Shay Cohen speaks in favor of the IHRA resolution, Feb. 15, 2023. (Screenshot)
Shay Cohen speaks in favor of the IHRA resolution, Feb. 15, 2023. (Screenshot)

Berkeley student senate sinks IHRA antisemitism measure

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UC Berkeley’s student senate failed to pass a resolution early Thursday morning adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism, a widely used explanatory resource outlining the contours of anti-Jewish bias that treats certain criticism of Israel as antisemitic.

The motion was tabled “indefinitely” during a marathon session of the student senate that concluded after 3 a.m.

“It was a big longshot I think for our campus in general,” said Shay Cohen, a Jewish student senator from Los Angeles active in on-campus Jewish issues. She introduced the measure, acknowledging in a phone call with J. it was unlikely to pass considering the controversy surrounding the definition and the current climate on Israel and antisemitism at Berkeley.

Opponents of the resolution said it would impinge on freedom of speech, particularly for  pro-Palestinian activists and Palestinian critics of Israel.

Supporters of the IHRA definition say it provides a useful consensus statement on a form of ethnic bigotry that is not always easy to spot, and allows Jews to define anti-Jewish hatred for themselves.

Despite the resolution’s failure, Cohen said, “I’m proud of my community and for the unity that this built. I think it brought a lot of attention to a deeper issue on what it means to be antisemitic at Berkeley.”

Cohen spoke at length in support of the resolution during the meeting, which began Wednesday evening just after 8 p.m.

The IHRA definition, adopted by 31 countries including the United States and most of Europe at a 2016 plenary in Bucharest, defines antisemitism as a certain perception of Jews or hatred of Jews that has both “physical” and “rhetorical” manifestations. The definition has proven controversial; it says that some criticism of Israel might be antisemitic depending on its context. Among those criticisms are “applying double standards by requiring of [Israel] a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation,” “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination,” and “drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.”

The definition specifies that fair criticism of Israel, defined as “similar to that leveled against any other country,” cannot be regarded as antisemitic.

The definition is not legally binding.

The Associated Students of the University of California, a nonprofit organization that is officially independent of the university, has for years served as a battleground for debates on campus surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — in 2013 the body passed a resolution divesting from Israeli companies in a meeting that lasted 10 hours.

Recently the debate has bled into how to define antisemitism. In November, a separate resolution on antisemitism, also introduced by Cohen, passed but without unanimous support. The measure, which did not mention Israel, linked to educational materials on antisemitism that, like the IHRA definition, said certain criticism of Israel is antisemitic. Five of 20 student senators protested and did not vote on the measure, saying it “equates supporting Palestine with being antisemitic.” Its title was “Denouncing Hatred Towards the Jewish Community.”

Cohen told J. Thursday that she was “disappointed by the fact that the Jewish students who came to speak [at the meeting] were not listened to at all.” They “are pleading with the senate to listen to them and adopt a definition they feel best represents them.”

A strong majority of ASUC senators, 13, voted to indefinitely postpone consideration of the measure. Four students voted against tabling it, while three students voted “present.”

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

Gabe Stutman is the news editor of J. Follow him on Twitter @jnewsgabe.