I am writing in response to the October 31 letter to the editor, "Why Holocaust inversions are antisemitic," in which the author writes movingly about their own family's horrific experience during the Holocaust.
The purpose of the author's letter is not only to share this tragic family story but it is also to levy an accusation of antisemitism against members of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at Rutgers—New Brunswick and other Rutgers students who recently produced a chalk art display at Voorhees Mall on the College Avenue campus to criticize Israel's ongoing bombardment of Gaza.
The author particularly takes issue with one chalked message reading, "One Holocaust does not justify another" — a statement they characterized as "repulsive," "hate-inspiring" and "a textbook example … of antisemitism."
The author is, of course, entitled to their opinion. But they do not present these characterizations as a matter of opinion. Instead, the author declares that to compare Israel's genocidal campaign in Gaza to the Holocaust is necessarily and inherently antisemitic.
The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance's (IHRA) "working definition of antisemitism" (which the Rutgers University Student Assembly unfortunately adopted in 2021 amid an outcry from students and faculty) has been roundly rejected by numerous international organizations and human rights advocates, who say that it inappropriately equates criticism of Israeli state actions with antisemitism and Holocaust denial.
Earlier this year, more than 100 Israeli and international civil society organizations published an open letter urging the United Nations to reject the IHRA definition.
"(The definition) has often been used to wrongly label criticism of Israel as antisemitic, and thus chill and sometimes suppress, non-violent protest, activism and speech critical of Israel," the letter read. Signatories to this open letter included Israel's largest human rights organization, B'Tselem, as well as groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
In 2022, a coalition of 128 of the world's leading Holocaust and Jewish history scholars also published an open letter criticizing the IHRA's definition of antisemitism, which they called "vague and weaponized."
These scholars, based at universities around the world, including in Israel, warned that adopting the IHRA definition would "muzzle legitimate speech and activism by critics of Israel's human rights record and advocates for Palestinian rights," including on university campuses. It would "deter free speech" and "shield the Israeli government from accountability for its actions," the letter elaborated.
Around the same time, a similar coalition of scholars wrote that the IHRA definition had only "caused confusion and generated controversy, hence weakening the fight against antisemitism."
In its place, they proposed what has become known as the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism, which condemns Holocaust denial but notably omits the IHRA's inflammatory language claiming that comparing the Holocaust to other historical atrocities (including those perpetrated by Israel) is necessarily antisemitic. The Jerusalem Declaration has since been endorsed by more than 350 scholars in Israel, Europe, the U.S., and elsewhere.
Last week, hundreds of Jews of all ages and backgrounds, wearing t-shirts with slogans like "Ceasefire now" and "Not in our name," staged a protest inside Grand Central Station in New York, calling for an immediate end to the Israeli bombardment of Gaza. A coalition of more than 300 Holocaust survivors recently made a similar call in the pages of The New York Times.
To uncritically accept the IHRA's definition of antisemitism, as the author demands, would require that I regard these protestors as hateful bigots on par with neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers.
I refuse to do that.
I refuse to regard the messages chalked on the sidewalk at Vorhees Mall, demanding peace and justice in Palestine, as antisemitic, either.
The author claims to be heartbroken by the images of death and destruction coming out of Gaza, where Israeli bombs have so far killed more than 10,000 Palestinians, including more than 3,700 children. I am heartbroken, too, and so are many of the thousands of Palestinians who live in New Jersey — some of whom are the author's classmates at Rutgers.
I am proud that Rutgers students have come together to publicly express their sorrow and outrage at Israel's murderous campaign in Gaza. As a scholar of political geography and a proud Rutgers graduate, I reject the IHRA's cynical attempt to manipulate University students and silence criticism of Israel on campus.
I urge all members of the Rutgers community, faculty and students alike, to do the same.
Jonah Walters is a Rutgers alum.
*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.
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