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Antisemitism ‘working definition’ not a ‘work in progress,’ say new IHRA co-presidents

The two women leaders from Croatia also want the public to know about the group’s working definitions on Holocaust denial and anti-Roma discrimination.

Terezija Gras (left) and Sara Lustig, co-chairs of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. Credit: Courtesy.
Terezija Gras (left) and Sara Lustig, co-chairs of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. Credit: Courtesy.

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) is in the news a good deal these days. The intergovernmental organization is best known for its working definition of antisemitism, which many nations and institutions have adopted. Pro-Israel supporters tend to view it as the gold standard and a prerequisite to combating antisemitism, while critics, who often oppose Israel, claim that it stifles legitimate criticism.

IHRA, which then Swedish Prime Minister Göran Persson formed in 1998, unites 35 member and 10 observer countries. Citing security concerns, IHRA would not confirm the exact location of its Berlin offices, but a reported address appears to be some five blocks from the Brandenburg Gate. A staff of 20 works at the Berlin office and 411 active delegates can be found in IHRA’s member countries, according to IHRA.

While the alliance’s presidency changes annually, since March 1, Terezija Gras and Sara Lustig, both of Croatia, have been co-presidents. Gras is the republic’s state secretary for European affairs, international relations and E.U. funds in the interior ministry, and Lustig is special adviser to the Croatian prime minister for Holocaust issues, combating antisemitism and relations with Jewish organizations and communities.

In an exclusive interview with JNS from Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, each outlined her priorities and hopes for the organization.

Lustig said she hopes that more countries become IHRA member states in both the near and long term, and she also hopes that they, and organizations, adopt not only the antisemitism working definition, but also IHRA’s working definitions on Holocaust denial and distortion, and antigypsyism/anti-Roma discrimination.

IHRA was prescient in realizing 10 years ago that Holocaust denial and distortion were on the rise, according to Lustig. She said those troubling views and actions were already moving from the academy—as in the much-publicized libel lawsuit against Deborah Lipstadt, now U.S. special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism at the State Department—to the mainstream, including social media.

Since 2018, IHRA has held “countering distortion” and “safeguarding the record” as strategic priorities. With the global pandemic and with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the distortion of facts is becoming more common in public, Lustig told JNS.

“My biggest hope is for countering distortion to become part of how we collectively remember the future of remembrance,” she said.

The “future of remembrance” initiative is the “overarching theme of our presidency,” Gras told JNS. It responds to aging Holocaust survivors and the need to plan for the time when there will no longer be living survivors to testify to their experiences during World War II and the Holocaust.

“We all have to think how we will preserve their memory in the future,” she said. The initiative uses digital tools to preserve survivors’ stories with plans underway to convene a conference and other events.

The first IHRA Plenary Session of the Swedish IHRA Presidency, Together for Impact, took place in Stockholm from June 20-23, 2022. Photo: Magnus Liljegren/Government Offices of Sweden

‘What it is and what it does’

JNS asked if the IHRA co-presidents worry that some might misunderstand the term “working definition” and think it suggests tentativeness or some other form of hedging.

“It’s called the ‘working definition’ for it to be what it is—and that is an action-based tool, a practical tool,” Lustig told JNS. “The fact that it’s called a ‘working definition’ does not mean that it’s a work in progress, so much as it’s very clear what it is and clear what it does.”

Lustig also reflected on another part of the working definition that she said people misconstrue—that it muzzles legitimate criticism of Israel. Acknowledging that an individual can criticize Israel without being antisemitic is one of the “contemporary examples” that IHRA appends to the working definition, she said.

“One of the examples is denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination by saying that the existence of the State of Israel is a racist endeavor,” she explained. “That’s what the definition says. I personally would say that does not stifle the criticism of Israel. All it says is that Israel is allowed to exist and have the right to self-determination. Those are two very different things.”

Gras told JNS that the working definition, like all the items in IHRA’s toolkit, “is the product of international and interdisciplinary consensus, and it provides practical, real-world guidance for educators and others who hope to understand and monitor antisemitism.”

Antisemitism is a problem “present in all of our societies and states, so we all have a responsibility to act, to really speak out when we see such forms of discrimination,” Gras added. “Much has been done, but I think there is still much more to do.”

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