Some audience members at Tuesday's County Council meeting held signs protesting the inclusion of the IHRA definition of antisemitism in a resolution under consideration by the council. Credit: Apps Bichu

County Council members voted unanimously Tuesday to pass a resolution to address and combat antisemitism in Montgomery County as supporters clapped and opponents protested. 

Those in favor of the resolution, which affirmed the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism, clapped loudly as opponents protested and booed the council.

IHRA defines antisemitism as “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

The council was scheduled to vote in July on the resolution, introduced by Council Member Andrew Friedson, but postponed a vote because of a backlash from community groups over the inclusion of the IHRA definition. The IHRA definition, which has been widely accepted by governments in the United States and internationally, has been criticized by some who say it encroaches on free speech and conflates criticism of the Israeli government with antisemitism.

In introducing the legislation Tuesday, Council President Gabe Albornoz spoke about the importance of standing up against antisemitism, which has been on the rise locally and nationally.

“Experts report that the incidence of harassment, vandalism and violence against Jewish people are at their highest levels since the 1920s,” he said. In Montgomery County, “85% of religious-biased incidents were antisemitic in nature in 2021, although our Jewish residents only make up 10% of our overall population.”

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“My colleagues have learned a great deal” since the resolution was introduced, he said. “It’s an effort to stand up to hate and to address and condemn antisemitism in our community and state and across this nation.” 

Albornoz said that since the resolution’s original introduction in the summer, the council had conversations with residents, faith leaders and stakeholders with a wide range of opinions on the resolution and worked to add amendments to incorporate their diverse views and perspectives.

As council members expressed their support for the amended resolution, Council Member Hans Riemer spoke out against the rising antisemitism in the community and on social media and said the goal of the resolution was to differentiate between debating issues for civil discussion and discussion that actively breeds and fosters antisemitic conversation.

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Councilmember Will Jawando also expressed his support for the resolution while acknowledging that public tensions and emotions were high.

“I understand the concerns that many in our community have expressed about the specific resolution,” Jawando said. “I plan to vote for the resolution because I believe in the overarching principles and stand to protect and define the rights and safety of our Jewish community.”

However, Jawando acknowledged that no matter what the outcome of the vote, people would be affected.

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“I want to express my dismay in the process that led us to today’s vote,” Jawando added. “It’s true that we do not typically have public input on resolutions, however, as we have seen from the amount of correspondence and the presence of so many here today, this resolution is on an issue that is deeply important to many, many residents.”

Those against the resolution booed during the session and shouted, “You’re making a mistake,” while supporters shushed them. The dissenters yelled that while they supported the fight against antisemitism, they did not agree with the resolution’s inclusion of the IHRA definition of antisemitism.

To address these concerns, Riemer said the resolution had been edited and amended in ways that he found helpful.

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He drew the council’s attention to point number 12 in the resolution which read, “’Modern forms of antisemitism manifests through anti-Zionism when denying the Jewish self-determination or employing an antisemitic trope. However, criticism of Israeli government policies or actions does not constitute antisemitism.”

Reimer said this definition was helpful to clarify that while criticizing the Israeli government’s policies or actions does not constitute antisemitism, people need to be wary of  criticism of Israeli policies that is accompanied by antisemitic tropes.

Friedson reaffirmed his commitment to the resolution that he had first introduced to the council during the summer.

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“For three months we’ve received feedback on this resolution in light of concerns raised and worked diligently on a series of language modifications to address them by reiterating protection of free speech and political debate, affirming the definition as an educational tool rather than adopting or endorsing it,” he said.

Councilmember Rice acknowledged the rising tensions in the room, noting that denouncing antisemitic rhetoric did not mean “the silencing of the criticism of the Israeli-Palestine conflict on both sides.”

Apps Bichu reports on growth and justice. She can be reached at apps.bichu@bethesdamagazine.com