evidence-based criticism of Israel as a state” do not qualify as anti-Semitic. The document states that “Boycott, divestment and sanctions are commonplace, non-violent forms of political protest against states. In the Israeli case they are not, in and of themselves, anti-Semitic.” 

Evangelical supporters of the IHRA definition take issue with legitimizing the efforts of the BDS movement to undermine the existence of Israel as a Jewish state. BDS claims that Israel was established through the displacement of settler colonialism and is today an apartheid state. 

Robert Nicholson, president of Philos Project, disagrees. 

“Befriending Jews while denying their longstanding attachment to Jerusalem is like wishing the Irish a happy St. Patrick’s Day while denying them self-determination on the Emerald Isle,” Nicholson said.

The United States, under former President Donald Trump incorporated the IHRA definition into U.S. civil law in 2019. Then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared BDS is anti-Semitic. The Biden administration has also embraced the IHRA definition.  

Whereas some Evangelicals believe that the IHRA definition prevents the possibility of dialogue and limits free speech, for many Evangelicals the “adoption of the IHRA definition represents an admission of past wrongs.” In that regard, Christianity Today mentions the “complicity of the church” in the atrocities of the Holocaust and persecution of Jews.  

ALL ARAB NEWS Advisory Board Member Johnnie Moore, founder of the Congress of Christian Leaders, was influential in getting the IHRA definition adopted by the board of the National Religious Broadcasters.

“Let’s make sure there is an Evangelical firewall around the Jewish community that they have to get through us first,” Moore said at the National Religious Broadcaster's annual Breakfast Honoring Israel.

Tal Heinrich is a senior correspondent for both ALL ISRAEL NEWS and ALL ARAB NEWS. She is currently based in New York City. Tal also provides reports and analysis for Israeli Hebrew media Channel 14 News.

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