What Is Antisemitism? A Columbia Task Force Would Rather Not Say.

A Columbia University task force set up to combat antisemitism on campus in the wake of the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks is attempting to avoid one of the most contentious issues in university debates over the war: Its members have refused to settle on what the definition of “antisemitism” is.

Competing factions on campus and beyond are pushing for two different definitions. The first, favored by the U.S. State Department and many supporters of Israel, says “targeting of the state of Israel” could be antisemitic, a definition that could label much of the pro-Palestinian activism sweeping campus as antisemitic.

The second is narrower. It distinguishes between anti-Zionism and antisemitism and could lead to criticism that the school is not taking antisemitism seriously enough.

The debate over the definitions has become a lightning rod for the Columbia task force and for other universities around the country. The task force is charged with “understanding how antisemitism manifests on campus” and improving the climate for Jewish faculty and students. But the refusal to pick a definition has also been met with harsh criticism on both sides.

“If you don’t diagnose the problem, you don’t have to deal with it,” said Shai Davidai, a Columbia professor who is Israeli and favors the stricter definition. He added, “Saying we don’t want to define it so we don’t have a problem, that’s copping out.”

Pro-Palestinian and anti-Zionist faculty and students, quite a few of whom are Jewish, fear that without a definition, the antisemitism task force could be too sweeping in the speech and activity it seeks to regulate.

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