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Jewish academics’ new anti-Semitism definition challenges the IHRA draft

March 29, 2021 at 9:27 am

Demonstrators hold placards as they protest against antisemitism in central London on September 4, 2018 [DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP via Getty Images]

A war of words has erupted after more than two hundred Jewish academics launched the most damning indictment to date of a controversial definition of anti-Semitism which has itself been adopted by thirty-four countries, countless universities, political parties and hundreds of various institutions and authorities. In drawing up a new definition, the hope is that the old one — which equates legitimate criticism of Israel and Zionism with a hatred of Jews — will be abandoned.

According to its critics, the discredited International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition is being weaponised to suppress free speech and support for the Palestinians in their struggle for justice. The Jewish scholars, historians and academics from around the world have responded to the flawed IHRA definition by offering up an alternative called the Jerusalem Declaration on Anti-Semitism (JDA). The list of signatories is impressive and includes Barry Trachtenberg, who advised the US House Judiciary Committee to reject codifying into law definitions of anti-Semitism such as those that were contained in the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act in 2018 which was being discussed by Congress.

At the time he objected to the language of the bill, which was based on the definition of anti-Semitism proposed by the IHRA. Ever since its adoption, the pro-Israel lobby and Zionists have used it to silence supporters of the Palestinian cause, including academics and scholars such as Professor David Miller, film director Ken Loach and numerous Labour Party politicians and members in Britain. It has also been wielded as a big stick to criminalise the peaceful Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) around the world.

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One of the most active pro-Palestinian groups in Britain gave a “cautious” welcome to the Jerusalem Declaration. “It undoes much of the damage wrought by the Israeli government-led deployment of the IHRA definition to weaponise fake anti-Semitism accusations against supporters of Palestinian freedom,” said Mick Napier, a founder member of the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign.

“Despite some weaknesses identified by Palestinian civil society critics, the Declaration demonstrates how many of the assertions made by the pro-Israel lobby are both baseless and sinister,” he explained. “For example the mantra that anti-Zionism — opposition to a political creed and its attendant programme of ethnic cleansing — equates to hatred of a people. A recent report from the largest Israeli human rights organisation, B’Tselem, said that the Israeli state operates ‘a regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea: This is Apartheid.’ Together with the Jerusalem Declaration, this must be an acute embarrassment for those like the Scottish government, that have followed the Westminster Tory government by accepting the bogus and increasingly discredited IHRA definition.”

Barry Trachtenberg, the Rubin Presidential Chair of Jewish History at Wake Forest University and a member of the Academic Advisory Board of Jewish Voice for Peace, wrote an article a few days ago in which he pointed out that the IHRA definition suppressed protected speech. He said that he was also concerned with the possibility that legislation based on the IHRA definition would inadvertently reinforce perceptions of Jewish exceptionalism. “By claiming that there was a need for a set of standards that was distinct from existing civil rights legislation and which defined what could and couldn’t be said about Jews, I argued, Congress not only risked putting unconstitutional limits on free speech but also risked reinforcing the idea that Jews are a people for whom special rules need to be made.”

Carlos Latuff's cartoon - Criticisms of Israel labelled as antisemitism [Twitter]

Criticisms of Israel labelled as antisemitism – Cartoon [Carlos Latuff/Twitter]

Trachtenberg has long argued that at “the core of anti-Jewish hatred rests the belief that Jews are exceptionally unique in the world, and that by making legislation that was focused exclusively on anti-Semitism rather than religious, racial, and ethnic hatred more broadly, Congress would be singling out Jews in a way that would run contrary to the stated goals of the legislation.”

What sets the Jerusalem Declaration on Anti-Semitism apart, he argues, is that the document asserts its own definition of anti-Semitism and a set of guidelines for how to identify what is and is not anti-Semitism. Many of the signatories to the JDA feared the IHRA definition was designed to restrict valid criticisms of Israel, a fear that has been borne out. The JDA has taken the experts in anti-Semitism and Jewish, Holocaust and Middle East studies more than a year to compile.

The group accept that it is not perfect but describe it as a “vast improvement on the IHRA definition,” according to Trachtenberg. He hopes that the JDA “has the potential to make a significant impact both in countering anti-Semitism and in preventing critics of Israel and Zionism from being smeared as anti-Semites.”

The news will be welcomed in Britain, especially where a complex network of Zionist groups have weaponised the IHRA definition to silence talks on university campuses as well as public and political meetings about Palestinian rights by deplatforming critics of Israel and its founding ideology, Zionism. It has also emerged that a number of Jewish Labour Party members are complaining that they have been swept up and targeted in the so-called anti-Semitism witch hunts.

The JDA’s first guideline states: “It is racist to essentialise (treat a character trait as inherent) or to make sweeping negative generalisations about a given population. What is true of racism, in general, is true of anti-Semitism in particular.” Trachtenberg added that this comparison with racism pushes back against the misguided belief about anti-Semitism that it is a “unique and unparalleled form of hatred.”

The majority of the Jerusalem Document’s guidelines give a detailed explanation of how to differentiate between speech that is critical of Israel and Zionism and that which is anti-Semitic, rather than to conflate the two, as proponents of the IHRA definition do. It is very clear that the IHRA definition is being used to silence discussions about the brutal occupation of Palestine and to target high profile, pro-Palestine individuals in witch hunts, leading to the destruction of reputations and careers.

“[The] damage done by the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism is profound. It has restricted reasonable debates about Israel and done nothing to lessen anti-Semitism,” wrote Trachtenberg. “It must be stopped in its tracks. Whatever its shortcomings, the JDA is the product of a long, thoughtful process of ethical dialogue between an international body of scholars and a broad range of interest groups, all of whom are deeply invested in combating anti-Semitism.”

Other signatories include Neve Gordon from Queen Mary University in London and Mark LeVine, a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine. LeVine noted that Albert Einstein would have been accused of anti-Semitism under the IHRA definition after signing an open letter to the New York Times in 1948, which described the right-wing Herut Party in the newly formed State of Israel as being “closely akin in its organisation, methods, political philosophy and social appeal to the Nazi and Fascist parties.”

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In a joint article of their own, Gordon and LeVine said: “The problem, of course, is that when a state’s actions and its government’s policies cannot be critiqued, then the pursuit of knowledge and academic freedom is threatened. If successful, Israel’s use of the anti-Semitism charge to silence serious and well-grounded criticism could very well become the template for other countries, including the United States government, and powerful corporations to mobilise different kinds of hate-speech accusations to protect rights-abusive behaviour.”

Those behind the coordinated witch hunts of groups and individuals who discuss the brutal oppression endured and suffered daily by the Palestinians are, at last, no longer going to have free rein in such matters. The essence of a mature democracy is that everyone, regardless of faith, ethnicity or politics, can think, speak and write without fear of being hounded by anyone, least of all pro-Israel, Zionist vigilantes who make the American McCarthy witch hunts of the 1950s look like a playground spat.

Apartheid of the kind instituted by the Zionist state of Israel is a crime against humanity. It has been said many times, but is always worth repeating: anti-Semitism is a crime, but anti-Zionism is a duty.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.