What’s wrong with the IHRA ‘working definition’ of Anti-Semitism?
By Tim Anderson
On 26 May 2016 the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), a group which has a focus on opposing ‘holocaust denial’, adopted a ‘working definition’ of anti-Semitism. The document is said to have gained the endorsement of a number of European governments, as well as support from Israel and the USA. However, it is a misguided document which links a decent ‘definition’ with erroneous ‘illustrations’ mostly focused on Israel.
This is the IHRA’s ‘working definition of antisemitism’: “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” (IHRA 2016).
So far it seems reasonable, if we accept that ‘anti-Semitic’ means anti-Jewish. However this is a Eurocentric concept which excludes many other groups of ‘Semites’, not least Arabic speakers. A better term might be ‘anti-Jewish’. In any case, there are at least two good reasons to clarify anti-Jewish racism, the first has to do with the long European history of discrimination against European Jews, the second concerns the mistaken conflation of Israel with the Jewish people.
However the IHRA paper hopelessly confuses the matter by its appended ‘illustrations’, which conflate Jewish people with Israel and seek to disqualify criticism of Israel. Eight of the twelve (at times contradictory) IHRA illustrations refer to the state of Israel, showing the IHRA’s priorities and diverting the document from its stated purpose, of identifying anti-Jewish racism.
Racism and racial discrimination, as clarified by 1965 Race Discrimination Convention, refer to discriminatory actions against ‘human beings’ (OHCHR 1965). That is, discrimination is something inflicted on people, not states. The subjects of rights are human beings (Yeatman 2000) and, in the case of collective rights such as the right to self-determination, ‘peoples’ (ICCPR 1966: Article 1; Mello 2004). ‘Human rights’ do not attach to any state. However when states ratify international treaties they “assume obligations and duties under international law to respect, to protect and to fulfil human rights” (UN 2019). Criticism of a state, therefore, should never be confused with prejudice or discrimination against a people.
While ‘race’ is a fictitious concept, as there are no intrinsic differences between human communities, as affirmed by the UN’s Durban Declaration (OHCHR 2002: 11), and while Jewish people do not constitute an ethnicity (most are European), they certainly can be subject to racial discrimination or racism, as a religious community. The Durban Declaration reaffirms this in its rejection of “racial and violent movements based on racism and discriminatory ideas against Jewish, Muslim and Arab communities” (OHCHR 2002: 28).
The roots of anti-Jewish discrimination in Europe go back many centuries, and appear to have grown in strength from the concepts and practices of the early Christian empires, beginning with Constantine (Carroll 2002; Julius 2010; Seaver 1952). From there, many European regimes practised systematic discrimination against Jewish people, excluding them from citizenship, taking their property or outright expulsions of entire populations, for example from France, England and Spain (Dahan 2004; Singer 1964; Beinart 2005). At other times Jews in medieval Europe, albeit in the face of discrimination, did well and their communities grew (Chazan 2010). Nevertheless, false ‘blood libel’ stories of European Jews engaging in ritual murder were invented (Johnson 2012; Teter 2019), to vilify the European Jews.
Periods of Christian revival and fanaticism, such as the crusades and the Spanish Inquisition (Kamen 2014), helped build strong anti-Jewish prejudice in Europe and drive practices of social exclusion and expulsion. All that preceded the great crimes of Nazi Germany against the European Jews, a history which deserves separate study. Millions of European Jews were murdered in a concerted campaign, promoted by multiple Nazi leaders, in a terrible campaign to ‘annihilate’ the Jewish people (Berben 1975; Van Pelt 2002; Friedländer 2009). Efforts to deny this great crime are ignorant and deplorable.
Stereotypes developed in European literature helped reinforce prejudice against Jews. Shakespeare’s character Shylock, in The Merchant of Venice, and Charles Dickens’ Fagin, in Oliver Twist, both reflected and drove ugly stereotypes of hooked-nose old Jew money lenders after their ‘pound of flesh’ (Shylock) and criminal manipulators of children (Fagin). This sort of prejudiced imagery remains in many European cultures.
Yet that history has little to do with the zionist colonisation of Palestine, a British project which shares more of its racial history with other European colonisations, such as that of the Americas and Australia. In all these cases racial ideologies were developed in attempts to legitimise large scale ethnic cleansing and racial massacres. It is this imperialism and colonialism which lies at the root of the most serious forms of racism, including that inflicted on the Palestinian people.
Past imperial massacres led the Polish-Jewish lawyer Rafael Lemkin to first coin the term ‘genocide’, as a ‘recurring’ feature of human history such as that seen in the destruction of the Christians under the Ottomans (in Moses 2010: 8). As the Nazi holocaust was underway, Lemkin wrote of genocide as “a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves” (Lemkin 1944: 79). When images of the death camps emerged in 1945, the term was correctly applied to Nazi Germany’s slaughter of the European Jews. Yet the greatest recorded genocide was the colonisation of the Americas, where 95% of the 75 to 100 million indigenous Americans were wiped out (Stannard 1992: 266-268; Churchill 1997).
I return to the IHRA ‘working definition’ and its appended ‘illustrations’. On the positive side, an initial reference suggests recognition of equality before the law, a key legal and human rights theme. “Criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-semitic”, the document says. Later on, still confusing a people with a state, the document suggests that anti-Semitism may include: “applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.” Were this a reference to Jewish people it may be correct. But the notion of equality before the law is negated by much of which follows, especially about the state of Israel.
The document suggests that the following criticisms of Israel are effectively prohibited, as being ‘anti-Semitic’:
- “The targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as Jewish collectivity”;
- “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g. by claiming that the existence of the state of Israel is a racist endeavour”; and
- “Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis”.
The idea that Israel cannot be targeted or criticised as a “racist endeavour” is an absurd suggestion, contradicting the IHRA’s citation of equality before the law. Any state that practices ethnic cleansing and civilian massacres, based on racial ideology, can and should be criticised for such serious crimes. No state can claim immunity from criticism, as that would encourage more great crimes. The foundation of the state of Israel through ethnic cleansing has been well documented (Pappe 2006); and an Israeli-based civil rights group has documented more than 65 racist laws created by the zionist state (Adalah 2017).
On comparisons with Nazi Germany, it is true that recourse to Nazi comparisons are made far too often. There are popular jokes over a childish political discourse which has it that ‘everyone I don’t like is Hitler’. Nevertheless, when any state demonstrates (i) a racial ideology which dehumanises a supposedly distinct race, (ii) when it carries out massacres based on such ideology and (iii) when it engages in systematic ethnic cleansing, comparisons with prior fascist regimes including that of Nazi Germany, may be justified. Indeed comparisons may be valuable in highlighting great crimes and inducing shame in those who apologise for them. None of this is unique to Israel, but all elements apply to contemporary Israel, a largely European Jewish colony which, by blocking all possibilities of a contiguous Arab state, has become an apartheid state.
Naturally many Jewish people who support Israel (often expressed as a haven for Jews who suffered persecution in Europe) will not like comparisons between Israel and the fascist Nazi German state which carried out genocidal practices against their own religious community. But this is often the consequence of colonial practice, and Israel is not unique in that regard. Other persecuted and impoverished European minorities came to Australia, Canada and the Americas only to take part in the ethnic cleansing and genocide of indigenous populations. Many liberal Jews imagined that the Israeli colony might serve as a refuge for persecuted European Jews. But, like the late Albert Einstein, they naively dreamed this might happen without prejudice to the native population of Palestine (Jerome 2009).
The question of genocidal practice against the Palestinian people by the Israeli state is an important theme of international debate. The US-based Center for Constitutional Rights set out some terms of this debate, citing several scholars for the affirmative – Martin Shaw, Francis Boyle, Ilan Pappe and the late Michael Ratner. They observed that the Journal of Genocide Studies, while presenting opposing positions, rejected complaints that this was an “illegitimate” question to pose or debate (CCR 2016: 3-5). The CCR also noted that in 2014 “dozens of Holocaust survivors” accused Israel of “genocide” over its attacks on Gaza, and cited Amnesty International’s call for the ICC to investigate and “break the culture of impunity” in Israel “which perpetuates the commission of war crimes” (CCR 2016: 6-7).
In 2002 the UN’s Durban Declaration (of the ‘World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance’) expressed concerns about “the plight of the Palestinian people under foreign occupation and recognised the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination under an independent state” (OHCHR 2002: 2, 29, 101). Yet the possibility of such an independent Arab state has been buried by successive Israeli administrations, creating an effective apartheid state, where half the population, by reason of their ethnicity have no equal rights, and in most cases no citizenship. The Durban Declaration condemned the crimes of apartheid and genocide as crimes against humanity (OHCHR 2002: 9, 17, 20, 37-38) and the most recent authoritative report from the United Nations, by US lawyers Richard Falk and Virginia Tilley (2017), makes it clear that Israel has indeed become an ‘apartheid state’ and, therefore, as a crime against humanity, must be dismantled. Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (2007) recognised that “if the day comes when the two-state solution collapses, and we face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights … the State of Israel is finished”. The extensive Israeli ethnic cleansing in recent years has created that very circumstance. In this context, seeking to exempt Israel from criticism of its racist practice is an affront to the principles of anti-racism and equality before the law.
Some of the IHRA’s other suggested ‘racist’ practices have to do with banning ‘holocaust denial’ and exempting Jewish communities from criticism:
- Denying the fact, scope, mechanisms (e.g. gas chambers) or intentionality of the genocide of the Jewish people at the hands of National Socialist Germany and its supporters and accomplices during World War II (the Holocaust).
- “Accusing the Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust”;
- “Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel … than to the interests of their own nations”; and
- “Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel”.
There should be no doubt that the Nazi German attempt at genocide of European Jews was a terrible crime which should be remembered. However, whether ‘denial’ should be criminalised (as is the case in several European states) is another matter. There may be short term exigencies in suppressing the resurgence of fascist racism in Europe. However declaring state-sanctioned ‘official truth’ (e.g. EUVSDISINFO 2020), jailing the odd person and suppressing debates on history is likely to create adverse reactions. What is wrong with states assisting in popular education by extensive museum display – and school study – of the evidence of these great crimes and their associated racial ideologies? Young people learn much better through investigation, reason and evidence, than by decreed dogma.
As for a ban on discussion of criticism of Jewish communities and their organisations, while this may address negative stereotypes, there are good reasons why religious communities and their (secret and public) organisations should come under scrutiny. If for example, the secret Mossad run ‘sayanim’ group cannot be discussed, because it is a secret Jewish network, why should we not also ban discussion of secretive Catholic networks like Opus Dei, or secretive Muslim groups like the Muslim Brotherhood? Similarly, if discussion of the German peoples’ responsibility for the rise of the Nazi regime in Germany may be discussed (e.g. Johnson and Reuband 2006), why not the support of Jewish communities for the rise of apartheid Israel?
Privileging certain communities, in the name of human rights and anti-racism, has some serious problems. Several honest writers, not unsympathetic to Jewish people, have pointed out that a racialised Israel is the greatest contemporary source of anti-Jewish prejudice. That was the theme of Zionism: the real enemy of the Jews, by British journalist Alan Hart, a confidant of the late Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. His argument was that the crimes of Israel against the people of Palestine help inflame rising anti-Jewish feelings in Europe and the Americas. In a related way, anti-Zionist religious Jews complain that they are blamed for the crimes of Israel. Rabbi Yaakov Shapiro says that the recent declaration of Israel as ‘the nation-state of the Jewish people’ is “a bogus notion and dangerous for Jews around the world” (TTJ 2018).
The history, myths and evils of European anti-Jewish racism certainly deserve attention. But racism more broadly stems from imperialism and colonialism. To link the essentially colonial and racist state of Israel with a definition of anti-Jewish racism is a travesty. The IHRA’s ‘working definition’ and its illustrations should go back to the drawing board.
Adalah (2017) ‘The Discriminatory Laws Database’, 25 September, online:
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The IHRA ‘working definition’ of anti-Semitism
To guide IHRA in its work, the following examples may serve as illustrations:
Manifestations might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity. However, 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.
Contemporary examples of antisemitism in public life, the media, schools, the workplace, and in the religious sphere could, taking into account the overall context, include, but are not limited to:
Calling for, aiding, or justifying the killing or harming of Jews in the name of a radical ideology or an extremist view of religion.
Making mendacious, dehumanizing, demonizing, or stereotypical allegations about Jews as such or the power of Jews as collective — such as, especially but not exclusively, the myth about a world Jewish conspiracy or of Jews controlling the media, economy, government or other societal institutions.
Accusing Jews as a people of being responsible for real or imagined wrongdoing committed by a single Jewish person or group, or even for acts committed by non-Jews.
Denying the fact, scope, mechanisms (e.g. gas chambers) or intentionality of the genocide of the Jewish people at the hands of National Socialist Germany and its supporters and accomplices during World War II (the Holocaust).
Accusing the Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust.
Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.
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 a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.
Using the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism (e.g., claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis.
Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.
Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.
Antisemitic acts are criminal when they are so defined by law (for example, denial of the Holocaust or distribution of antisemitic materials in some countries).
Criminal acts are antisemitic when the targets of attacks, whether they are people or property – such as buildings, schools, places of worship and cemeteries – are selected because they are, or are perceived to be, Jewish or linked to Jews.
Antisemitic discrimination is the denial to Jews of opportunities or services available to others and is illegal in many countries.