In a show of support for the Jewish community, the Cincinnati City Council unanimously adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism on March 15 to help city institutions better identify and address bias against Jews.
“This resolution, and how City Council perceived it, was really a statement to condemn hatred,” said Justin Kirschner, the Cincinnati regional director for the American Jewish Committee. He noted that antisemitism is often at the root of extremist ideologies that target a range of minorities, not just Jews.
“Our city prides itself on being inclusive and welcoming and open. I think in that sense, [adopting the definition] was a no-brainer,” Kirschner said.
The AJC and the Cincinnati Jewish Community Relations Council led the initiative to adopt the IHRA definition, working closely with Jewish Council Member Mark Jeffreys to draft and introduce the resolution.
“Adopting a clear, comprehensive definition of antisemitism is the first step in eradicating this hatred from our community,” Jeffreys said in a press release. “I am proud of the City for taking this step forward. It gives me hope that we can continue to make progress against antisemitism.”
The IHRA is an organization of representatives and experts from 34 mostly-European countries that serves as a think tank for international Holocaust education efforts. In 2016 it adopted a “non-legally binding working definition” of antisemitism to be used as an educational tool to help governments identify and respond to anti-Jewish hate.
The definition has been around since 2005, when it was created for European researchers to accurately collect data on antisemitic incidents. It was later used by the U.S. State Department for the same purpose.
Twenty four states have adopted it in recent years along with roughly 40 countries.
The definition states: “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.”
Cincinnati’s adoption of the IHRA definition comes as Jews across the U.S. have experienced a rise in antisemitism. In 2022, 41% of American Jews did not feel secure about their status in this country, according to a recently released AJC report.
Cincinnati has not avoided this trend. The City Council resolution noted that the local Jewish community “has experienced over 67 incidents of reported antisemitism since 2020, including vandalism, targeted attacks, school incidents, and online harassment.”
Though the definition is non-legally binding, there are several ways that it can have a tangible impact on the city, including by guiding how law enforcement responds to certain incidents.
“If antisemitism arises within the community, police can examine the action of what took place,” the AJC’s Kirschner said. “Is it graffiti? Is it a violent attack? Is it hate speech? And use that definition to understand if it qualifies as antisemitism, and can channel that to the appropriate law enforcement authorities to do something about it.”
The city could go further, Kirschner said, with the definition creating an opportunity to hire someone to oversee Cincinnati’s response to hate crimes and work to improve hate crime reporting. Almost two-thirds of all hate crimes are not reported to law enforcement, according to a 2013 federal Justice Department study.
For now, there’s no lobbying effort planned from the Jewish community for such an initiative, Kirschner said, but it is on his radar. “I can’t say anything formal is being discussed right now, but it is important to advocate for stronger hate crime reporting in the city,” he said.
During the March 15 meeting, several City Council Members took time to share why they decided to adopt the IHRA definition.
“What often happens is that one group gets pitted against another, and there becomes a debate about who’s the victim of the most hate or who’s the victim of the most discrimination,” said Vice Mayor Jan-Michele Kearney. “That’s not an argument we ever need to have whenever one group has been discriminated against…everybody needs to stand up.”
Council Member Reggie Harris spoke about understanding antisemitism through his Jewish husband, whose grandmother escaped Belgium before the Nazis invaded.
“I think about my experience as a Black American, growing up in a predominantly Black environment and not knowing what antisemitism was, but yet, seeing lots of it,” he said. “The insidiousness of it is something that took me being married into a [Jewish] family to be able to understand…in defining [antisemitism], we are also defining core aspects of discrimination, bigotry, and hatred in general.”
Notably, Cincinnati adopted the IHRA definition without a fight. In other communities, the definition has been hotly contested, with critics saying that it can be used to silence pro-Palestinian activists and critics of Israel.
The IHRA definition comes with a list of 11 examples of antisemitism, seven of which have to do with Israel, while also noting that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”
The examples range from “making mendacious, dehumanizing, demonizing, or stereotypical allegations about Jews as such or the power of Jews as collective,” to “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.”
Israel was not part of the conversation for the Cincinnati City Council, though the resolution passed also includes the adoption of the IHRA examples. Kirschner sees the examples as a starting point, rather than a final arbiter, on figuring out what is or isn’t antisemitic.
The IHRA definition “provides an overview of what type of language could be antisemitic [when referring to Israel],” he said. “Which I think, if this were ever to come up and be applied, would still need to have discussion around, did it really cross that threshold.”
Kirschner hopes that the IHRA definition will encourage civil discourse in Cincinnati, and serve as a way to bring elected officials and residents up to speed on a kind of hatred that can sometimes be complex to understand.
“The challenge of antisemitism is, we often don’t know what it looks like,” Kirschner said. “You don’t understand its history and how it’s evolved over time. And this [definition] provides a resource for that.”