A group of 122 Palestinian and Arab academics, journalists and intellectuals have expressed their concerns over the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism and the way this working definition has been applied, interpreted and deployed in several countries in Europe and North America.
The definition, and specifically seven of the 11 illustrative examples that conflate racism towards Jews with criticism of the state of Israel, has been severely criticised by a range of bodies, including the Institute of Race Relations; eminent lawyers; civil rights organisation Liberty; leading academic experts on anti-Semitism; 40 global Jewish social justice organisations; and more than 80 UK-based BAME groups.
In addition, Kenneth Stern, one of the drafters of the working definition, has expressed deep concern over its misuse and warned of its “chilling effect” on free speech. According to Stern the code he drafted 15 years ago as the American Jewish Committee’s anti-Semitism expert, is being used for a completely different purpose than the one he intended.
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The 122 Palestinian and Arab academics echoed these concerns in an open letter published in the Guardian. After warning of the rise of anti-Semitism and the need to combat racism towards Jews, the group argued that the IHRA threatened to undermine this effort by turning anti-Semitism “into a stratagem to delegitimise the fight against the oppression of the Palestinians.
Laying out their opposition to the IHRA, the signatories debunked many of the claims made by proponents of the “working definition” and highlighted the ways in which it undermined free speech, notably through the definition’s suggestion that “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour” was tantamount to racism towards Jews. This is one of the seven examples within the working definition that conflates anti-Semitism with criticism of Israel.
The letter argued that such examples ignore the reality on the ground; supress the ability of Palestinians to speak about Israel’s history of occupation and ethnic cleansing and its many policies that are designed to privilege Jews over non-Jews.
The IHRA definition, claimed the signatories, made it impossible to point to Israel as an occupier power without being labelled an anti-Semite. This is “odd”, said the letter, pointing to the fact that under international law, Israel is seen as being an occupying power for over half a century.
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This fact is also recognised by the governments of countries where the IHRA definition is being upheld, the letter pointed out.
Pointing to the chilling effect of the working definition on discussions about political resolutions, the letter said that “the IHRA definition potentially discards as antisemitic all non-Zionist visions of the future of the Israeli state, such as the advocacy of a binational state or a secular democratic one that represents all its citizens equally. Genuine support for the principle of a people’s right to self-determination cannot exclude the Palestinian nation, nor any other.”
The group insisted that “the charge of antisemitism against anyone who regards the existing state of Israel as racist, notwithstanding the actual institutional and constitutional discrimination upon which it is based, amounts to granting Israel absolute impunity.”