Approved by the AAR Board of Directors on December 18, 2019
The American Academy of Religion (AAR) is the world’s largest organization of scholars of religion with over 8,000 members. The AAR, both individually and in partnership with sibling institutions, issues statements in response to social or policy trends that it believes curtail or run counter to the values we uphold: promoting academic excellence, professional responsibility, free inquiry, critical examination, diversity, inclusion, respect, and transparency within the academic study of religion and in the work of the American Academy of Religion itself. The AAR has repeatedly called on its members, the broader academy, and all people to reject bigotry and violence, and to affirm the free practice of religion. We do so once again in this letter.
The recent presidential Executive Order “Combating Anti-Semitism” points to how the current administration intends to enforce Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 with regard to anti-Semitism. As part of this enforcement effort, the order directs federal agencies to “consider” the “non-legally binding working definition” of anti-Semitism that has been adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). The IHRA defines anti-Semitism as “a certain perception of Jews which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”
We denounce anti-Semitism in the strongest possible terms and work to combat it in our guild, on our campuses, and in the broader society. However, we are concerned that some of the “contemporary examples of anti-Semitism” cited by the IHRA could be used to suppress political speech and curb academic freedom, especially criticism of the policies of the state of Israel. Kenneth Stern, the lead author of the IHRA working definition, wrote in the New York Times in 2016 that the definition “was never supposed to curtail speech on campus.” We do not pretend that our membership is of a single opinion as regards the Israel-Palestine question. But we support our membership’s right to critically engage this issue in free and open debate, and are concerned about the effect the executive order may have on free speech in academic settings. As scholars of religion, we are all too aware of the power of religion to be used as a tool for sowing the seeds of division and hatred. All instances of bigotry and demagoguery—including that directed against Jews—should be monitored and they require the proper response. The AAR has a robust policy for responding to instances of discrimination and hate speech, as do our members’ institutions. While we are steadfast in opposing anti-Semitism, we fear that the recent executive order obfuscates rather than clarifies. We therefore urge the Trump administration to rescind the Executive Order.