It is not news that the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism is considered problematic by many.
Although the primary text contains a simple and understandable description of Antisemitism as “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews”, this is followed by a misleading list of 11 examples that frequently blur the boundaries between statements about the State of Israel and about Jews as such. As a reminder, here are the most problematic of these:
7. 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.
8. Applying double standards by requiring of it a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.
9. Using the symbols and images associated with classic Antisemitism (e.g., claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterise Israel or Israelis.
10. Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.
11. Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the State of Israel.
Re point 7: Referring to “the Jewish people” is problematic in itself; for many centuries, there have been Jews all over the globe, whether in Eastern Europe, Iran, Ethiopia or the entire Arab world. In the light of this ethnic diversity, it is a severe simplification to speak of one ‘people’ – a simplification that Antisemites are only too happy to employ.
Accordingly, it is also problematic to speak of “self-determination”. French Jews enjoy self-determination as citizens of France, Jews in the USA are self-determined US citizens, and so forth. This characterisation suggests, then, that the Jewish citizens of all these states really belong somewhere else, namely Israel.
Furthermore, this notion of Jewish self-determination obscures the situation of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, who are genuinely denied such self-determination.
A self-determination that demands the racist oppression of a substantial proportion of the population (see the report by B’tselem of 12 January 2021, which speaks explicitly of ‘apartheid’) cannot be justified in any way.
Re point 8: It is anything but a double standard to expect Israel to follow the norms of international law and human rights. When people in Turkey or China are arrested for specious reasons, this is rightly criticized by the international community, including the EU.
It is a matter of course, however, for Israel’s occupation regime to arrest Palestinians, including minors, without charge – often in midnight raids – and extract confessions of non-existent crimes by means of physical and psychological torture, imprisoning them indefinitely and denying them legal counsel.
There is plentiful evidence proving this. Acts which are condemned as violations of human rights when carried out by other states are tolerated when they occur under Israeli rule. The bombing of civilians in the Gaza Strip has triggered a few expressions of concern, but the EU has never put pressure on Israel.
While Russia’s annexation of Crimea was seen as a breach of international law and led to the imposition of sanctions by various countries, Israel never has to fear comparable steps despite having carried out land theft for over 70 years, annexing the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem in 1980 and openly discussing a formal annexation of the West Bank.
There certainly is a double standard – in Israel’s favour! And yet the definition states: “However, criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic.” This is not only contradicted by the IHRA document itself, but most of all by the practices that are predicated on it.
Re point 9: To be sure, long-familiar symbols and images are used with Antisemitic intent. There is, however, a tendency towards a blanket application of this interpretation that sees stereotypes where there are none.
When an estimated 500 children were killed during the 51-day bombardment of the Gaza Strip in 2014, it was understandable that some spoke of ‘child-murdering Israel’. The medieval trope of the vampiric, well-poisoning Jew was based not on actual killings but on Antisemitic prejudice; the same cannot be said in the case of the massacres in Gaza.
It is expected, then, that shocking injustices be described in the most tactful, value-free terms, while other states are not afforded this privilege – a further double standard. Wells in the Occupied Territories are sabotaged in order to divert water into Jewish settlements, which is a material attack on Palestinian existence.
Of course, Antisemites can draw on such associations. But this cannot be a reason to restrict freedom of expression in response to factual criticisms.
Re point 10: Nazi comparisons are not pleasant, but they quickly come to mind because Israel was founded in the wake of the Holocaust and the Holocaust played an important part in justifying this (although efforts towards statehood began decades earlier).
Even Jews who were themselves subject to Nazi persecution have sometimes made this comparison, such as the German poet Erich Fried, who lamented with passion and rage in his collection Hear, O Israel (1972) that the persecuted had become persecutors.
Likewise, the former Auschwitz inmate Hajo Meyer made comparisons between the Israeli occupation and National Socialist policies in the 1930s. Even Yair Golan, a former Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the Israel Defense Forces, has drawn parallels in public statements between trends in Israeli society and 1930s Germany.
The commentary in the EU Handbook for the practical use of the IHRA working definition of antisemitism claims that such comparisons are made to “suggest that Israel, Israelis or Jews must be stopped by force, just as were the Nazis”. Rather, they serve to point out what some feel is a historical irony and tragedy. The validity of such comparisons must be assessed from case to case, and they can certainly be used as a pretext to express hatred of Jews.
Here one simply has to look closely at the argumentation and the facts, rather than reflexively dismissing such comparisons – after all, comparisons are common and necessary in the study of history.
Re point 11: This point shows how a correct principle can be applied in the wrong way. Of course, Jews as a whole, who display a wealth of different opinions, identities and political orientations, should never be equated with the State of Israel. Some of them justify its policies, others condemn them. But this is precisely what much pro-Israel argumentation does, not least in the IHRA document, as if the world’s Jews were a monolithic bloc.
Reading any statement on Israel as a potential or almost certain statement about Jews as such only serves to reinforce this association. If Jews are not to be held responsible for Israeli policy, people must stop treating them as its representatives.
Only through such an analysis can one understand what makes the EU Handbook dangerous. In principle, it seems sensible enough to formulate a definition as well as guidelines for its implementation. Yet the serious distortions and contradictions in the definition and examples mean that any guidelines which follow it uncritically will inevitably lead to behaviour that subjects individuals and organisations to false accusations.
The Handbook provides numbered case examples to illustrate the list of manifestations of Antisemitism. Some of these require no comment: death threats or phrases like ‘fucking Jew’ speak for themselves. But where the definition itself misses the mark, the case examples must also be wrong. Consider the following:
7. Advertisements in London bearing the statement “The State of Israel is a racist endeavour”.
The language is harsh. However, because Israel is an ethnocracy that, even within the official state territory, denies Palestinians self-determination and has enshrined this in the Nation-State Law of 2018, there is a case for this choice of words. Ultimately, it is a matter of style.
8. The commentary states that criticism of other countries rarely involves a denial of their right to exist. What it fails to mention is that the very notion of a right to exist, which has no meaning in international law, is never even brought up when speaking of other states, and it is largely a straw man introduced by supporters of Israel.
Accordingly, a satirical meme bearing the suggestion to move Israel to the USA makes little sense as a case example. The image is intended to criticize the USA’s unconditional support for Israel, which sometimes leads people to call it the 51st US state in jest.
9. To demonstrate the use of Antisemitic stereotypes, the Handbook presents a German newspaper cartoon from 2018 in which Prime Minister Netanyahu is portrayed with “oversized nose, ears and lips”.
Aside from the fact that caricatures always accentuate the features of the caricatured person, the figure clearly resembles the prime minister, with very little exaggeration. The Star of David on the missile refers to the Israeli flag, which is hardly unusual for a state-used weapon.
The words in the speech bubble, which are not actually mentioned in the EU Handbook – the traditional Passover saying “Next year in Jerusalem” – refer to the fact that Netanyahu, going against diplomatic conventions, wanted to hold the following year’s Eurovision Song Contest in Jerusalem, which would have been a provocation owing to the city’s disputed status. So the description removes everything that is specific about the cartoon in order to assert its fixation on possible stereotypes.
10. The case example for Nazi comparisons is an incident in which a ‘Free Gaza’ sticker was placed on a Holocaust memorial.
It is wrong to play off the suffering of Palestinians against the suffering of persecuted Jews, but the parallel is logical enough if one contrasts German sorrow over the Holocaust with German indifference to the still-ongoing oppression of Palestinians. A reflection on this double standard could, in fact, help to ensure that there is no longer such competition for acknowledgement. But the document says nothing whatsoever about this context.
One striking feature of the EU Handbook is that it does not mention the BDS movement (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) when it is precisely this campaign that has become the main target for pro-Israel individuals and organisations. Only in passing does the document refer, in the category of Antisemitic crimes, to ‘various forms of threats and discriminatory behaviour such as calls for boycotts based on ethnic, religious, and/or national background’.
The non-violent tool of boycott, recognised under humanitarian law, is categorised as a form of violence without any need for discussion. The absence of references to discriminatory anti-BDS measures, which in Germany are based partly on the parliamentary anti-BDS resolution of 2019 – which, according to the German Parliament’s own expert commission, would be unconstitutional if enshrined as an actual law – allows the document’s authors to avoid referring to the widespread restrictions on freedom of speech in connection with BDS.
Next, the Handbook presents a list of “Good Practice Examples” from different countries that are meant to demonstrate successful applications of the IHRA definition.
One of the examples from Germany is the establishment of the office of Antisemitism Commissioner for the State of Berlin. What is not mentioned, however, is that the person holding this office, Samuel Salzborn, brazenly denied the internationally acknowledged expulsion of an estimated 750,000 Palestinians that led up to the founding of Israel in a supposedly ‘academic’ article.
Salzborn wrote “Palestine #Antisemitism“. If this had a complex meaning behind it, as you assume, the absence of clarification is utterly irresponsible gaslighting. Also reading his other works he’s simply a mordernismus fetischist that doesn’t deserve attention.
— Nathan Andrew Fain (public) (@nathanafain) August 17, 2020
Salzborn rejects the word ‘Islamophobia’ as an ‘attack term’ and holds the opinion that if one is on a train and someone is having a discussion featuring the word ‘Palestine’, one should either scream at them or disembark. That such a purveyor of hate speech should be employed to combat discrimination is a shameful exhibition of incompetence, and the Handbook ultimately serves to affirm such behaviour.
Samuel Salzborn correctly points out antisemitism in Germany, but to the cost that he is uses racist terms wrt Hamas, Hisbollah etc.
— Levia Tan (@leviasign) May 16, 2016
Mention is also made of the German Rectors’ Conference, which officially adopted the IHRA definition in November 2019.
Here one finds the catchphrase “Israel-related Antisemitism”, which is eagerly wielded by those who would seek to prevent all Palestine solidarity. It also appears in another example concerning a declaration by the Austrian Parliament, which has in other statements referred without explanation to the “Antisemitic BDS movement”.
The use of the two phrases goes naturally together, since “Israel-related Antisemitism” leaves no real space to challenge Israeli policy without being considered Antisemitic.
The final entry in the list of “Good Practice Examples” refers to the work of the Research and Information Centre for Antisemitism (RIAS) in Berlin, whose remit is the reporting and documentation of Antisemitic incidents.
The recent documentary film Censoring Palestine demonstrated how low the RIAS threshold actually is.
On camera, the film’s presenter makes a phone call to the RIAS to report a potential Antisemitic incident: sitting in a café, he has heard people discussing Palestine and BDS at a neighbouring table.
The person on the phone advises him that because calls for boycott are considered Antisemitic, a publicly audible statement in this direction could very well be an Antisemitic incident and he should pay them a visit. How can one take statistics on Antisemitic incidents seriously when even such situations are counted?
As a Jewish organisation that stands against racism and for justice, both at home and in the Middle East, we find this development very troubling. Through the EU Handbook, the deficiencies of the IHRA definition are further consolidated as the practical yardstick for fighting Antisemitism.
Even the main author of the definition, Kenneth Stern, has spoken out against its use as a means of suppressing free speech, as it is increasingly used to justify silencing Palestine solidarity activists and restricting their space of action as far as possible.
How is this supposed to help fight Antisemitism? It is not in the interests of Jews for the real meaning of Antisemitism, namely hostility and discrimination towards Jews, to be conflated with factual, critical arguments and for human rights activists – many of them Jewish – to be smeared as racists.
Instead of standing by the Israeli occupation and the oppression of Palestinians time and again, the EU would do better to follow its own supposed principles, which are based on international law and human rights!