Nassau County Executive Laura Curran signed an executive order two weeks ago adopting an international definition of antisemitism to bolster county policies prohibiting harassment and discriminatory language.
Curran’s order directs all county departments to follow the definition, set in 2016 by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance in Bucharest, when enforcing or complying with codes barring antisemitic discrimination and harassment.
“With antisemitism on the rise, Nassau County stands with our Jewish brothers and sisters and will continue fighting to ensure hatred never finds a home in our communities,” Curran, a Democrat, said in a statement.
Curran’s order follows the Town of North Hempstead’s adoption of the definition in February following antisemitic attacks that occurred throughout North Shore communities over the past year. Many other governments have done the same.
There is good reason for these governments to act.
There has been an alarming rise in antisemitism on the North Shore, throughout the country and around the world in recent years.
White supremacists and neo-Nazis marching in a Unite the Right rally in 2017 to protect a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Va., shouted “Jews will not replace us.” The slogan referred to the fiction that Jews were behind the influx of immigrants at our southern border in an effort to replace white workers or specifically, white Christian workers.
That was the stated motive of the man who gunned down 11 Jewish worshippers in October 2018 as they prayed at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.
And on Jan. 6, members of the mob that attacked the U.S. Capitol in an effort to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election included people wearing T-shirts with 6MWE printed on them. 6MWE stands for 6 million wasn’t enough – a reference to the 6 million Jews murdered during the Holocaust. Others rioters wore T-shirts with “Camp Auschwitz” – a reference to the largest death camp operated by the Nazis during the Second World War.
The common denominator in these attacks is President Trump’s campaign of white grievance, which emboldened white supremacists whose targets included Jews. FBI Director Christopher Wray has called these white supremacists the No. 1 terrorist threat in this country.
Right-wing extremists are not alone in promoting antisemitism, which can also be found on the left, particularly in some criticism of Israel. But the danger posed by those on the left is dwarfed by the opponents on the right.
So there is much reason for local governments to respond to the threat posed to Jews.
But the adoption of the international definition of antisemitism does too little and too much at the same time.
The definition has been rightly criticized by academics, especially on the basis that it stifles free speech relating to criticism of Israeli actions and policies and those campaigning for the rights of Palestinians.
Several of the examples of the international definition of antisemitism refer to Israel.
According to the U.S. State Department’s website, examples of antisemitism under the international definition include “targeting of the state of Israel.”
The State Department notes, however, that criticism of Israel, “similar to that leveled against any other country,” is not antisemitic.
The problem with this can be seen in a recent commencement speech at the Wheatley School in Old Westbury by a 17-year-old Muslim student whose family is from Pakistan.
In the speech, Huda Auaz urged her fellow classmates to stand up for injustice, “including the ethnic cleansings of Palestinians and Uighur Muslims.”
The student’s comments did not use the word Jews or even Israel in calling for social justice for Palestinian and Chinese Uighurs. She was right about the Uighurs and wrong about the Palestinians.
But was the student’s comment antisemitic and should she not be allowed to make the claim even if she was wrong?
Some in the audience and several people online seemed to think so. Others don’t.
But the problem with the international definition is not the biggest failing of the government’s response to the rise in antisemitism.
The first is the penalty for outright antisemitism.
In Germany, displaying the swastika is a crime punishable by up to three years in prison. Why not toughen New York hate-crime laws to further discourage its use here?
Yes, there are certainly First Amendment issues. And yes the German government is using the full force of its power to discourage anything resembling the darkest moment in Germany’s history and the history of the world.
But consider how many young American soldiers gave their lives landing in Normandy and going on to defeat the Nazi army
The other problem with the response to the rise in antisemitism is the lack of response to racism and bigotry directed at other groups.
It is true that no group has suffered more across history than Jews. But not in the United States.
Jews have faced discrimination in this country, but even with a worrisome rise in antisemitism in the United States, few if any other countries have been as welcoming to Jews as this country.
Not so for Blacks. Not so for Native Americans. And in the past five years, Asian-Americans and Hispanic-Americans have faced a sharp rise in hate crimes.
Unless similar protections are afforded to these groups, aren’t we again singling out Jews for special treatment even if it is to protect them?
Muslims have been singled out for harsh treatment since 9/11. One of the examples cited in the international definition of antisemitism is “holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.”
Why no definition of anti-Islam that uses a similar standard?
And what about a definition for racism for Blacks?
After World War II, Germany banned the Nazi symbol, erected statues commemorating the deaths of Jews and other groups and shunned Nazi leaders.
After the Civil War, the Confederate flag, the symbol of the traitors who waged war against the United States to protect the enslavement of people, flew over state capitols. Streets, schools and U.S. military bases were named after Confederal generals. Some still are.
And this is not just a Southern problem. Blacks were bought and sold on Wall Street and discrimination exists on Long Island to this day.
How about treating the Confederate flag the same way Germany treats the Nazi symbol?
More importantly, how about action against the efforts across the country of state legislatures aimed at restricting the voting rights of Blacks – and anyone else who supports candidates supported by Blacks?
There is good reason to define antisemitism. But that should just be a start.