What the War Over the IHRA Definition Obscures

The counter-IHRA campaign is opening the door for even more violence targeting Israeli and Jewish institutions.
January 25, 2021
Photo by tzahiV/Getty Images

On January 13, one of Montreal’s largest synagogues was vandalized and defaced with anti-Semitic symbols, including a swastika. The perpetrator was a supporter of anti-Israel boycotts and had been influenced by their propaganda campaigns. And a few days earlier, three Israel-linked restaurants in Portland, Oregon, were vandalized with “free Palestine” graffiti. These attacks add to the lengthening list of anti-Semitic incidents around the world, including murderous attacks on synagogues, museums and Israeli institutions, triggered by Jew-haters from the left and the right.

In parallel, an acrimonious and seemingly independent debate is taking place around the working definition of anti-Semitism developed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). This framework was formed by a number of governments in 1998 in response to the increasing levels of Holocaust denialism and anti-Semitism. As part of this process, the organization developed a working definition of anti-Semitism, including a number of examples, some of which relate to Israel and the anti-Zionist form of anti-Semitism. These include “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination,” applying double standards not “demanded of any other democratic nation,” using symbols “associated with classic antisemitism…to characterize Israel or Israelis” or comparing “contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.”

Since 2016, this document has been formally adopted by 30 governments, mainly in Europe, North America and Australia, as well as by international institutions. In addition, a number of parliaments have endorsed the text, and, in many cases, universities and other important institutions use the definition in the form of guidelines for assessing anti-Semitic behavior.

But for some vocal organizations and individuals, the Israel-related examples of anti-Semitism are unacceptable and are portrayed, or distorted, as attempts to “silence criticism” of Israeli policies in the conflict with the Palestinians or even as “threats to democracy.” NGOs at the forefront of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, are among the most vocal in attacking the IHRA definition. Using the “silence criticism” excuse, a group described as German cultural leaders launched an effort to rescind the Bundestag resolution that adopted the working definition and referred to BDS as a form of anti-Semitism. And the World Council of Churches has repeated the slogans rejecting the definition while still questioning the very concept of Jewish sovereign equality.

Like so much of the discourse on Israel, the Jewish people and anti-Semitism, the IHRA debate has become entangled in fierce ideological wars and the accompanying symbolic politics. Joining the campaign under the banner of “progressive values,” influential groups that frequently critique Israel — including J-Street, the New Israel Fund and American Friends of Peace Now — claim that the “codification of the IHRA working definition,” specifically its “contemporary examples,” create the potential for misuse to “suppress legitimate free speech” and prevent “criticism of Israeli government actions.” ”

In reality, there is no such misuse — there is plenty of room to criticize Israeli policies without resorting to discriminatory boycotts, comparing the IDF to the Nazis or labeling the Jewish state as inherently racist.

Amidst the mudslinging, the core issues of anti-Semitism and the escalating attacks against Jews and Jewish institutions are marginalized and even forgotten. By contrast, the IHRA working definition reflects the international consensus on what constitutes anti-Semitism and the most effective means of countering the poisonous incitement that leads to assaults. By politicizing and undermining this consensus, the counter-IHRA campaign is opening the door for even more violence targeting Israeli and Jewish institutions.

The counter-IHRA campaign is opening the door for even more violence targeting Israeli and Jewish institutions.

Contrary to the political campaigns, a number of important measures have been taken recently to strengthen this consensus and accelerate the implementation of the working definition. Of particular importance is the European Union’s new “Handbook for the practical use of the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism,” which includes a section on applying its terms to the “funding by governments and international actors.” For many years, the EU and a number of European governments ignored the anti-Semitic activities of the NGOs that they fund under the banners of human rights, international aid and even peacebuilding. The Handbook should serve as a useful tool to hold grantees accountable for incitement and hate.

In the United States, it is important that Biden administration officials give serious attention to the fights against anti-Semitism and implement the IHRA working definition. Samantha Power, who has been designated by Biden to head the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and will preside over a massive increase in funding for NGOs, should follow the EU’s lead and ensure that any group that promotes anti-Semitism will be ineligible for American government funding.

Defeating the perpetrators of twenty-first-century anti-Semitism, from the left and from the right, will require a sustained international effort on many fronts. In this context, the IHRA working definition represents a major source of clarity and legitimacy, and expanding its implementation is directly tied to progress in the war against hatred.

Gerald M. Steinberg is emeritus professor of political science at Bar Ilan University in Israel, and heads the Institute for NGO Research in Jerusalem. 

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