VCHR Questions the Education Recommendations of Governor Youngkin’s Commission to Combat Antisemitism in Virginia

The Virginia Coalition for Human Rights (VCHR) questions many of the recommendations put forward by Governor Youngkin’s Commission to Combat Antisemitism in Virginia in its report1 of December 5, 2022. First, VCHR is troubled by the formation of the Commission itself which was biased in the selection of its members and failed to include members of the Jewish community who do not support the use of the “International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance” (IHRA) definition of antisemitism. Governor Youngkin’s Executive Order 8 called for the establishment of this Commission explicitly citing the use of the IHRA definition of antisemitism2. The IHRA definition has been widely opposed because it falsely conflates antisemitism with constitutionally protected criticism of Israel and Israeli human rights abuses. It distorts historical facts in an attempt to erase Palestinian history and narrative.

Many of the report’s recommendations, as listed below, are antithetical to the principles of equal justice, freedom of thought, and universal human rights; and have the effect of censoring, omitting, and obfuscating historical facts related to Israeli human rights abuses. Furthermore, VCHR believes that the education recommendations in the report run counter to the Board’s Guiding Principle #3: an effective history and social science education should incorporate diverse perspectives to encourage honest and informed academic discussion. Therefore, we conclude that the Virginia Board of Education should not adopt the recommendations found in the final report of the Governor’s commission, and we respectfully request the Virginia Board of Education to reject these recommendations.

The following is a list of the Commission’s education recommendations which VCHR finds most objectionable, with our response to each.

Commission Recommendation: “Adoption and Implementation of International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition3

The IHRA definition is problematic and is well documented as being used to censor, intimidate, and defame Palestinians and advocates for Palestinian rights by conflating antisemitism with legitimate criticism of Israel4,5,6,7,8,9. It also infringes on the first amendment right to free speech.

Furthermore, the IHRA definition incorporates seven out of eleven examples that would chill valid criticism of Israeli policies and practices toward Palestinians. In fact, multiple human rights organizations have determined that these policies and practices meet the legal definition of apartheid, a crime against humanity. The lead author of the IHRA definition, Kenneth Stern, has objected to its use in this way12,13, as do many Jewish organizations and religious leaders10,11.

If there is a need to use a definition, there are other more accurate definitions of antisemitism14,15, such as the definition developed by Independent Jewish Voices16 which notes that “fighting and educating against antisemitism must . . . be part of a larger struggle against all group hatred and discrimination.” Furthermore, Jewish Voice for Peace17 and other advocacy groups have correctly noted that “defining antisemitism does not do the urgently needed work of dismantling antisemitism and all forms of racism.” Instead, the IHRA definition dilutes such efforts and fails to make Jews safer. With its focus on policing speech related to Israel, the IHRA definition diverts attention from real antisemitism, most of which is committed by extreme right-wing racist individuals and organizations, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, rather than by Palestinians and human rights organizations and advocates, against which the IHRA definition is most often leveraged18,19.

Commission Recommendation: “Expand Holocaust Standards of Learning”

Several of the subpoints of this recommendation are problematic:

·        Subpoint 4: “Require that the Holocaust remains its own substandard.”

Any discussion of the Holocaust should include the fact that other minorities were also exterminated by the Nazis. Discussion of the Holocaust should also explore the connections between German and American racism in the years leading up to World War II; and US complicity in denying entry to Jewish and other refugees during the Holocaust.

·        Subpoint 5: “Require history standards to mention the post-war culmination of the 50-year quest to recreate a safe homeland for the Jewish people in their ancestral land.”

The blanket assumption that the Jewish people were united in a quest for self-determination, or that they were “entitled to recreate” a homeland without regard to the impact on the people already living there contradicts modern humanitarian law and practice. Judaism was not and is not a monolithic phenomenon either within Israel or in the diaspora. While there are understandable and valid arguments for creating a safe refuge following WWII, that end does not justify the destruction of the pre-existing culture and the denial of that population’s basic human needs.

·        Subpoint 6: “Eliminating any reference to genocides in the Virginia Social Studies Standards of Learning other than those already recognized internationally under the 1948 Convention on Genocide.”

This recommendation fails to specify to which genocides the Convention on Genocide refers. It precludes any conversation about possible genocides that have not yet received legal recognition, but which incorporate practices that conform to one or more parts of the definition20. Preventing discussions about whether the definition applies in any variety of cases deprives students of the opportunity to look at past or current events through a variety of lenses. Among these might be a discussion of what prompted African Americans to accuse the US of practicing genocide against its black population. This recommendation appears to be designed to prohibit students from considering whether any political state’s practices rise to the level of genocide in the present or future, interfering with a student’s ability to explore ongoing historical fact.

Commission Recommendation: “Include Study of Judaism in World History”

In keeping with the Virginia Board of Education’s guidance to incorporate diverse perspectives, this recommendation should include the study of Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Native American religions, and others along with Judaism. Judaism is not the only religion that brings important understandings to the intellectual and cultural life of Virginians. A breadth of information will enable Virginia’s students to interact knowledgeably and without prejudice when encountering citizens and residents of other cultures. Other considerations in this recommendation:

·        Subpoint: “Students should learn about the development of ancient Israel as a civilization.”

The study of ancient Israel must be accompanied by a study of the variety of ancient peoples and kingdoms that also made the region home. The Canaanites, who occupied the territory prior to the Israelites, were the first to invent and use a sound/symbol alphabet21 the foundation for the later Greek, Hebrew, Phoenician, and Latin alphabets.

·        Subpoint: “Students should learn about the creation of Israel in modern-day and its impact geographically and economically in the Middle East and globally.”

Any teaching must include accurate information, including that Israel was created on Palestinian-owned land and that approximately 800,000 people were forcibly expelled or terrorized into fleeing from their homes and not allowed to return, losing land, businesses, families, wealth, and security. They became refugees, a status that is unresolved 75 years later. The losses remain ongoing due to Israeli policies and practices. Students cannot make sense of the strife in Israel-Palestine without this information. Israel currently benefits from $3.8 billion in US aid annually. Students should understand the extent to which their own government financially supports Israeli practices and policies and declines to hold Israel responsible for human rights violations.

Commission Recommendation: “Create Curricula for Jewish Days of Recognition.”

In keeping with the SOL Guiding Principle #3, alongside creating materials and providing teacher training for teaching Jewish days of recognition and Jewish Heritage month, provision must be made to create comparable materials and teacher training for holidays and heritage months for Arab Americans, Asian American Pacific Islanders, Native Americans, Hispanics and African Americans. All these groups have helped create the great tapestry which continues to strengthen our American culture.

·        Subpoint: “Commonwealth recognizing Israel’s 75th anniversary on May 14, 2023.”

One group’s celebration is another’s catastrophe. Recognition of Israel’s 75th anniversary must be accompanied by a recognition of the Palestinian Nakba. Students must understand the extent of the destruction of Palestinian cities, towns, villages, the annexation of land and natural resources and the impact on the indigenous people because of the creation of the state of Israel. Students should be aware that with the establishment of the modern state of Israel, the British and the League of Nations broke their promises to the Palestinian people regarding ending the British Mandate and allowing the Palestinian people to have an independent state. 22,23,24

Commission Recommendation: “Increase Educator Access to Antisemitism Non-Profits and Materials.”

The Commission’s suggested list of resources is limited to a very narrow point of view, and all use the IHRA definition of antisemitism as a starting point for any discussion of antisemitism. Increasing access to antisemitism materials must include other definitions and approaches to combatting antisemitism and must also be accompanied by an equal increase in access to materials related to Islamophobia and discrimination against all other ethnic and racial groups in Virginia. Care should be taken to ensure that antisemitism materials avoid conflating criticism of Israel with antisemitism.

Commission Recommendation: “Ban Academic Boycotts. The Governor should issue an executive order prohibiting universities from implementing academic boycotts of foreign countries except for those subject to national security prohibitions.”

Prohibiting universities from implementing academic boycotts of foreign countries is a violation of both the US and Virginia Constitutions and the protections they provide for freedom of speech. It was boycotts around the world – including on US campuses, that allowed black South Africans to escape the shackles of apartheid. Penalizing universities and their communities (faculty, students, employees, surrounding community) for engaging in academic boycotts and exercising their right to free speech runs counter to the higher education goals of teaching students to think critically, of encouraging them to be curious and seek new knowledge and of challenging their beliefs by exposing them to different viewpoints.

Commission Recommendation: “Prohibit Indoctrination in Public Education.”

This recommendation fails to define “indoctrination.” Descriptions of lived reality for some can be and are labeled as indoctrination by others. Accordingly, this recommendation is too vague and opens the door to censorship of the lived experience of many different groups of people, including African Americans, Native Americans, Arabs, Muslims, and Palestinians.

Commission Recommendation: “Ban Public Entities from Adopting and Practicing BDS”

Banning public entities from practicing Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions is an unconstitutional infringement on people’s right to freedom of expression. We also reject the characterization of BDS as a hate movement. BDS upholds the principle that Palestinians are entitled to the same rights as the rest of the world’s people. It aims to pressure Israel to comply with international law. It is not based on hate but on human rights. The failure of serious progress towards achieving equal human rights for Palestinians and the increasingly draconian systems of control employed by Israel lie at the heart of Palestinian calls for economic penalties.

Conclusion: VCHR offers to work with the Board of Education to address the concerns that have been listed above. VCHR believes that the recommendations of the Governor’s commission create an opening for potential overt and/or covert discriminatory practices within the Virginia public education system. They promote a situation in which exclusive focus is placed on the interests and concerns of a portion of the Jewish community as they relate to Israel, while ignoring the legitimate interests and concerns of Palestinians and human rights advocates in Virginia.

The Virginia Coalition for Human Rights (VCHR) is a broadly based coalition that advocates for Palestinian human rights. We support and defend universal human rights, equal rights, free speech (including the right to boycott and other forms of economic protest) and academic freedom. We believe that the attainment of human rights and civil rights requires an open and free debate, and we object to any efforts to curtail or forestall such debate by placing limits on free speech or academic freedom. We oppose all types of racism, oppression, and violations of international law wherever they occur; and we also oppose hate speech and any type of discrimination based on race, religion, ethnicity, or national origin, wherever it may occur, domestically or abroad. We celebrate our diversity and strongly oppose any manifestation of racism against anyone.


1 “Combating Antisemitism in Virginia, Report of the Commission to Combat Antisemitism,” The Commission to Combat Antisemitism, accessed on January 23, 2023,

2 EO 8 - Commission to Combat Antisemitism.docx (,

3 “IHRA Working Definition of antisemitism”, International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, accessed on January 23, 2023,

4 The-Practice-of-Suppressing-Palestinian-Rights-Advocacy-FINAL-PP.pdf (,  European Legal Support Center (ELSC) - June 2023

5 “The Palestine Exception to Free Speech: A Movement Under Attack in the US” The Palestine Exception — Palestine Legal, (Palestine Legal and Center for Constitutional Right, 2015)

6 Distorted Definition: Silencing Advocacy for Palestinian Rights — Palestine Legal,

7 Human Rights Watch Letter to Co-Sponsors of Proposed ABA Resolution 514 on Antisemitism (1/26/2023),

8 “On Targeting an Arab Woman,” By Lara Sheehi (Counterpunch, February 3, 2023),

9 “Weaponising Anti-Semitism: How the Israel Lobby Brought Down Jeremy Corbyn” by Asa Winstanley, ISBN-13 978-1682193815 (OR Books, May 30, 2023)

10 “128 scholars warn: ‘Don’t trap the United Nations in a vague and weaponized definition of antisemitism,’” EU Observer (11/3/2022),

11 Progressive Israel Network Groups Oppose Codification of IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism, Citing Strong Potential for Misuse - Progressive Israel Network (1/12/20212),

12 Kenneth S. Stern, “Should a major university system have a particular definition of anti-Semitism?” Jewish Journal, TRIBE Media Corp., June 22, 2015,

13 Correspondent of the Day: Anti-Semitism legislation bad idea - by Kenneth Stern (2/3/2017),

14 Palestine Legal Welcomes Ed Dept's Decision to Combat Antisemitism Without IHRA Definition In New Factsheet — Palestine Legal,

15 FACT SHEET: Protecting Students from Discrimination Based on Shared Ancestry or Ethnic Characteristics,

16 “IJV Working Definition of Antisemitism,” Independent Jewish Voices, Accessed on June 2, 2023,

17 “5 Principles for Dismantling Antisemitism,” Jewish Voice for Peace, April 6, 2021,


19 David Horowitz | Southern Poverty Law Center (,

20 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide,” United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect, accessed on January 23, 2023,

21 Canaan and Ancient Israel: Daily Life – Writing,” The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Art and Archaeology, accessed on January 23, 2023,

22 “The Hundred Years' War on Palestine: A History of Settler Colonialism and Resistance, 1917–2017,” by Rashid Khalidi (Metropolitan Books, January 28, 2020)

23 “The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine,” by Ilan Pappe (Oneworld Publications, September 1, 2007)

24 “The Question of Palestine” by Edward W. Said (Vintage, April 7, 1992)