BY JAMIE STERN-WEINER https://jacobin.com/
The UN is being urged to adopt a misleading, partisan redefinition of antisemitism that is intended to protect Israel from critical scrutiny. We should oppose this cynical attempt to silence advocacy on behalf of the Palestinians in the name of anti-racism.
A Palestinian girl stands on the roof of a shack in the northern Gaza Strip on November 20, 2022. (Majdi Fathi / NurPhoto via Getty Images)
For the last two decades, pro-Israel advocacy groups have been promoting a propagandistic definition of “antisemitism,” now known as the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition. Their manifest purpose is to stigmatize and stifle legitimate, accurate criticism of Israel. A concerted effort is currently underway to foist this text on the United Nations.
We should firmly resist this effort. The IHRA definition is worthless as a weapon in the struggle against antisemitism, but it can be used — and has been used — to silence Palestinians and those who defend their rights.
Neither Clear nor Coherent
Abroad consensus among experts has criticized the IHRA definition for being “neither clear nor coherent” while posing a threat to free speech. Even the text’s main drafter, Kenneth Stern, has repeatedly spoken out against its use as a disciplinary tool by governments or public bodies. It’s not hard to see why.
The text begins by defining antisemitism as “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred towards Jews,” which could mean anything or nothing. It goes on to present several examples of speech that “could, taking into account the overall context” be considered antisemitic. In practice, supporters of the definition ignore the qualification and insist that such speech is always and regardless of context antisemitic. Several of the examples bear on what we are allowed to say about Israel.
More than 100 scholars in the fields of antisemitism, Holocaust studies, and Jewish history urged the UN not to adopt the IHRA definition.
One example condemns “applying double standards” to Israel by “requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.” Who is guilty of these double standards? According to Israel and its supporters, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the International Criminal Court, the European Union, and the United Nations. In short, every significant organization and agency — however judicious, however respected, however responsible — trying to hold Israel accountable for its international law violations.
Earlier this month, more than one hundred scholars in the fields of antisemitism, Holocaust studies, and Jewish history urged the UN not to adopt the definition. They described it as “vague,” “incoherent,” and liable to “deter free speech.” A week before that, the UN special rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism warned that the definition would be “instrumentalized” against defenders of Palestinian human rights.
The most significant response to this mounting criticism has come from the European Commission’s coordinator on combating antisemitism, Katharina von Schnurbein. It was under her leadership that the EU incorporated the IHRA definition into its antisemitism strategy, which has been cited as a model to emulate at the UN. Von Schnurbein defended the definition on three main grounds. Not one of these bears scrutiny.