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With the IHRA definition of antisemitism, the CJL alienates left-wing Jewish students

<h6>Naomi Hess / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Naomi Hess / The Daily Princetonian

The following is an open letter and reflects the authorsviews alone. For information on how to submit to the Opinion Section, click here.

Dear Rabbi Gil Steinlauf, CJL Staff, and Princeton Community,

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We write as left-wing Jewish students who are dismayed and alienated by recent communications from the Center for Jewish Life (CJL), a communal space where all students — and Jewish students in particular — should be welcomed and supported.  

On Friday, Nov. 4 — just days after the Israeli election, which further emboldened right-wing extremists and the radical Kahanist party Otzma Yehudit — the Princeton Committee on Palestine (PCP) sent a letter to the University student body calling for students to boycott Israel Tiger Trek, a University-sponsored trip which is set to occur Jan. 21–28, 2023. In the statement, PCP raised concerns that Tiger Trek threatens to legitimize Israeli apartheid and engages with companies that have ties to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

A few days later, on Nov. 7, Rabbi Gil Steinlauf ’91, Executive Director of the CJL, sent out an email to the Princeton community. The email condemned the statement made by PCP. Unfortunately, Steinlauf decided to use the PCP’s email as an opportunity to spread an exclusionary, right-wing message that made it clear that Jews who are not sufficiently Zionist are not welcome within the CJL community.

Steinlauf wrote that PCP’s “message crossed a line by engaging in age-old, classic antisemitic references to child killing, using well-known ‘dog whistles’ like Jewish ‘elitism,’ and rhetoric about colonialism which undermines Israel’s right to exist.” Apparently, any students — even Jewish students — who are concerned about the IDF’s documented and long history of killing of Palestinian civilians or the fact that Princeton sponsors trips that coordinate with companies that serve the IDF are guilty of antisemitism. Steinlauf also wrote that claiming that “Israel is not a legitimate democratic state” crosses the line into antisemitism.

If we take Steinlauf at his word, then we are to understand that anyone who recognizes Israel as a place where millions are subjected to military occupation, and civil and human rights abuses abound, is an antisemite.

According to Steinlauf’s letter: “Attacks on educational initiatives like Israel Tiger Trek have no place at universities such as Princeton, which is dedicated to the free and open exchange of ideas, and which challenges students to engage with those who have different views.” If Princeton and the CJL are dedicated to the “free and open exchange of ideas,” anti-occupation organizers must be included in that declaration. And the CJL must abide by its own policies, in which they claim that the organization will not “promote racism or hatred of any kind.” 

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The letter continues: The CJL “emphatically supports Israel’s existence, legitimacy, and security as a Jewish and democratic state while also seeking a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that allows all residents of the region to live with dignity, security, opportunity, and freedom.” The CJL’s purported commitment to “dignity, security, opportunity, and freedom” in the region is antithetical to villainizing discourse that deflect from Israel's human rights atrocities, and moreover, is incongruent with the institution’s choice to cosponsor and encourage participation in trips, such as Tiger Trek and Birthright, that are devoid of critical thinking about the Israeli government and human rights abuses.

Steinlauf’s understanding of the PCP email is connected to the CJL’s endorsement of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of Antisemitism. This definition, adopted by the IHRA in 2016, is not as “direct and simple” as Steinlauf would like to have students believe. Instead, the IHRA definition is a highly political and controversial lightning rod, which states that “the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity” or “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor” are examples of antisemitism. These are vague stipulations that have been easily abused in order to delegitimize Palestinian activism. 

Is claiming that Israel should not exist as a Jewish-majority state, instead as a multinational, secular one, an example of antisemitism because it might deny “the Jewish people their right to self-determination”? What about claiming that the State of Israel is a racist or colonialist endeavor, a position that many scholars — including numerous Jewish scholars — have adopted? 

Of the 11 examples of antisemitism included in the IHRA definition, seven include mentions of Israel. This makes clear what the aim of the IHRA definition is: to silence criticism of Israel under the auspices of combatting antisemitism. Even one of the definition’s authors, Kenneth Stern, has pointed out the ways the definition can been used to equate anti-Zionism and antisemitism, thus censoring criticism of Israel, and argued that its adoption should not be the Biden administration’s top priority. Stern said that doing so would constitute asking the administration to “use the instruments of state to silence people with whom we might disagree.”

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The CJL’s response to PCP and the endorsement of the IHRA definition makes light of the very real work that needs be done to combat actual antisemitism, increasingly stoked by right-wing movements in the United States and abroad. Either the CJL would like to pretend that no Jews on campus share these criticisms of Israel or it is comfortable sending a message that such Jews do not belong in its community.

Steinlauf’s statement is part of a pattern among conservative thinkers to excise those who are not Zionist enough from the Jewish community entirely, replacing them with right-wing — often non-Jewish — allies. We saw this recently with Pennsylvania Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano making blatantly antisemitic remarks, and his wife offering the defense of “we probably love Israel more than a lot of Jews do,” or when former President Donald Trump attacked American Jews for being insufficiently loyal to Israel. 

Students should not be fooled by this faux anti-antisemitism, as the real threats to Jews today increasingly come from right wing movements such as Trump’s Republican Party. In prioritizing the protection of Zionism over the protection of Jewish students on this campus, the CJL betrays the cause it claims to care so much about. The Princeton Jewish community, and Princeton students in general, deserve better than this political stunt masquerading as an attempt to fight antisemitism.

The Alliance of Jewish Progressives

Signed, 

Ben Gelman ’23

Emanuelle Sippy ’25

Martin Mastnak ’25

Chaya Holch ’23

Sakura Price ’23

Zev Mishell ’23

Jack Toubes ’25

Adam Sanders ’25

Sara Ryave ’24

Alan Plotz ’25

Dylan Shapiro ’23

Nate Howard ’25

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