Chris Sutherland assesses a major advance for having a balanced definition of anti-Semitism.
So many column inches have been written on the 2016 ‘International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’ (IHRA) definition on anti-Semitism with 7 of its 11 accompanying examples proscribing criticism of the state of Israel. Across the media, including the liberal media (BBC, Guardian), it’s been portrayed as the ‘gold standard’ of defining and seeking out anti-Semitism and anti-Semites, with pressure to sign up to the IHRA on governments across the world, councils and ministries of state, corporations, mass media, colleges and universities. It was one of the weapons used against Corbyn and the Labour left and against supporters of Palestinian human rights and campaigners for ‘Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions’ (BDS). Boris Johnson now confidently states that he wants to ban BDS, with similar calls for bans in the US and EU, making non-violent civil resistance to Israeli policies illegal.
The ‘New Anti-Semitism’, as represented by the IHRA definition, claims a clear causal link between criticism of the state of Israel and anti-Semitism, with Israel seen as the ancestral home of world Jews and any attack on Israel translating to an attack on Jews. It supplanted ‘classical anti-Semitism’ with its traditional definition of ‘hatred of Jews as Jews’ which avoided conflating anti-Semitic racism with Zionism. Under ‘Classical anti-Semitism’, Zionism is used in its correct context, namely as a political and social movement towards a Jewish state for a Jewish people. This is now enshrined in the 2018 ‘Nation State Law’ in which only Jews have rights over self-determination and statehood in Israel.
Since then, there has been a procession of high-profile cases in which the IHRA has been invoked to attack prominent Palestinian activists, Corbyn being the chief target (and most prominent victim), with countless suspensions and expulsions on the Labour left (like Ken Livingstone, Chris Williamson, Marc Wadsworth and John Davies) and including prominent Jewish anti-racist campaigners like Jackie Walker, Tony Greenstein, Moshe Machover and Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi.
When veteran film-maker Ken Loach was invited to address his alma mater at St Peter’s College, Oxford, there was a concerted campaign to ban him for alleged ‘holocaust denial’, an outrageous smear against one of the most honourable figures on the anti-racist left. A similar campaign was recently directed against Shami Chakrabarti by the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism (CAA) to ban her from speaking at an International Women’s Day event at St Paul’s School in March 2021, again quoting the IHRA, describing her report on anti-Semitism in 2016 as a ‘joke of a report’, when it was anything but and well-praised at the time.
Attention has recently shifted back to the university campuses (where much of the pro- and anti- Zionist battles have been fought both in the US and the UK and increasingly now in the EU) with currently on-going attempts to get Professor David Miller sacked from his position at the University of Bristol. Miller has long been a thorn against corporate lobbying, including various studies detailing the intricacies of the Jewish lobby both in the UK and the EU. He was also one of the co-authors of the first critical analysis of the anti-Semitism campaign being waged against Labour in Bad News for Labour (Pluto, 2019) and a founding member of ‘Spinwatch’ which monitors corporate lobbying. In the 2010 general election, David Cameron, described lobbying as the next great scandal to be exposed following the expenses scandal. Miller would therefore be a prized scalp for the British establishment. A vigorous campaign has been launched to defend not just him as an individual but in defence of academic freedom as a whole.
In April 2020, Palestinian academic, Dr Ghada Karmi, lecturing at Exeter University on ‘conflict and peace-making’ was attacked by the Jewish Chronicle and CAA for an article in ‘Middle East Eye’ in which she stated that ‘terminating Zionism [was] the only way to permanent peace’. This is a view shared by most adherents of the ‘one-state solution’: based on the idea of a secular Palestine from the sea to the river Jordan in which Jews and Palestinians co-exist as citizens with equal rights. The CAA unsuccessfully attempted to whip up a campaign to have her sacked. Karmi was a child victim and eyewitness to the 1948 Nakba. She was forced to flee her Jerusalem home along with her family recounted in her autobiography ‘In Search of Fatima’. Today, she reaches out to both communities but this did not stop the CAA branding her an anti-Semite and attempt to destroy her reputation and career.
There were plenty of warnings about the effect the IHRA would have on free speech and how the conflation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism would impact on the ability to speak out against Israeli policies towards Palestinians in the Occupied West Bank and the blockaded Gaza strip, as well as discrimination against non-Jews within Israel itself. As a consequence, there is now very little reporting by mainstream media about the on-going, active settler colonialism in the Occupied Territories nor the death of the two-state solution by illegal Israeli settlements and military occupation. The IHRA was as it was intended, a weapon to shut people up. But now the ground is shifting and people are speaking up.
In December 2019 one of the original drafters of the IHRA, Kenneth Stern, a lecturer on anti-Semitism hate studies with the American Jewish Committee, has publicly criticised his own definition: ‘It was created primarily so that European data collectors could know what to include and exclude. That was anti-Semitism could be monitored better over time and across borders. It was never intended to be a campus hate speech code … this order [by Donald Trump] is an attack on academic freedom and free speech.’ A year later 122 Palestinian academics from across the world published letter in the Guardian (29 November 2020) insisting on their rights to free speech and the right to frame the settler colonial analysis based on their own real experiences, historical evidence and national identity subject to the normal peer-group scrutiny.
In January 2021, the Israeli human rights monitor, B’tselem, dropped a bombshell by publishing its report, A Regime of Jewish Supremacy, in which it described the illegal occupation of the West Bank, the Gaza Blockade and discrimination against Arabs as a form of ‘apartheid’ covering the entire geographic area of Palestine: ‘two separate regimes operate side by side, separated by the Green Line’.
The Guardian, one of the early proponents of the IHRA, suddenly got the jitters. In an editorial of 17 January 2021, it grudgingly conceding that ‘Israel has a problem of historic discrimination’ begging ‘B’tselem’s heretical question: what if there is only, in reality, one regime between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea, rather than one political power that controls a territory in which there are two distinct regimes?’
All of a sudden one of the examples in the IHRA making it anti-Semitic to describe Israel as a ‘racist endeavour’ was shattered by its own human rights monitor. The report covered immigration and citizenship, population control, civil and military law, expulsions, administrative detentions, pseudo-civil administration, denial of freedom of movement, house demolitions and land confiscations, permits and check-points, political and civil exclusion, deliberate policies of under-development in Palestinian areas, land and water apartheid, building restrictions, the construction of Jewish only roads, the continued expansion and building of illegal settlements, separation walls across the West Bank, and settler violence. These all move towards the constriction and control of Palestinian living space into smaller and smaller areas.
Israeli hegemony took another blow when the International Criminal Court (ICC) announced that it had jurisdiction to investigate Israeli war crimes in Gaza and the occupied territories from June 2014, specifically to look at atrocities against civilians in the invasion of Gaza in 2014, the shooting of unarmed Palestinians in the Great March of Return in 2018-19 and the illegal settlements in the West Bank.
In February 2021, 62 UK academics signed a letter condemning the attempt by Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, to force universities into adopting the IHRA or face losing funding and blamed the IHRA for having ‘a chilling effect on academic freedom’. Then on 25 March 2021, a direct challenge to the IHRA monolith was made with the announcement of the ‘Jerusalem Declaration on Anti-Semitism’ (JDA) – signed by 200 global academics, Jewish as well as Palestinians. This is a brand, new international definition designed to replace the IHRA which moves back towards a more classical definition of anti-Semitism, but which places it firmly within the context of post-IHRA experiences of suppression of free speech and producing the kind of witch-hunt where committed anti-racists suddenly became the racists, where innocent people became subject to denunciation without evidence and even the act of denial seen as proof of guilt. Here at last is a workable definition: ‘Anti-Semitism is discrimination, prejudice, hostility or violence against Jews as Jews (or Jewish institutions as Jewish).’ It comes in three parts:
Part A: General categories 1-5: cover character traits and negative generalisations but importantly states that ‘what is true of racism in general is true of anti-Semitism in particular’ – in other words that racism has universal qualities and does not involve a hierarchy of racism. The five guidelines cover tropes, conspiracy theories, anti-Semitic acts, holocaust denial, direct and indirect anti-Semitism, anti-Semitism in words, visual images and deeds, coded statements, concepts of evil, meanness.
Part B: Israel and Palestine 6-10 – examples that, on the face of it, are anti-Semitic.
Part C: Israel and Palestine 11-15 – examples that, on the face of it, are not anti-Semitic.
Part C is a major departure from the IHRA in that it allows for support for Palestinian demands for justice and the full granting of political, national, and civil human rights as encapsulated in international law; it allows for criticizing or opposing Zionism or arguing for full equality whether in two-states, a bi-national state, unitary democratic state, federal, or in whatever form; it also allows for evidence-based criticism of Israel that ‘even if contentious, it is not anti-Semitic, in and of itself, to compare Israel with other historical cases, including settler-colonialism or apartheid’. In another major departure from the IHRA, it recognises the role of non-violent forms of political protest including BDS and other forms of non-violent civil opposition.
Finally, and crucially, it enshrines the principle of free speech as protected by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights which assert that ‘Political speech does not have to be measured, proportional, tempered, or reasonable to be protected … Criticism that some may see as excessive or contentious, or as reflecting a ‘double standard’ is not, in and of itself, anti-Semitic.’
The ink on the Jerusalem Declaration on anti-Semitism (JDA) is barely dry and it remains to be seen whether it gets the same kind of ‘gold standard’ treatment the IHRA received from the bulk of the British political and media establishment. It still has its critics. Palestinians boldly state that they don’t need permission to assert their national and political rights, but already the parameters under JDA have suddenly widened, and so discussion and debate has been liberated (to a degree). Suddenly people are free to speak without fear of a witch-hunt and that there is freedom to disagree. There is context within international law guaranteeing freedom of expression (including Zionist views) – Rowan Atkinson, in his famous ‘feel free to insult me’ speech of August 2018 asserting his right ‘to be offended’. The JDA to me represents an historic opportunity to roll back the IHRA and start the debate afresh. So, let’s get talking.
Chris Sutherland is a lifelong socialist, living in St. Andrews, a member of the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign but not of any political party.