For the last four years, we’ve fought a battle to stop supporters of Israel silencing Palestinians through the IHRA definition of antisemitism and its attached examples. It’s a definition that treats opposition to Israel and its founding ideology Zionism as a form of anti-Jewish racism.
In Britain, the IHRA definition has been steamrollered through political parties, central and local government and universities.
The right used it to undermine, then drive out Jeremy Corbyn and many of his supporters from the Labour Party. Council bosses have pulled the plug on Palestine solidarity events due to be held local authority premises. And on campuses, supporters of Israel have used it to attack lecturers and demand their dismissal.
However, the terrain decisively shifted last week with the publication of the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism (JDA).
Over 200 prestigious Jewish scholars of Jewish history, Israeli history, Holocaust studies and antisemitism—many of them Israeli—supported the document. They condemn the IHRA definition and explain how it undermines the fight against antisemitism. And they also argue that legitimate criticism of Israel, and political criticism of the Zionist movement, cannot be treated coherently as antisemitic acts.
The very existence of this definition gives the lie to the claim that antisemitism can only be fought by adopting the IHRA definition.
The JDA’s definition is blunt and specific, saying, “Antisemitism is discrimination, prejudice, hostility or violence against Jews as Jews (or Jewish institutions as Jewish)”. This avoids the vagueness and ambiguity in the IHRA, which says, “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews."
But, what’s most important, are the guidelines for the interpretation of the definition. There are 15 guidelines in 3 sections. In the first section, different forms of antisemitism are identified. The second section identifies ways in which criticisms of Israel or of Zionism can be antisemitic. And the third section lays out forms of criticism of Israel and Zionism that are not antisemitic.
The section excludes criticism of Zionism as a political ideology, criticism of Israel as a state and of Israeli state policy from the charge of antisemitism. It requires independent grounds to identify such a motivation.
This does not mean the JDA is without problems.
There are suggestions that institutions that have adopted the IHRA could adopt the JDA on top, using it as an interpretive tool. That will become the preferred option, especially in the English universities sector, where managements will want to deflect the ire of Tory education secretary Gavin Williamson.
But this approach is less than helpful. The prime task in universities, local authorities and other institutions where the IHRA has been adopted is not to revise their interpretation of the definition. It’s to rescind any decision to adopt it, and to replace it with the Jerusalem Declaration.
To adopt both would be to create a contradictory situation of a semi permanent dispute for trade unions and managements.
There is still the issue of whether it is appropriate for any institution to adopt a definition of one specific racism.
If it does so, is that because it suffers from a disproportionately high level of antisemitic attitudes or behaviour? If not, is it not creating a hierarch of racisms, with some being considered more important than others and deserving of an institutional definition?
As a declaration designed to counter the IHRA definition, it’s not surprising that most of the JDA’s guidelines are focussed on Zionism and Israel.
But antisemitism is a reactionary weapon of the right. The rise of antisemitic incidents and statements comes from the racist, populist and fascist movements, not the left and Palestine solidarity movements. This is not mentioned in the declaration.
Moreover, its focus on Israel and Palestine risks intensifying the prejudice that the Palestinian struggle is in some way related to antisemitism. This focus then raises some key questions about the failure to consult Palestinian civil society, which arguably led to lack of clarity in clause 10 of section B.
It labels as antisemitic criticism of Israel that denies “the right of Jews in the State of Israel to exist and flourish, collectively and individually, as Jews, in accordance with the principle of equality”.
Any just settlement would have to defend this abstract right and implement it in practice. Yet what does it mean precisely and where is the explicit statement of equality? Where’s the right of Palestinians—whether the 23 percent of Israel’s population that’s Palestinian, the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza or those displaced in refugee camps?
The JDA’s defenders say the clause is confined to the State of Israel, not Israel’s illegal settlements, and point to the reference to the “principle of equality”. But the appeal to abstract principles rings hollow in the circumstances of a settler colonial and apartheid state.
Nevertheless, important sections of Palestinian civil society have welcomed the JDA. It’s an alternative to the IHRA and respects the right of Palestinians and their supporters to criticise Israel and Zionism.
And most significantly, it explicitly affirms that a boycott of Israel—and so the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement—is not antisemitic.
The Declaration does three very important things. First, it is a clear statement in favour of free expression on Israel unless there is independent evidence of racist intent. Second, it lays out the basis for the defence of individuals who are maliciously accused of antisemitism. And third, it provides the arguments that undermine any facile conflation of anti-Zionism and antisemitism.
It does not present itself as a judicial or a semi-judicial tool designed for disciplinary purposes. Rather, it seeks to open a terrain where we can debate and gain clarity on how to understand antisemitism and its variety of forms. And it seeks to do that by categorically distinguishing between antisemitism and anti-Zionism. So it is primarily an educational tool.
For Palestine solidarity activists, trade unionists and socialists, it constitutes a powerful tool in resisting the suppression of Palestinian voices.
We can use it in trade union case work and in mobilisations to defend staff who are falsely accused of antisemitism. It is also useful in negotiations to demonstrate that there is no one definition of antisemitism that commands universal approval and which can be adopted with confidence.
And, if there are local reasons for a specific definition, then it offers itself as one without the IHRA’s serious threats to freedom of speech on Palestine.