Defining Antisemitism – Part I The IHRA Definition

Amnesty International USA issued the following statement:

The US “targeting of groups advocating…peaceful means, such as boycotts, to end human rights violations against Palestinians, as antisemitic, violates freedom of expression and is a gift to those who seek to silence, harass, intimidate and oppress those standing up for human rights around the world [consistent with] a US government determined to undermine the universality of human rights and the global fight against racism and discrimination, including antisemitism.”


Is the definition of antisemitism currently being officially endorsed around the world being used to repress the rights of Palestinians to free speech and serving to deny human rights? Kenneth Stern—director of The Bard Center for Study of Hate and an expert on antisemitism who drafted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition—said Biden could stake out a moderate position on BDS and criticism of Israeli policies. “One of the themes Biden has been striking is that people with different points of views have to communicate across divides…It’s possible for him to strike that theme on this issue: that he opposes antisemitism and BDS, but silencing is beyond what we do in a democracy.” 

As background, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), a consortium of 34 mostly Western countries, was asked to provide a definition of antisemitism that would allow the collection of data on incidents in Europe to be relatively consistent. The 2016 definition was proposed, not as a legally binding standard, but as a guide. In itself, it is uncontroversial. though some have noted that it would have been preferable to tie the definition into general human rights and anti-racism efforts rather than as a sui generis document.

In the spirit of the Stockholm Declaration that states: “With humanity still scarred by …antisemitism and xenophobia the international community shares a solemn responsibility to fight those evils,” the IHRA, the only intergovernmental organization mandated to focus solely on Holocaust-related issues, through its Committee on Antisemitism and Holocaust Denial, built an international consensus around a non-legally binding working definition of antisemitism which was subsequently adopted by the Plenary on 26 May 2016.

“Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.” 

As an illustration, the IHRA went on to clarify: “Manifestations might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity. However, the document was clear, criticism of Israel, similar to that leveled against any other country, cannot be regarded as antisemitic. Antisemitism frequently charges Jews with conspiring to harm humanity, and it is often used to blame Jews for ‘why things go wrong.’ It is expressed in speech, writing, visual forms and action, and employs sinister stereotypes and negative character traits.”

In spite of this unequivocal statement, Independent Jewish Voices Canada (IJV), that opposes racism and promotes justice and peace for all in Israel-Palestine, distributed a very short piece entitled, “The Palestine solidarity movement is facing an unprecedented threat.” Its headline read, “Fight antismitism and white supremacy Not Palestinian solidarity #NO IHRA.” What was the unprecedented threat? “The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance Working Definition of Antisemitism (IHRA-WDA) “is designed to silence criticism of Israel and of Zionism by equating this criticism with antisemitism.” But the definition explicitly states it is not to be used to equate criticism of Israel with antisemitism. A simple reading would reveal that. But to take it a step further and argue that it was designed for this purpose is even worse than just misinterpreting the text.

Unless, of course, they showed that the claim was fraudulent. They don’t. Whatever they may say about its use or misuse and even abuse, there is no evidence that the intent of the definition is to suppress criticism. They makme a third claim. In addition to suppression being a use of the definition, in addition to that use being intentionality built into the definition, they claim that, “the real fight against antisemitism must [my italics] be joined to the struggle for equality and human rights. “must!” Not preferably. Further, you can only fight against antisemitism if you are also fighting against the suppression of Palestinians. No defence of each of these mis-steps in logic are offered.

On 26 July 2019, the Minister of Canadian Heritage and Multiculturalism, Pablo Rodriguez, announced the intention of the Canadian government to adopt the definition. On 11 December 2019, Conservative MPP Will Bouma tabled a private member’s bill which called on the Ontario government to be guided by the IHRA definition “when it interprets acts, regulations and policies” in order to “protect Ontarians from discrimination and hate amounting to anti-Semitism.” It passed on division second reading on 27 February 2020 and was referred to the Standing Committee on Justice policy on 22 October. On 26 October, Ontario premier Doug Ford adopted the IHRA definition of antisemitism by an Order in Council.

As Nathalie Des Rosiers wrote in a far more nuanced argument, “There was already a definition used by the Anti Racist Directorate. The central issue was appealing to Jewish voters by replacing the current definition with IHRA…the difference in wording in not referring to the examples in the Order in Council can be said to be legally significant…In my view, you cannot presume some parts of the IHRA definition (the examples) but not the ‘non-legally binding’ wording. Making it legally binding (i.e. it is adopted and recognized by the Government of Ontario) would justify paying attention to the words used, and to the words not used.”

There is a general consensus that the definition in itself, other than being relatively vague, is uncontentious. The problem arose with two and for some, three of the examples of the eleven offered to illustrate its applicability. On the one hand, the illustrations were not the definition. On the other hand, it is the illustrations that give the definition substance and provide relevance. Of the eleven offered, two aroused significant controversy.

  • Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.
  • Applying double standards by requiring of it [Israel] a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.

For some, a third case illustration was also problematic and easily used to foster antisemitism:

  • Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.

The use of the definition as well as the illustrations, particularly the first two above, have been controversial. Most Jewish organizations in Canada have supported the adoption of IHRA as a guide. Some Jewish organizations, particularly in the U.S., are opposed. JStreet and Americans for Peace Now as well as other Jewish NGOs even more critical of Israel and Zionism (e.g. JVP) have railed against the adoption of the definition. Further, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International as well as other human rights organizations and NGOs supporting the Palestinian quest for self-determination have strenuously objected to the adoption of the definition, primarily in fear of it being weaponized to suppress free speech and criticism of Israel. At the very least, it is argued, the definition has a chill effect on expressions of free speech.

Ojibway in Canada are denied the right of self-determination. So are Kurds in Syria and Turkey. Sometimes that denial is unequivocally racist. In the Israeli case, the original denial of the Jewish right to self-determination was articulated in defence of the Arab right to self-determination in Palestine in opposition to Zionism, for the insistence on both rights, and not simply practical matters, was at the core of the conflict. However, did this early criticism of Zionism amount to antisemitic racism on one side or anti-Palestinian denial of self-determination on the other hand? Part of the issue was intent and context. Was the argument in service to a political claim or was it being used to vilify the other? Was the definition being used as an educational tool or an ideological weapon?

It seems clear that the two illustrations above are not in themselves antisemitic. A Jew brought up in the justice tradition of Judaism usually does demand higher standards of behaviour from Israel than any other state. For Israel is to be a light unto the nations. But that is not the real reference, for the illustration is more concerned with Israel’s mistreatment of its minorities more than any other state. This goes beyond insisting that we defend all causes equally, that we cannot defend elephants unless we also defend giraffes. The issue becomes finding whether there is a pattern in applying the norms of just war theory or in dealing with refugees such that the application of norms is unique to Israel and not otherwise universally applicable.

JSpace in Canada, in contrast to JStreet in the United States, supported the adoption and application of the definition on the grounds that:

  • It was the expression of a general consensus in the organized Jewish community;
  • The wording was clear that the definition could not and should not be used to suppress criticism of Israeli government policy and the definition was not to be used for such purposes;
  • The origins of the definition followed the Canadian general guiding principle that those oppressed should be the ones who articulate how to represent that oppression.

One dilemma – when does one group’s self-definition of their oppression represent racist calumny of another group identified as the oppressors? If Israel is described as a colonial apartheid state, is this an expression of antisemitism. I will take this question up in my next blog dealing with BDS and the Antisemitic IHRA definition. One proposed measure to permit a judgement is whether its use promoted dialogue or, alternatively, whether the definition is used to vilify another. Is it used to advance speech, or squelch hate speech or as itself an expression of hate speech?

The issue of a double standard raises such questions as who decides? When Israel is singled out as an occupying power is that because it is the only one still around? How do you weigh competing claims for victimhood? If I am an advocate for a unitary state wherein all citizens are respected as having individual rights, or if I advocate a confederation of two nations, is either of these positions a denial of the Jewish right to self-determination? Further, does asking these questions in themselves chill open discussion lest one be labeled as a colonialist oppressor on the one hand or an antisemite on the other hand? However, is an insistence on non-vilification and non-demonization even helpful if being branded as a racist, colonialist, apartheid oppressor does suggest that the speaker is antisemitic and opposed to the rights of the Jewish people? That is, then it is not the intent but the substance that defines antisemitism.

There is a different issue – not the intent and context of the use of the definition versus its substantive meaning, but the effects of its use. Does it promote mission creep? That is, though its use initially may be confined to identifying antisemites in various guises, the definition is readily adaptable to those who want to shut down criticisms of Israel or, at the least, criticisms of Zionism? Further, would it not have been better to promote solidarity in human rights defence by explicitly drawing the link between antisemitism and other forms of racism? Would it not have been better to enunciate principles where the failure to observe them constitutes antisemitism?

My own position is that there is no traveling back. This is the definition that has already gained wide acceptance. One is forced to tackle the core issue of whether the denial of self-determination of the Jewish people or the opposition to Zionism constitutes antisemitism and in what contexts and with what limits? The polarization is real. The substantive disagreement is very deep. If that is left unpacked, then we are not likely to clarify whether and when the definition of antisemitism is used as a racist method of suppressing free speech.

As Nathalie Des Rossiers wrote, “The question will be whether the use of the definition will remain dormant, or will it be used? Will Jewish organizations use it to demand, as B’nai Brith has suggested, that “all schools, universities, police services use it.” Nathalie opined, “its wording is already a little dated: its disconnection from other forms of racism makes it less powerful and convincing.  It was created in a context of education and research, why use it in others, and more importantly, why do Jewish organizations want to promote it if it requires so much explanation, unpacking, and presents the possibility of significant setbacks?   

[1] I spell the subject as a single, unhyphenated word because I think it is singular. More commonly, it is hyphenated as anti-Semite.


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