“Antisemitism” as Asymmetric Warfare: The Casualties of a Definition

This text is adapted from the opening plenary of the 2023 conference of the Institute for the Critical Study of Zionism.

Counterinsurgency: Beyond Weaponized Definitions

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s spreading institutionalized definition of antisemitism is not merely weaponized, it has become a portable technology of warfare that creates its own theaters of repression, policing, criminalization, and carceral punishment: that is, counterinsurgency. By way of definitional and tactical context, the United States military’s counterinsurgency manual, Joint Publication 3-24, is a massively circulated text with a readership that exceeds most New York Times bestsellers. The current version of JP 3-24, first published in December 2006, was “downloaded more than 600,000 times within a day of its release, and over 1.5 million times in the ensuing month.” These figures suggest that the significance of the counterinsurgency manual is not reducible to its announced function as a military curriculum because it is, empirically, a popularly circulated work. Considered another way, it is a military curriculum that circulates as a popular text, offering concepts, narratives, and definitions that flow beyond the classrooms of West Point, Annapolis, or Colorado Springs. According to JP 3-24,

Insurgency is the organized use of subversion and violence to seize, nullify, or challenge political control of a region…. It is an organization [of] political-military struggle by a predominantly indigenous group or movement designed to weaken, subvert, or displace the control of an established government for a particular region. (ix, my emphasis)

Counterinsurgency is the combination of measures undertaken by a government, sometimes with US Government and multinational partner support, to defeat an insurgency. An effective counterinsurgency operation will utilize all instruments of national power to integrate and synchronize… a holistic approach aimed at weakening the insurgents while simultaneously bolstering the government’s legitimacy in the eyes of the contested population. (x, my emphasis)

It is worth noting that counterinsurgency is conceptually and strategically inseparable from a long genealogy of colonial, neocolonial, and imperial warfare, in particular, militarized political planning and mobilization against resistance, disorder, rebellion, and guerilla war undertaken by peoples attempting to repulse an occupying force or (aspirational) colonial power. The framework of counterinsurgency mandates pacification and/or liquidation of both actual and potential insurgents, to the extent that they threaten to ruin the “legitimacy” of national and global state orders and hence fail to align with the power of colonial, carceral, extractive, antiblack empire.

Counterinsurgency is often characterized by “asymmetric warfare.” This term refers to methods of warmaking that fall outside conventional notions of defined combatants and sites of battle; that is, asymmetric warfare generally does not rely on sheer military capacity and might. While there is ongoing debate in US academic and military circles about the scope and applicability of the concept in both contemporary and long historical contexts, there is abundant evidence indicating that asymmetric warfare has become an accepted, normalized facet of state operations and curricula, especially when attempting to neutralize forms of autonomous grassroots movement and revolt that directly challenge the form and legitimacy of state power.

IHRA’s Definition of Antisemitism and the Theaters of Asymmetric Warfare

Understood in the context of US domestic warfare, asymmetric warfare encompasses extra-military and extra-state tactics and strategies, including those undertaken by civil society, nongovernmental, nonprofit, and corporate institutions like philanthropic foundations, public and private research universities, and hegemonic news and entertainment media. The extra-military realm of asymmetric warfare includes the ongoing conquest of common sense, political imagination, ideological respectability, and aesthetic sensibility. This arena of counterinsurgency stokes cultural warfare that effectively polices the political lexicon, in significant part by fabricating and enforcing the institutional limits of the speakable, and thus criminalizing that which is deemed unspeakable. The full mobilization of counterinsurgency addresses ideology, the imaginary and the fantastic, the word, the symbol, and political signification itself as overlapping theaters of asymmetric warfare.

Among the pinnacle examples of asymmetric warfare waged in and across these theaters is the definition of antisemitism inscribed in 2016 by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), a global organization founded in 1998 that boasts “35 Member Countries and 8 Observer Countries.” This definition demonstrates how the policing of rhetoric is inseparable from mobilizations of colonial militarism, including proto-genocidal and genocidal warfare. According to IHRA,

Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities. (my emphasis)

The conceptual and interpretive looseness of the definition, which pivots on open-ended phrases (“certain perception,” “may be expressed,” “Jewish or non-Jewish”), facilitates multi-modal, ad hoc, and perpetual mobilizations of counterinsurgency against virtually any individual, organization, or group that can be interpreted as criticizing, opposing, or rebelling against the racial-colonial violence of the Israeli state, and/or the colonial supremacist political conquest ideology of Zionism. Operationally, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism creates an identifiable theater of warfare that is simultaneously discursive, symbolic, and material.  The repressive, productive violence waged through the aspirational juridical and extra-juridical institutionality of the Zionist conception of antisemitism shows how rhetorical policing may be inseparable from genocidal-to-proto-genocidal mobilizations of colonial militarism.

A group of 122 “Palestinian and Arab academics, journalists and intellectuals” reframed and refuted the IHRA definition of antisemitism in a 2020 open letter and were joined by more than a hundred human rights and civil society organizations in a similar letter addressed to the United Nations in April 2023. The statements proclaim solidarity with efforts to combat antisemitism based on a historical understanding of white supremacy, racial genocide, anti-Jewish violence, and Holocaust denialism. Crucially, the missives situate this solidarity through a shared, urgent recognition of how hegemonic institutional and globally dominant state endorsements of the IHRA definition of antisemitism directly participate in ongoing warfare against the fact and futurity of Palestinian existence. Responding to IHRA’s contextualizing list of “contemporary examples of antisemitism,” the 2020 letter contends,

Through “examples” that it provides, the IHRA definition conflates Judaism with Zionism in assuming that all Jews are Zionists, and that the state of Israel in its current reality embodies the self-determination of all Jews. We profoundly disagree with this. The fight against antisemitism should not be turned into a stratagem to delegitimise the fight against the oppression of the Palestinians, the denial of their rights and the continued occupation of their land….

There is a huge difference between a condition where Jews are singled out, oppressed and suppressed as a minority by antisemitic regimes or groups, and a condition where the self-determination of a Jewish population in Palestine/Israel has been implemented in the form of an ethnic exclusivist and territorially expansionist state.

Echoing this critical dismantling of IHRA’s definitional apparatus, the 2023 missive to the UN argues:

Seven of [the IHRA definition’s] examples refer to the state of Israel. These examples, which are presented as possible illustrations and indicators to “guide the IHRA in its work”, include:

  • “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination; e.g. by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour” and
  • “applying double standards by requiring of [Israel] a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.”

The wording of the first example above on “racist endeavour” opens the door to labeling as antisemitic criticisms that Israeli government policies and practices violate the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and the findings of major Israeli, Palestinian and global human rights organizations that Israeli authorities are committing the crime against humanity of apartheid against Palestinians. This example could also be used to label as antisemitic documentation showing that Israel’s founding involved dispossessing many Palestinians; or arguments, also made by some Members of the Israeli Knesset, to transform Israel from a Jewish state into a multiethnic state that equally belongs to all of its citizens – that is, a state based on civic identity, rather than ethnic identity….

[The second example] suggests also that it is antisemitic to evaluate Israel as anything but a democracy, also when assessing its actions in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, where it has for more than half a century governed millions of Palestinians who have no say on the most consequential issues affecting their lives and who are deprived of their basic civil rights….

[I]n practice, [the IHRA’s] disclaimers have failed to prevent the politically motivated instrumentalization of the IHRA definition in efforts to muzzle legitimate speech and activism by critics of Israel’s human rights record and advocates for Palestinian rights.

Read together, these open letters reframe IHRA’s definition of antisemitism as an inauguration of endless war against identified and suspected insurgents, waged in part through an open-ended schema of implicating “examples.” Put another way, IHRA mounts a form of counterinsurgency that projects pro-Palestinian liberation and Palestine solidarity organizers, scholars, artists, and teachers as a permanent threat to be neutralized or destroyed.

Examined as an operative technology of counterinsurgency, IHRA’s notion of antisemitism is designed to eliminate the privileged category of “the civilian” when those under scrutiny are engaged in some combination of 1) solidarity with Palestinian liberation; 2) critical analysis of and dissent from the attempted normalization of Israeli occupation, blockading, apartheid, and genocidal-to-proto-genocidal methods (Nakba); 3) demystification of the supremacist settler colonial political ideology of Zionism; or 4) opposition to specific Israeli state and military actions and policies. In this sense, IHRA’s definition of antisemitism is not merely “weaponized,” it is already an activity of warfare and colonial repression in-and-of-itself. The definition is a form of asymmetric warmaking sui generis. Here, the term “non-combatants” is perhaps more accurate than “civilians” because, in the context of Israel’s longstanding colonial apartheid occupation and genocidal Nakba in Palestine (and Gaza in particular), the premises of the “civilian” concept are thrown into radical disarray.

The form of counterinsurgency warfare addressed here is therefore not reducible to repressive wordplay, insidious definitional expansionism, or another attempt to canonize Zionism as a universal allegiance shared by all Jews across all varieties of Judaism. (According to Jonathan Greenblatt of the Anti-Defamation League, “every Jewish person is a Zionist.”) IHRA’s definition of antisemitism is a technology of counterinsurgency with flexible reach and globally significant political gravity as an asymmetric form of police power, that is, a portable apparatus of unconventional warfare. As a form of lexical, epistemic, and para-juridical counterinsurgency against Palestinian resistance, survival, liberation, and solidarity activities, such warfare is not waged by mutually recognized adversaries with remotely comparable access to military power, nor is it a war or so-called conflict between combatants with mutually formalized state legitimacy or mutual access to global-international allies in the strategic advancement of political and military interests.

Rather, IHRA is advancing a legally non-binding definition of antisemitism that nonetheless induces legal, material, militarized consequences that incite state and extra-state forms of police power (including governmental and extra-state “task forces,” “working groups,” university administrative statements, and Title VI grievances). According to the Combat Hate Foundation, as of 2023, forty-five countries have adopted IHRA’s definition of antisemitism. At the scale of local, regional, and municipal governments, the IHRA definition is increasingly normalized: in the United Kingdom, “271 regional, local, and municipal governments have adopted the definition, as have 123 in the United States, 55 in Argentina, 20 in Canada, 13 in Italy, nine in Germany, eight in France, five in Australia, three each in Spain and Venezuela, and two each in Brazil and Poland. By adopting the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism in 2023, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro became pioneer cities in Brazil.” A “majority of universities” in the UK have adopted the IHRA definition, with more than two hundred institutions apparently responding to former education secretary Gavin Williamson’s 2020 threat of cutting their funding if they failed to do so. As of May 2021, dozens of student governments at college and university campuses in the US have formally endorsed the IHRA definition, while an unquantified number of campus administrations have absorbed a version of the definition into its protocols and policies in generally non-transparent, de facto ways, including through variations of anti-hate task forces, work groups, and campus initiatives.

The institutions of higher education that have absorbed IHRA’s definition of antisemitism traverse the full spectrum of public and private, large research universities and small community colleges, and both highly resourced and underfunded campuses, including Arizona State University, City College of New York, Florida State University, Pennsylvania State University, Stanford University, Foothill College, Texas A & M, UCLA, UC San Diego, UC Santa Barbara, Kennesaw State University, University of Minnesota, University of Notre Dame, University of Texas at Austin, and Wake Forest University. Exemplifying the logical outcome of the institutional assimilation of IHRA’s framework, the University of Pennsylvania convened a “University Task Force on Antisemitism” in November 2023 that makes use of IHRA’s definition of antisemitism as the Task Force’s primary point of reference for all programmatic activities.

Demonstrating the relatively seamless continuity between the two ruling US political parties in relation to anti-Palestinian repression and enforcement of Israel’s exceptional political status, Donald Trump’s December 2019 Executive Order called on government departments to adopt the IHRA definition into the enforcement of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act (prohibiting discrimination “on the ground of race, color, or national origin” in “any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance”), followed by the Biden administration’s “enthusiastic” embrace of the same expansive conception of antisemitism. A February 2021 letter from Secretary of State Anthony Blinken addressed to the President of the American Zionist Movement reads:

Thank you for your heartfelt letter on my confirmation as Secretary of State. During my tenure as Secretary, I look forward to working with the American Zionist Movement…

The Biden Administration enthusiastically embraces the 2016 International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s Working Definition of Anti-Semitism, including its examples.

Notably, the scholar and attorney who authored the definition of antisemitism canonized by the IHRA has condemned “rightwing Jewish groups” for “weaponizing it” through Title VI grievances against Palestinian and pro-Palestinian scholars, invited campus speakers, classroom curricula, and public events. Kenneth Stern writes in a widely cited 2019 Guardian op-ed:

[the working definition] was never intended to be a campus hate speech code, but that’s what Donald Trump’s executive order accomplished this week. This order is an attack on academic freedom and free speech, and will harm not only pro-Palestinian advocates, but also Jewish students and faculty, and the academy itself.

Stern’s lament, in hindsight, significantly underestimates the consequences of the definition’s circulation as a technology of ideological and lexical warfare sui generis.

Stern’s academic definition of antisemitism, which was intended to facilitate European data gathering efforts, is merely a point of departure for a colonization of language, critical discourse, political expression, and even anticolonial feeling that pivots on the imperative to both protect and restore the legitimacy of the Israeli state, and by modest extension, the militarized global legitimacy of the US state. The logic of counterinsurgency facilitates a capacity to wage war against identified and suspected “insurgents” endlessly, until the counterinsurgency itself deems the threat to be adequately neutralized, assimilated, or simply destroyed. Following this logic, the IHRA definition of antisemitism yields to a logic of endlessness in the field of examples, including identification of those who mobilize to abolish Israel’s decades long Nakba against Palestinians—an apocalypse periodically referenced by many non-Palestinians as apartheid or genocide—as among the greatest threats to the legitimacy of Israeli state power, and thus paramount expressions of the IHRA-defined antisemitic insurgency that mandates elimination by any means necessary.

Narrative War and the Liberationist Imperative

The United States military’s concepts, curricula, and strategies of counterinsurgency and asymmetric warfare provide (unintended) analytical frameworks through which to deepen collective critical analysis and perhaps better inform and enrich the praxis of liberationist response. To recall JP 3-24, counterinsurgency is a form of warfare that encompasses “comprehensive civilian and military efforts designed to simultaneously defeat and contain insurgency and address its root causes” (239). Of particular significance in this formulation is the military’s intentional conjoining of the positions of “civilian” and “military”—that is, they are co-equal planners, strategists, agents, and foot soldiers. This militarized tethering indicates the specificity of the “civilian” position when mobilized for the purposes of advancing and/or securing theaters of occupation and warfare; in the field of counterinsurgency, extra-state civilian mobilizations play a primary role in “defeating and containing”—or put differently, exterminating and incarcerating—those who fit the category of “insurgents.” The global mobilization to institutionalize and operationalize IHRA’s definition of antisemitism is an exemplary extra-state, civilian engagement in counterinsurgency—the question is whether and how to confront it as such.

Since about 2004, the US military has revised and elaborated its framework of counterinsurgency to adapt to twenty-first century forms of warfare and occupation (principally but not exclusively, the War on Terror). Close study of this refurbished and expanded tactical and strategic understanding of counterinsurgency can generate analytical premises for radically reframing IHRA’s definition of antisemitism as well as other extra-state (that is, “civilian”) definitions and discourses of “hate,” “(antisemitic) hate crimes,” and so-called “terrorism,” especially those circulated, legitimated, funded, and materially platformed by extra-state, civil society institutions like nonprofit and NGO organizations, philanthropic foundations, and corporate media regimes. Central to the work of such theoretical and practical re-examination is a rigorous understanding of how the US military principally conceptualizes counterinsurgency as a narrative strategy. It is arguably in this theater of counterinsurgency warfare that humanities scholars, including those in the critical inter- and trans-disciplinary fields, may find themselves (simultaneously?) implicated or targeted.

The curricular structure of JP 3-24 emphasizes the role of culture, language, and public relations in successful counterinsurgency operations. Entire sections of the field manual address narrative strategy, including a subsection titled “COIN [counterinsurgency] Narrative”:

The COIN narrative should be the result of meticulous target-audience analysis conducted by cultural and language subject matter experts and close collaboration among the [host nation] government, [geographic combatant commander], and [joint force commander]. The COIN narrative should provide the guidance from which themes, actions, and messages can be planned in support of the COIN objectives. (33)

A subsequent section of JP 3-24 is titled “Support the Counterinsurgency Narrative,” reminding the student/reader that “the COIN narrative is most effective when recognized and respected across the COIN force and emboldened by everything counterinsurgents say and do” (156).

Perhaps the most ominously substantive reference to counterinsurgency as narrative warfare, however, is another section titled “Identify, Separate, Influence, and Renunciation,” or ISIR. Put concisely, ISIR is an “operational approach” that attempts to isolate insurgents from a broader population while convincing them that their cause is not and will never be supported by that population, resulting in the insurgents’ defection and surrender: identify, separate, influence, and renounce. Psychological warfare is central to this method, and it is therein that narrative technologies, including contemporary media forms, figure prominently:

Psychological separation can be accomplished by the use of the COIN narrative, information-related activities, and social media. Aspects of [electronic warfare] can be effective by psychologically separating the insurgent if they use radio, television, or computers to recruit or win over the neutral population. (166)

Crucially, IHRA’s definition collapses a complex global genealogy of antisemitism into a narrative of “hate” that is compatible with punitive policing and juridical measures, guided by a liberal corrective logic that “hate” is best addressed by surveilling, punishing, isolating, and/or eliminating the “haters.” Cast against the shadow of the counterinsurgency field manual’s doctrine and directives, it is worth asking: What work does IHRA’s definition of antisemitism do?

Most immediately, IHRA’s definition compartmentalizes various forms of repressive, oppressive terror and historical violence, including the Nazi-orchestrated genocide of Jews, Romani, disabled people, queer people, Africans, and others, into falsely equilibrating notions of “hate crimes,” “hate incidents,” extremist “hate-based” ideology (including but not limited to varieties of “terrorism”), religious “hate,” and “hate” premised on singular and/or exceptional animus against Jewish people. The IHRA definition thus fabricates a field of knowledge—what the late Edward Said named the orientalist “knowable”—as a theater of militarized, ideological, existential, and ontological warfare. The definition stokes political and institutional claims while proliferating all matter of repressive activities targeting individuals and identifiable groups, including demands for institutional censure and termination of employment, death threats, doxxing, and reputational destruction. In this sense, IHRA’s version of “antisemitism” is inseparable from old and emergent regimes of corrective liberalism, a technology of antiblackness and racial-colonial dominance that constitutes the logics of genocide, apartheid, and occupation.

Further, these overlapping, compartmentalized notions of hate and antisemitism cohere and project a canonical set of feelings that represent a call to arms for a presumptive (white, European/ethnic) constituency to seek justice, repair, and security through the mobilization—and militarization—of both state and civil institutions. In the field of counterinsurgency, occupation, and warfare, these are the only feelings that matter. Once summoned, IHRA’s definition of antisemitism extends and distends the entire ideological and symbolic apparatus of the Western world’s genocidal humanism. By this, I mean that it once again installs and fortifies the borders of (what Sylvia Wynter identifies as) “Civilization”—against the insurgents, against the enemies of Israel, and against those who refuse to concede to the magical violence of Zionism-as-occupation-narrative. The counterinsurgency narrative, when funneled through IHRA’s definition of antisemitism, produces another layer of atrocity by characterizing the insurgents and enemies as beings whose feelings not only do not matter, but as beings who may have no feelings at all, because they are savages, animals, and whatever else significations come from the Islamophobic, colonial, antiblack  toolbox.

Thus, the question for those serious about anti-colonial, liberationist praxis is how to create, defend, and participate in neutralizing and defeating such forms of counterinsurgency by any means effective, any means collective, and any means necessary.

Dylan Rodríguez

Dylan Rodríguez is a teacher, scholar, organizer, and collaborator who has maintained a day job as a professor at the University of California-Riverside since 2001. He is a faculty member in the recently created Department of Black Study as well as the Department of Media and Cultural Studies. He was elected to serve as president of the American Studies Association in 2020-2021, and in 2020 he was named to the inaugural class of Freedom Scholars. He is the author of three books, most recently White Reconstruction: Domestic Warfare and the Logic of Racial Genocide (Fordham University Press, 2021), which won the 2022 Frantz Fanon Book Award from the Caribbean Philosophical Association.