On Nov. 29, pro-Palestinian protestors led by the University of Cincinnati Students for Justice in Palestine and Cincinnati Socialists flooded the City Council Citizen Forum meeting. One of their goals was to demand the City Council adopt a new definition of antisemitism.
Cincinnati City Council adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism earlier this year. The effort to have the IHRA definition was led by the AJC and JCRC, who worked closely with Jewish council member Mark Jeffreys.
The IHRA definition was developed in 2005 and, since its inception, has been used to track antisemitic incidents, including by the U.S. State Department.
The pro-Palestinian protestors claim that the IHRA definition stifles criticism of Israel and demanded the council instead adopt the Jerusalem Declaration of Antisemitism, a definition of antisemitism that is more permissive of strident criticism of Israel that some Jews view as antisemitic.
The Jerusalem Declaration, much like the IHRA definition, comes with its own controversy: Some critics say the Jerusalem Declaration is antisemitic, while others assert that even it still silences Palestinian voices.
During the Citizens Forum, the public can address council members for two minutes. A slew of pro-Palestinian activists addressed the council. Many of the activists who addressed city council remarks devolved into antisemitic claims and tropes.
A number of the activists in attendance had the trifecta of antisemitism, hitting all three D’s: demonization, dehumanization, and double standard – including claims of genocide, apartheid, and ethnic cleansing committed by Israel against Palestinians.
“America and its Proxy, Israel, violate [the] Geneva Conventions every single day,” said Mike James, before speaking about America’s use of depleted uranium munitions during the Iraq War. He went on to say:
“By supporting Israel, you are supporting the American Industrial death cult, and we are watching you and will hold you accountable, and God will judge you,” said James.
One speaker at the forum, who was there about Issue 22 (the sale of Cincinnati’s railroad to Norfolk Southern) and her experiences on election day, ended her address by attacking Israel.
“This is taxation without representation; you have Israeli flags flying on the shitty computer things on Mainstreet, free Palestine, and defund the police,” said Isabell Peril.
Benjamin Jarvis, an activist from SJP and Cincinnati Socialists, attempted to connect the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, and Cincinnati’s recent sale of its railroad to Norfolk Southern (which ran the derailed East Palestine train), to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“I would be remiss that this council and the mayor have left out the people of East Palestine, Ohio, in doing business with Ohio’s worst ecological criminals, and they have a moral responsibility to uphold their obligation to make amends for that by supporting the people of Palestine. As another speaker just said, you will be judged by your creator,” Jarvis said.
During the forum, one activist claimed that Arabs and Muslims can not be antisemitic because Arabic is a Semitic language. The claim is a common, but false, idea, as the term ‘antisemitism’ was specifically coined in the late 19th century in Austria to describe the hatred of Jews – unrelated to the linguistic classification of Semitic languages.
“Antisemitism. I mean, come on, Arabic is a Semitic language,” said Ruston Barber. “I don’t understand how you could say that. This is a total whatever misinformation campaign.”
Jewish leaders also present at the City Council forum pushed back against the gathered pro-Palestinian activists, decrying what they saw as a lack of nuance and empathy coming from the activists when talking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“I want to first acknowledge the pain and suffering for those connected to the unfolding situation between Israel and Hamas,” said Justin Kirschner, director of the Cincinnati chapter of the American Jewish Committee told the City Council. “And express our sincere gratitude for your support of the IHRA definition of antisemitism, which responsibly draws the line between critique of Israeli policy and actors, and antisemitic rhetoric.”
Kirschner continued: “We also appreciate you deferring to the Jewish community to define antisemitism just as you would do for any other marginalized community.”
Not every pro-Palestinian speaker sought to demonize Israel outright, and among the speakers who addressed the forum was a feeling of pain and fear for what was happening in Gaza, and the rise of Islamaphobia in America.
To Jewish leaders, part of the response to the fear of rising Islamophobia, antisemitism, and rising tensions around the Israel-Hamas war needs to include dialogue with the Jewish community.
“Honest and rational conversation between interested parties is deeply required to move us into a better place,” said Kirschner. “Sadly, the talking points and demonization that Israel is only to blame will not get us there.”