In October 2023, the newly-launched Institute for the Critical Study of Zionism (ICSZ) will host a two-day conference, “Battling the ‘IHRA definition’: Theory & Activism,” to “explore the political, historical, and cultural conditions that enable IHRA [International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance] campaigns, and share theoretical insights and organizing tools to support resistance.”  The conference will feature eight panels on “theorizing, mapping, and political education,” as well as “share materials, and focus on building attendees’ support networks to push back on IHRA campaigns.”

The IHRA working definition of antisemitism, represents the international consensus definition of this hateful ideology. It is based on similar texts composed in reaction to the antisemitic UN Durban conference on racism in 2001. Forty governments, as well as thousands of intergovernmental and local institutions, have adopted and endorsed the IHRA framework as the cornerstone to guide their policies in combating antisemitism.

The ICSZ conference is related to broader NGO campaigning seeking to discredit and replace  the IHRA working definition.These concerted efforts have emerged precisely as NGO antisemitism has become a central feature of political discourse about Israel and Zionism. Many NGOs that claim to represent human rights and humanitarian values instead promulgate antisemitic rhetoric and tropes, tolerate antisemitism from executives and staff with little to no repercussions, and consistently dismiss consideration of antisemitism as a human rights issue. 

About ICSZ

In August 2023, two activists from US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI),1 San Francisco State University Professor Rabab Abdulhadi and University of Massachusetts Boston Professor Heike Schotten, co-authored an article explaining the rationale for launching ICSZ. They described the Institute as “explicitly anti-Zionist” and “strictly committed to abiding by the BDS picket line.” Abdulhadi and Schotten additionally link the Institute to “the long history of struggle” against efforts to “conflate Zionist politics and ideology with Jews or Jewishness.”  

According to its “Points of Unity,” ICSZ affirmed that “Zionism is a settler colonial racial project. Like the US, Israel is a settler colonial state. The Institute opposes Zionism and colonialism, and abides by the international, Palestinian-led call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions.”  ICSZ strives to be “the first step toward establishing a new academic discipline that will wrest the study of Zionism from its “presumed exclusive location in Jewish Studies…Critical Zionism Studies…does not simply interpret the world but also works to change it” (emphasis added).

ICSZ plans on granting “annual fellowships for students and academics, conferences, [and] publications.”

NGOs Co-sponsoring the Conference

ICSZ is coordinating its conference with a host of anti-Israel NGOs.

According to ICSZ, “The organizing collective is thrilled to be working with such an incredible, powerful, and varied set of co-sponsors.” Pro-BDS NGO co-sponsors include the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), Friends of Sabeel North America, Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP),  USACBI, Sparkplug Foundation,2 and various branches of Students for Justice in Palestine.

Founding Collective of the Institute – NGO Officials and anti-Israel Campaigners

Members of the founding collective have histories of ideological bias against Israel.

Rabab Abdulhadi  – In 2018, claimed that “welcoming Zionists on campus” amounts to “a declaration of war against Arabs, Muslims, [and] Palestinians.” 

In 2017, the Lawfare Project filed a lawsuit against Abdulhadi and San Francisco State University “under grounds of anti-Semitism for Abdulhadi’s assertion in Palestinian rights.” Before the lawsuit was settled, the university president issued a statement that Abdulhadi’s rhetoric was “contrary” to the university’s “principles of inclusion, thoughtful intellectual discourse, and sharing of ideas that are central to our academic environment.” 

In 2020 and 2021, Abdulhadi intended to participate in webinars with Leila Khaled, a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP)  responsible for multiple airline hijackings. Following public criticism, the events were canceled. In September 2020, SFSU’s student news site reported that Abdulhadl stated, “We really idolize somebody like Leila Khaled, somebody who actually stands up for herself, speaks for herself, actually goes to a plane and hijacks it.” In 2022, Abdulhadl moderated another webinar featuring Khaled, who was unable to attend due to technical difficulties. The event did feature Sami Al-Arian, who was “indicted and struck a plea deal in 2003 over his alleged affiliation with Islamic Jihad.”

Emmaia Gelman – Director of the Institute, has signed petitions pressuring educational institutions to “support the academic and cultural boycott of Israeli academic institutions.” 

Gelman, alongside two other relatives,3 serves as a trustee of the Sparkplug Foundation, one of the Institute’s sponsors. 

Heike Schotten – A professor at University of Massachusetts-Boston, is a member of USACBI’s Steering Collective.  

She has promoted BDS campaigns, claiming that “If the academic boycott of Israel means anything at all, it means refusing to normalize settler colonialism, military occupation, and racial apartheid.”  In July 2023, Schotten was a signatory on a statement to the UK government highlighting the “ongoing British complicity in and responsibility for the colonization of Palestine, from the Balfour Declaration to the present…[as] Britain has been an accessory to the Israeli apartheid regime for many consecutive governments.”

Dalit/Dov Baum – Co-founder of Who Profits and the Director of Economic Activism at AFSC, two organizations that publish information that serves as the basis of BDS campaigns against corporations.4 

In July 2023, Baum spoke at a UN Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People (CEIRPP) event, calling “reinstate the Special Committee Against Apartheid to investigate the crime of apartheid in the 21st century…including in Israel, Palestine, and with it also the role of corporations and their commitments to human rights in the state of apartheid.”

Lau Barrios – Campaign Manager at MPower Change,5 is the co-organizer of the No Tech for Apartheid Campaign that called on Google and Amazon to “end all ties with Israeli apartheid ” and to cancel its contract with the Israeli government. 

Lisa Duggan – Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University (NYU), signed petitions calling for NYU to divest from companies doing business with Israel. 

Duggan defended Rasmea Odeh, signing a statement “recogniz[ing] her as a leader in the international struggle to empower women” and “honor[ing] her decades of feminist activism on behalf of Arab and Muslim immigrant women living in poverty.” Rasmea Odeh, a PFLP operative, was convicted for immigration fraud in the US after concealing her role in two bombings in Israel. 

In April 2016, Duggan was named in a lawsuit by the American Studies Association claiming that Duggan and other defendants advanced a boycott of Israel and “misappropriat[ed] assets raised for an agreed upon purpose and illegally using the organization to advance a completely separate and personal agenda.”