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UN shouldn’t be ‘trapped’ by ‘weaponised’ definition of anti-Semitism, say scholars

November 7, 2022 at 2:18 pm

Protest against the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism in London, UK on 4 September 2018 [Dan Kitwood/Getty Images]

Almost 130 scholars of Jewish history and Holocaust Studies from around the world have issued a stark warning in a letter to the UN not to adopt the highly controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism. The world body is under immense pressure to adopt the so called “Working Definition of Anti-Semitism” which critics, including one of the main drafters of the document itself, Kenneth Stern, warned has been weaponised against critics of the apartheid state.

“Don’t trap the United Nations in a vague and weaponised definition of anti-Semitism,” said the letter signed by 128 scholars. “As scholars specialising in anti-Semitism, Holocaust Studies, Modern Jewish History and related fields, we witness with growing concern politically motivated efforts to instrumentalise the fight against anti-Semitism at and against the United Nations.”

Explaining why they find the definition “deeply problematic”, the signatories said that it is “vague and incoherent” and that the IHRA does not satisfy the basic requirements of a good definition. “Rather than ensuring greater clarity, the IHRA definition has been generating confusion about what constitutes anti-Semitism,” they explained.

As a result, they added, the IHRA has become highly controversial and contested, even among Jews. Its weaknesses, they argued, has prompted 350 leading scholars on anti-Semitism, Holocaust Studies and related fields to endorse another more robust definition, the Jerusalem Declaration on Anti-Semitism.

The divisive and polarising effect of the IHRA flows from eleven examples of what it calls “contemporary examples of anti-Semitism.” Seven out of the eleven examples conflate criticism of Israel with anti-Jewish racism. Experts warn that adoption of the IHRA can be used by advocates of the apartheid state to gag Palestinians and their supporters, as well as human rights group and the UN itself from exposing Israel’s many violations of international law.

Explaining how the UN’s adoption of the IHRA may trap the world body, the letter cited one IHRA example of what might constitute anti-Semitism: “Applying double standards by requiring of [Israel] a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.” This, argued the scholars, is particularly prone to political abuse at the UN, as it can easily be invoked to label as anti-Semitic any resolution that criticises Israel.

“The Israeli government would be emboldened and enabled to escalate its campaign against UN bodies and experts,” the signatories warned. They believe that the IHRA will be weaponised particularly against the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) as well as other world bodies such as the International Criminal Court, the Human Rights Council and the UN Commission of Inquiry.

By extension, the group stressed that human rights defenders and organisations challenging Israel’s violations would be exposed to smear campaigns based on bad-faith allegations of anti-Semitism, thus harming their freedom of expression and other fundamental rights protected and promoted by the UN.

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