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Definition of Antisemitism Is the Subject of Bitter Debate

Many donors, politicians and Jewish students have pressured their colleges to confront antisemitism more forcefully. But one challenge can make the whole exercise feel like quicksilver.

There’s no consensus about what, precisely, constitutes antisemitism.

University administrators and federal bureaucrats alike have considered one contentious definition that has gained traction in recent years, put forward by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

The definition itself is vague and uncontroversial, stating that antisemitism is a “certain perception of Jews that may be expressed as hatred” toward them. But the I.H.R.A. also includes with the definition a series of examples that alarm many supporters of free expression. They include holding Israel to a “double standard” and claiming Israel’s existence is a “racist endeavor.”

Supporters of the alliance’s definition say that it helps press colleges to stop tolerating behavior against Jews that would be unacceptable if it were directed at racial minority groups or L.G.B.T.Q. students.

But supporters of the Palestinian cause say those examples conflate antisemitism with anti-Zionism and are intended to protect Israel from criticism.

Debates over how to define antisemitism have been a flashpoint on several of the university task forces that have been created in response to student protests over the Israel-Hamas war.

At Harvard and Stanford, task force members have faced harsh criticism for not supporting the I.H.R.A. definition; a co-leader of the Stanford task force resigned, in part over that conflict.

A similar committee at Columbia University has avoided settling on a definition of antisemitism — a decision that has also led to criticism.

The Trump administration gave supporters of the I.H.R.A. definition a major boost in 2018 by issuing a sweeping executive order that instructed all agencies to consider the I.H.R.A. definition when examining civil rights complaints.

Political support for that definition gained further momentum this month, when the House overwhelmingly passed the Antisemitism Awareness Act, which would mandate that the Education Department consider the I.H.R.A. definition in civil rights cases. The bill would enshrine Mr. Trump’s executive order into federal law.

“Today, university leaders tend to disregard the executive order because it was issued by the prior administration,” said Kenneth Marcus, Mr. Trump’s civil rights chief, in an email, adding, “If this bill is passed, college administrators will need to take antisemitism seriously even when it is disguised as anti-Israel activism.”

The definition has been invoked in debates over whether to cancel controversial speakers, events and panels on the ground that they are antisemitic.

Mr. Trump’s executive order remains in effect, and the Biden administration is considering issuing a regulation based on it.

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