Why Palestinians have a problem with the IHRA definition of ‘anti-Semitism’
If the average person is asked to define “anti-Semitism,” most would likely reply something like “hatred towards Jews because they are Jews.” It is safe to argue that “Israel” would not be mentioned in the same breath as “hatred towards Jews” in any traditional definition of anti-Semitism.
The Cambridge Dictionary defines anti-Semitism as “having or showing a strong dislike of Jewish people or treating them in a cruel and unfair way.” The Oxford Dictionary defines it as “hostility to or prejudice against Jews.”
This sets in context the reason supporters of Israel have been working to create a new definition to reflect what they consider to be the “new anti-Semitism,” one that would conflate anti-Semitism with opinions against Zionism, the founding ideology of Israel. This most certainly would include references to “Israel” in any such definition.
In 2005, the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) published a working definition of anti-Semitism as “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred towards Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed towards Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, towards Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”
It then brought Israel into the mix by stating: “In addition, such manifestations could also target the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity.”
Several examples were cited as to how anti-Semitism would manifest itself when related to the state of Israel, including “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour.”
While supporters of Israel referred to it as a definition, its stated purpose was to “provide a guide for identifying incidents, collecting data and supporting the implementation and enforcement of legislation dealing with anti-Semitism.”
In November 2013, the definition was removed from the organisation’s website in “a clear-out of non-official documents.” A spokesman stated that the document had never been viewed as a valid definition and that “we are not aware of any official definition.”
The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), which lists 31 countries as members, states that it “unites governments and experts to strengthen, advance and promote Holocaust education, research and remembrance and to uphold the commitments to the 2000 Stockholm Declaration.”
It produced a non-legally binding working definition: “Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred towards Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed towards Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, towards Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”
The IHRA went further stating: “The following examples may serve as illustrations: Manifestations might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity. However, criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic.”
Had the statement stopped at the clunky 38 words of the actual definition, then many people would have accepted it. However, once Israel is brought in, its potential effect stretches beyond Jews in any country and links them all to Israel, when many of them do not identify with it.
Scholars have argued that bringing Israel into the definition would affect the ability of the Palestinians to advocate for their rights. Brian Klug, a researcher in philosophy at St Benet’s Hall, Oxford, argued that the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia’s — and by implication the IHRA’s — definition “proscribed legitimate criticism of the human rights record of the Israeli government by attempting to bring criticism of Israel into the category of anti-Semitism and does not sufficiently distinguish between criticism of Israeli actions and criticism of Zionism as a political ideology, on the one hand, and racially based violence towards, discrimination against, or abuse of, Jews.”
An opinion by Hugh Tomlinson, QC, concluded that the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism is unclear and confusing and should be used with caution and, in an opinion prepared for the Palestinian Return Centre, Geoffrey Robertson, QC, said the definition of anti-Semitism adopted by the government is “not fit for purpose.”
The United Kingdom’s Conservative government has adopted the full IHRA definition. However, the British Labour Party, which has been engulfed in a controversy over anti-Semitism since Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader in September 2015, decided to develop its own code of conduct to deal with anti-Semitism in the party, based on the IHRA definition but clarifying and contextualising the examples related to Israel.
This brought the wrath of the pro-Israel lobby and raised the heat on Corbyn, who has been attacked by some party members for failing to adopt the IHRA definition in full.
While, in the past even Corbyn’s staunchest critics on the matter held back from accusing him of anti-Semitism, some, including MP Margret Hodge, have explicitly called him an anti-Semite. The controversy over anti-Semitism has reached a level that may split the party.
The reality is that Corbyn’s record on fighting racism, including anti-Semitism is exemplary. So why the attacks on him? The answer lies in his support for Palestinian rights, for an end to the suffering of the Palestinians and for recognition of a Palestinian state.
The conflation of anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism suits Israel. Its supporters have suggested — without evidence or justification — that the UK Jewish community would face an existential threat from a Corbyn-led government. The message to the British electorate is not to vote Labour while Corbyn is its leader.
The Labour Party’s adoption of the IHRA definition, including all 11 illustrative examples, was a huge blow to the Palestinians and their supporters. They said they fear it would restrict their ability to describe events leading to the creation of Israel, which they consider a racist endeavour. This is despite the party’s National Executive Committee adding that it would not “in any way undermine freedom of expression on Israel or the rights of the Palestinians.” This statement has been seen by Israel-supporters as a farce. Richard Angell, director of the centre-left Progress group, said: “The Jewish community made it clear and simple to Labour: Pass the IHRA definition in full — no caveats, no compromises.”
While the controversy is currently about the Labour Party, the effect of the adoption of the IHRA definition in full is chilling in that it is designed to curtail criticism of Israel. There has been no assessment made to measure how this would affect the Palestinian people’s ability to campaign for their rights, denied by Israel, without fear that they or their supporters would be accused of anti-Semitism.
It is important to note that the Palestinian people, who have been the victims of the creation of the state of Israel in their homeland and without their permission, have not been consulted about any definition of anti-Semitism that brings Israel into the equation.
While the Labour Party consulted with British Palestinians and solidarity groups about its code, which advised the National Executive Committee against its adoption, it adopted it, raising fears that legitimate criticism of Israel at its inception and its policies may be called anti-Semitism by pro-Israel groups despite the additional statement. This could lead to their suspension or expulsion or at least smear them as racists while an investigation takes place.
Attention turns to other public bodies that will be pressured to follow Labour and adopt the IHRA definition in full. They, too, should be cautious about taking steps through the adoption of the IHRA definition that could curtail discussion on the effect of the creation of the state of Israel through ethnic cleansing and dispossession and its policies on the Palestinian people. This is particularly important now that Israel passed the Nation-State Law, which confirms its apartheid status.