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By endorsing the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, Europe stifles academic freedom

European Union flags are seen waving outside the EU Commission Building in Brussels, Belgium on July 6, 2021 [Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency]
European Union flags are seen waving outside the EU Commission Building in Brussels, Belgium on July 6, 2021 [Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency]

The European Commission is set to incorporate the controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism as part of Europe's strategy to combat anti-Jewish racism. Details of the Commission's plan were outlined yesterday in a 26-page programme. The three central goals are to prevent anti-Semitism in all its forms; protect and foster Jewish life; and promote Holocaust research, education and remembrance.

None of this, of course, is particularly controversial. Indeed, we would expect the Commission, if it were likewise to adopt a programme for combating Islamophobia, to include the protection and fostering of Muslim life as a goal while also promoting research and education to expose groups peddling anti-Muslim bigotry.

"We want to see Jewish life thriving again in the heart of our communities," said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. "This is how it should be. The strategy we are presenting today is a step-change in how we respond to anti-Semitism. Europe can only prosper when its Jewish communities feel safe and prosper."

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European Union member states are encouraged to develop national strategies by the end of 2022 to tackle anti-Semitism, or include measures in their national action plans against racism and provide sufficient funding to implement them.

More controversially, but unsurprising nonetheless, the EU said that it will strengthen its cooperation with Israel and use the IHRA "working definition" to determine what constitutes anti-Jewish racism. It will also encourage local authorities, regions, cities and other institutions and organisations to do the same.

Putting aside the obvious contradiction in working with a state practicing apartheid and promoting Jewish supremacy, in order to combat racism, the incorporation of the highly contested IHRA definition of anti-Semitism into a programme as important as this risks undermining the very goal that the Commission has set out to achieve.

The problem with the IHRA is not the actual definition. No one opposes the text at the heart of the document: "Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities." Nevertheless, the IHRA and the European Commission's strategy are good examples of how well-meaning endeavours are hijacked for use as weapons in someone else's propaganda war.

Seven of the 11 illustrative examples within the IHRA definition conflate racism towards Jews with criticism of the state of Israel. It is this that is having a chilling effect on free speech across Europe and elsewhere, despite the insistence by its supporters that the IHRA text has no legal force and is meant to serve only as a guide. If the Commission were to adopt a programme to combat Islamophobia, would it incorporate a definition that included criticism of "Islamism" or any so-called "Islamic" countries as examples of anti-Muslim racism? I doubt it. Just as it would reject China's insistence that criticising Beijing is in any way anti-Chinese.

Recent high-profile cases illustrate why critics are right to fear that the IHRA has been weaponised for Israel's benefit. The University of Bristol, for instance, has dismissed a leading British critic of Israel and its lobby, Professor David Miller, following a long "pressure campaign by Israel's assets in the UK." An expert in propaganda and political pressure groups, Miller has been a key critic of the pro-Israel lobby for the past decade, as well as of Zionism, the state's racist official ideology.

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Some 200 academics and public intellectuals signed an open letter to the university in support of Miller and his work. Denouncing the attack against him as the "weaponisation" of anti-Semitism, the signatories said: "We oppose anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and all forms of racism. We also oppose false allegations and the weaponisation of the positive impulses of anti-racism so as to silence anti-racist debate. We do so because such vilification has little to do with defeating the harms caused by racism. Instead, efforts to target, isolate and purge individuals in this manner are aimed at deterring evidence-based research, teaching and debate."

Bristol University claimed that it was committed to an environment preserving "academic freedom" and admitted that Miller's anti-Israel remarks did not constitute "unlawful speech". Nonetheless, the university apparently caved in under pressure from groups describing themselves as "proud" Zionists that have been leading the campaign to have him sacked. The very same groups are also pushing for the blanket adoption of the IHRA definition in order to protect Israel from legitimate criticism.

In America, the latest example of the chilling effect of the IHRA definition has seen Israeli diplomats reportedly put pressure on the dean of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to have Kylie Broderick, a teacher critical of the occupation state, removed from her job. The intervention by the Israeli officials followed a campaign by right-wing, pro-Israel websites and an advocacy group who highlighted Broderick's Twitter account and posts which criticised Israel and Zionism. They cited the posts as evidence of anti-Semitism. The university said it followed guidelines in the IHRA definition to assess whether Broderick's remarks were anti-Semitic or not.

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These are just two of the most recent examples of how the IHRA definition has been used to crackdown on free-speech. It has had the impact about which its many critics have warned, including the drafter of the IHRA text, Kenneth Stern. "Jewish groups have used the definition as a weapon to say anti-Zionist expressions are inherently anti-Semitic and must be suppressed," wrote Stern in a sensational article in the Times of Israel. He claimed that pro-Israel lobby groups have weaponised the definition in an attempt to silence critics of Zionism.

As the European Commission was busy adopting the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, the Senate in France, which in recent years has adopted a number of laws slammed by critics as Islamophobic, duly adopted the working definition. The decision has been applauded by anti-Palestinian groups, which have urged other European parliaments to follow suit.

Freedom of speech is often described as one of the pillars of liberal democracy but not, it seems, when that freedom is used to express legitimate criticism of the Zionist state of Israel and its pernicious, racist ideology. As many pro-Palestine activists have said, "Anti-Semitism is a crime; anti-Zionism is a duty." The two should never be conflated.

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

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