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Human rights groups urge UN not to adopt IHRA anti-Semitism definition which weaponises criticism of Israel

April 5, 2023 at 3:43 pm

Protesters demonstrate outside a meeting of the National Executive of Britain’s Labour Party on 4 September 2018 in London, England. Labour’s NEC meet today to vote on whether to adopt the full International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-semitism. [Jack Taylor/Getty Images]

60 human rights organisations have urged the United Nations not to adopt the controversial and inaccurate definition of anti-Semitism created by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), over concerns that it would be weaponised to suppress any criticism of Israel.

In a letter published on Monday, the 60 human and civil rights groups called on the UN not to adopt the IHRA’s working definition of anti-Semitism, which rules that it “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.”

On the IHRA’s website, it elaborates that forms of anti-Semitism “might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity”. Despite its acknowledgement that “criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic”, rights groups and activists fear that the definition would still be used for the purpose of targeting criticism of Tel Aviv.

According to the jointly-signed letter, the “IHRA definition has often been used to wrongly label criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic, and thus chill and sometimes suppress, non-violent protest, activism and speech critical of Israel and/or Zionism, including in the US and Europe”. An example it cited was that in the United Kingdom – which adopted the IHRA definition – where universities had banned several activities planned for ‘Israel Apartheid Week’ back in in 2017.

It also cited leading experts of anti-Semitism and academics who have been critical of the asserted definition, “arguing that it restricts legitimate criticism of Israel and harms the fight against anti-Semitism”.

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If the UN were to endorse the definition “in any shape or form”, the letter states, then its officials who work on issues regarding Israel and Palestine may find themselves “unjustly accused of anti-Semitism based on the IHRA definition”. That could also be the case for “numerous UN agencies, departments, committees, panels and/or conferences, whose work touches on issues related to Israel and Palestine, as well as for civil society actors and human rights defenders engaging with the UN system”.

As better alternatives to the IHRA, the letter referred to the Jerusalem Declaration on Anti-Semitism and the Nexus Document, which it says “set out more clearly what constitutes anti-Semitism and provide guidance surrounding the contours of legitimate speech and action around Israel and Palestine”.

Amongst the signatories of the letter were leading and renowned human rights organisations such as Human Rights Watch (HRW), American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Israeli rights group B’Tselem, and the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR).

Since the popularisation of the IHRA’s definition and its adoption by the likes of the United States, Britain and the European Union, a precedent was set across the board for the suppression of criticism of Israel or Zionism.

Aside from universities in the UK banning pro-Palestinian and anti-apartheid events, there has also emerged the marginalisation and exclusion of Palestinian staff and scholars from discussing the controversy in universities, and the EU has ruled that calling Israel an “apartheid” state is anti-Semitic based on the same IHRA definition.

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