About once a month, I think back to my time at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. Born and bred in the metro-Detroit Jewish community, people from both Minnesota and Michigan would raise their eyebrows at me, wondering why I hadn’t gone to the University of Michigan like so many of my peers, or even to Kalamazoo College, the small liberal arts college equivalent to St. Olaf. I would raise my eyebrows right back, and talk about how eager I was to leave the insular Jewish community in which I’d been raised. I was hopeful that going to a Lutheran college (hello, yes, if you didn’t realize by the name, St. Olaf is very Lutheran) would broaden my perspectives on the world.
I still remember getting the call from my dad on October 27th, 2018—the day of the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting. He explained to me that a gunman had shot and killed 11 people while they were worshipping on Shabbat. I’m sure he said more, but I can’t recall what exactly it was, because as sadness and horror filled me, I could feel my chest tightening and my breathing speeding up too much to focus on anything else. I remember going into a friend’s dorm room, collapsing on his couch, and beginning to cry. I remember the confused look on his face, and the lack of empathy he displayed as he continued to do what he was doing, rather than sitting with me and hearing me. My friends at St. Olaf are empathetic and loving and kind, but they had no idea what it was like for me—a Jew—in an institution that remained silent during a massacre. St. Olaf didn’t send out an email. They didn’t check in on their Jewish students. It took almost a week for them to acknowledge that a white nationalist shooting against Jews praying in a synagogue had even happened.
In the months following the shooting, I started reflecting on what it felt like for me to exist at St. Olaf. I thought about how many of my classmates would greet me by jokingly saying “Shalom,” how most of them had never met a Jewish person before, and how they would thus direct all of their offensive, blatantly ignorant questions about Judaism toward me. This was, and still is, anti-Semitism. It wasn’t the explicit brand of anti-Semitism that we think of when we see swastikas in libraries or a white nationalist shooting Jews while attending synagogue. But it was anti-Semitism nonetheless.
Now, with Trump out of the White House and Biden promising to enter into a new era, Jews in the U.S. are at a crossroads. The Biden administration is giving public signals that it plans to fight anti-Semitism by adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism. The IHRA loosely defines anti-Semitism as a perception that can manifest as hatred of Jews. This definition isn’t incorrect, but it is misleading. At best, the IHRA definition is incredibly vague to the point of uselessness, and at worst it conflates criticism of Israeli policies with anti-Semitism. Adopting this definition is basically an outwardly-facing political move that claims to fight anti-Semitism, but really just shields the Israeli government from criticism—without making Jews any safer in America.
The IHRA definition was adopted by the Trump administration through an executive order in 2019 to evaluate discrimination complaints from institutions that get federal funding—i.e. colleges and universities. These colleges and universities, as well as any other institutions that receive federal funding, can now silence free speech that criticizes Israel in order to guard and preserve their funding. Rather than protecting Jews from anti-Semitism, adoption of the IHRA definition gives administrations and organizations a scapegoat with which to punish and attack free speech. The IHRA lists denying Jews their right to self-determination as an example of anti-Semitism, which is clearly Zionist-centric; essentially, using this definition to assess anti-Semitic acts will tell you that criticizing the Israeli government is indeed an act of anti-Semitism. Schools are then incentivized to internally “hush up” and deal with this supposed anti-Semitism so that they don’t risk losing out on funding from the federal government.
The anti-Semitism I faced during my time at St. Olaf would not be covered under the IHRA’s definition. That anti-Semitism was covert, implicit, and didn’t have to do with anti-Israel sentiment, a sentiment which is at the heart of the IHRA’s definition of anti-Semitism. Why don’t we talk about the fact that people can exist in this country without understanding what Judaism is or knowing how to act around Jewish people? Why don’t we try to fight the anti-Semitism that is borne from that? I do not support these approaches to fighting anti-Semitism that are really just harmful to Jews and the public’s understanding of anti-Semitism. I don’t want Biden’s signature, and I don’t want states themselves to adopt the IHRA definition. If the Biden administration, Facebook, and Kentucky are going to adopt this definition, after all, they’re going to think that they’re done. So what happens to the next Jewish girl in a Lutheran institution, Star of David on her forehead, keeping her head down to avoid questions? Will she be supported by her college? And, equally as important, what about her Palestinian roommate? Will they be able to talk about the atrocities they have experienced at the hands of the Israeli government without their conversation being deemed anti-Semitic.
So here we are, with the possibility of having a definition of anti-Semitism adopted that specifically targets Palestinians and students fighting for Palestinian rights. I ask again, what is our federal government really doing to fight anti-Semitism? Because adopting a stance that does not protect—and instead harms—young Jewish college students isn’t helping. I’ll wait.
By Rebecca Driker-Ohren