Hundreds of academics call on State Dept to revise its definition of anti-Semitism, respect criticism of Israel as protected speech

The following press release was issued by Jewish Voice for Peace:

May 18, 2015–An open letter signed by over 250 members of the Jewish Voice for Peace Academic Advisory Council asks the U.S. State Department to revise its definition of anti-Semitism in order to prevent the charge of anti-Semitism from being misused to silence critics of Israel.

In light of recent high-profile stories that have conflated the debates over Israel politics on campus with reports of rising anti-Semitism, the letter asserts the crucial need to distinguish criticism of the state of Israel from real anti-Semitism.

In particular, the letter takes issue with provisions in the U.S. State Department definition of anti-Semitism that refer to “demonizing,” “delegitimizing,” and “applying a double-standard to the state of Israel.” As Simona Sharoni, an Israeli-American professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at SUNY Plattsburgh, noted “Such prohibitions that are so vague that they could be, and have been, construed to silence any criticism of Israeli policies.” According to Palestine Solidarity Legal Support, which documents attempts to silence activists for Palestinian rights, 60 such incidents have taken place on U.S. campuses in the first four months of 2015.

Currently, legislation that may pass through the California State Legislature this week also aims to codify the problematic State Department definition into law. Anti-Palestinian activists intend this law to be used to silence supporters of the movement to hold Israel accountable for its treatment of Palestinians.

Notable academics who signed the letter include: Rabab Abdulhadi (San Francisco State University), Joel Beinin (Stanford University, Former President of the Middle East Studies Association of North America), Karen Brodkin (UCLA), Judith Butler (UC Berkeley), Lisa Duggan (NYU, President of the American Studies Association), Richard Falk (Princeton University, Former UN Special Rapporteur on Palestinian Rights), Katherine Franke (Columbia University), Neve Gordon (Ben Gurion University), Amy Kaplan (University of Pennsylvania), Zachary Lockman (NYU), Ian Lustick (University of Pennsylvania), John Mearsheimer (University of Chicago), Chandra Talpade Mohanty (Syracuse University), Joan Nestle, James Schamus (Columbia University), Sarah Schulman (City University of New York), and Joan Scott (Princeton University).

A petition signed by over 15,800 Jewish Voice for Peace supporters also circulated in support of the letter.

Jewish Voice for Peace is a national, grassroots organization inspired by Jewish tradition to work for a just and lasting peace according to principles of human rights, equality, and international law for all the people of Israel and Palestine. Jewish Voice for Peace has 200,000 online supporters, over 65 chapters, a youth wing, a Rabbinic Council, and an Advisory Board made up of leading U.S. intellectuals and artists.


The following is the text of the letter, and a full list of signatories is available on request.

Dear U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism Ira Forman, and Ambassador at Large for the Office of International Religious Freedom David Saperstein,

As academics committed to addressing anti-Semitism and other forms of oppression, we oppose ongoing efforts to silence legitimate criticism of the state of Israel by codifying its inclusion in the definition of anti-Semitism.

Several resolutions at the state (1) and campus (2) levels in California do just that by using a problematic State Department definition of anti-Semitism.

The so-called “State Department definition” includes clauses about “demonizing,” “delegitimizing,” and “applying a double-standard to the state of Israel,” prohibitions that are so vague that they could be, and have been, construed to silence any criticism of Israeli policies.

These clauses were taken from the “Working European Union Monitoring Centre definition” which has been widely criticized and was removed (3) as a working definition by the European body in 2013. This definition has limited legal authority (4) in the US because, if implemented, would unconstitutionally restrict freedom of speech. Further, this overbroad definition diminishes the ability to identify and address incidents of true anti-Semitism when they do occur.

As Jews and allies, we ask that the US State Department revise its definition of anti-Semitism to reflect its commitment to opposing hate and discrimination without curtailing constitutionally protected freedom of speech.

Signed by over 250 members of the

Jewish Voice for Peace Academic Advisory Council


  1. Text of Sacramento legislation.
  2. UCLA resolution, Jewish Voice for Peace statement.
  3. Times of Israel, EU drops its working definition of anti-Semitism.
  4. Palestine Legal FAQ on State Department Definition of Anti-Semitism.