Earlier this month the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party drew fire for adopting the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) definition of anti-semitism without adopting all the examples including in the IHRA guidance. It’s no surprise that supporters of Israel are enraged by this approach.
The IHRA definition, taken together with its examples, institutionalises the conflation of anti-semitism with anti-zionism and robust criticism of Israel. It wedges a propaganda foot in the door of liberal democracy as firmly as if it had been crafted to do so. It is at least as much an intervention in international relations as a contribution to the global struggle against racism. Because of that, supporters of the IHRA definition have had to bypass UN structures and instead create the appearance of international acceptance through a series of unilateral decisions by friendly governments. That fact alone should be a strong hint that the IHRA definition is a poor place to start in defining anti-semitism.
The UK Parliament’s Home Affairs Committee, in recommending in October 2016 that the UK Government should adopt the IHRA definition, added the caveat that the definition should include two additional statements1 to ensure that freedom of speech is maintained in the context of discourse about Israel and Palestine. The UK Government announced in its December 2016 response to the Home Affairs Committee that it was adopting the definition without any caveats, saying that the definition already provided sufficient protection for freedom of speech. The Scottish Government announced in June 2017 that it was formally adopting the IHRA definition of anti-semitism, and made no mention of any caveats.
The core text of the IHRA definition is:
“Antisemitism is 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.”
This is followed by some examples “to guide the IHRA in its work”. Some of the examples – holocaust denial, for instance – are clearly anti-semitic. Others are very problematic, for example:
“Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.”
But Israel’s nationality law, its conduct towards its Palestinian citizens and towards Palestinians in the occupied territories, and the Jewish nation-state law passed by the Knesset on 19 July all provide a basis on which it can reasonably and legitimately be argued that the State of Israel really is a racist endeavor. A 2017 report for the UN by Richard Falk concluded that Israel is at present an apartheid state (regrettably, the UN suppressed the report on the instruction of Secretary-General António Guterres, but it can be downloaded here). Analysis of Israel as a settler-colonial project – and therefore a racist endeavor – is an important and growing academic and political development. These matters will be central to any eventual resolution of the Israel-Palestine question. Categorising discussion of them as anti-semitic doesn’t just undermine freedom of speech in Scotland. It also tilts international negotiating tables in Israel’s favour.
According to the IHRA another example of anti-semitism is:
“Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.”
The effect is to give Israel unique protection, whatever human rights abuses it commits, to comparison with Nazis. Yet the Nazi regime and the Holocaust led to the creation of the whole present system of UN and EU human rights law. For some Jews who survived the Holocaust, or whose families died in it, Nazi policies are an even clearer touchstone of immorality than they are for others. Labelling such people as anti-semitic is deeply offensive, besides the harm that it does in choking off the lessons that can be learned from history.
This is exactly what happened at Manchester University in March 2017. Marika Sherwood, a survivor of the Budapest ghetto, was scheduled to give a talk titled “You’re doing to the Palestinians what the Nazis did to me”. The title was changed following representations to the university from the Israeli Embassy, who claimed that it fell within the IHRA definition of anti-semitism.
Marika Sherwood said: “I was just speaking of my experience of what the Nazis were doing to me as a Jewish child. I can’t say I’m a Palestinian, but my experiences as a child are not dissimilar to what Palestinian children are experiencing now.”
The effect of the IHRA guidelines is to strip people like her of the very basis on which they are asking for their voices to be heard.
The guidance is, of course, only guidance. But it can easily be argued that the UK and Scottish Governments, in adopting the IHRA definition, are also adopting the guidance. That appears to be precisely the view of the UK Government. It claims that the caveats recommended by the Home Affairs Committee are superfluous because freedom of speech is in any case protected by “references within the definition.” But the references are in fact contained within the guidance and are not part of the core text of the definition. As in much other discussion of the IHRA definition by those supporting it or seeking to apply it, the guidance is treated as if it were integral to the definition.
The argument is sometimes made to more critical audiences that the definition is acceptable because the problems are “only” in the guidance. This is simply disingenuous.
Governmental adoption of the IHRA definition will naturally lead public bodies, in the absence of guidance to the contrary, to turn to the IHRA for advice on how to apply the definition. This will at the very least have a chilling effect on discussions about Israel in schools, universities and other public spaces. It may very well lead to allegations of anti-semitism being levelled against teachers and students who are in fact opposed to all forms of racism and committed to upholding human rights. Since the definition is a matter of policy, not law, the smears and censorship will be triggered without the involvement of a court (though victims of the policy might be able to challenge it in court).
In political parties, it will embed a degree of support for Israel in the machinery of policy formation. Conference resolutions robustly critical of Israel will fall foul of the definition. Individual members who support Palestine will risk being smeared, suspended or excluded as “racists”. This has been happening for some time in the Labour Party. Many victims of the process have been anti-zionist Jews. Many of them happen also to be socialist, which may explain the enthusiasm of the Labour right for the IHRA definition.
The IHRA definition serves Israeli policy much better than it serves the struggle against anti-semitism. In 1996 the Coordinating Board of Jewish Organisations provided the UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance2 with a statement on anti-semitism. It began with the words:
“Anti-Semitism is an irrational hatred of the Jewish people. It starts with hostility, grows to prejudice, and from there to agitation, discrimination, and violence against Jews and Jewish institutions.”
This was followed by some historical background and some justified criticism of an earlier report by the Special Rapporteur. Nothing in the statement by the Board suggested that criticism of Israel should be regarded as anti-semitic.
Definitions of anti-semitism that shield Israel from criticism have subsequently been promoted through the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia and more recently through the IHRA. They entangle the struggle against anti-semitism in a hotly contested area of international affairs and have obstructed progress towards an internationally accepted definition. In his 2008 report3, the UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance states:
“The Special Rapporteur has observed that the systematic equation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism has the effect of making it more difficult to combat anti-Semitism. The equation of a political ideology, Zionism, with a form of racism reinforces the essentialist and reductive vision characteristic of a deep current of anti-Semitism denying the political and ideological diversity of the Jewish people and manifesting itself also in relation to Zionism. In its most political form, this identification leads to the characterization as anti-Semitic of any criticism of the State of Israel, in particular the different facets of its occupation of the Palestinian territories as defined by the United Nations. This tendency to construe opposition to a political ideology and the political actions of a State as racism targeted at a whole people is not only a denial of the democratic legitimacy of political criticism but also blurs the analysis and understanding of anti-Semitism, in particular any objective assessment of the anti-Semitism entering into anti-Zionism and criticism of the State of Israel.”
The IHRA definition embodies exactly the difficulties that the Special Rapporteur complained of. Proponents of the definition are now trying to get it established through a series of unilateral decisions by friendly national governments. The decisions to adopt the definition by the UK and Scottish Governments place them in the vanguard of this trend.
This article has been adapted, with updates and minor changes, from an article I wrote for the SACC website in September 2017. The SACC website is temporarily unavailable for technical reasons.
The additional statements were:
- It is not antisemitic to criticise the Government of Israel, without additional evidence to suggest antisemitic intent. -It is not antisemitic to hold the Israeli Government to the same standards as other liberal democracies, or to take a particular interest in the Israeli Government’s policies or actions, without additional evidence to suggest antisemitic intent.
These statements would have mitigated some of the problems created by the IHRC definition, but failed to address key issues such as the view that it is anti-semitic to describe Israel as racist state. ↩
Report by the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance to the Commission on Human Rights, E/CN.4/1996/72 15 February 1996, available for download via http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Racism/SRRacism/Pages/ReportsHRC.aspx ↩
Report by the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance to the Human Rights Council, A/HRC/9/122, September 2008, available for download via http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Racism/SRRacism/Pages/ReportsHRC.aspx ↩