Remarkably, during the week of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, enemies of the Jewish people—and especially of Israel—mounted a vicious attack on a definition of anti-Semitism adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), an organization representing 34 member states, including the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and most European nations.
That the IHRA definition is an honest, painstaking effort to reach a consensus view on what constitutes Jew-hatred doesn’t daunt Israel’s enemies, who fear its power. They object to the definition, which is this:
“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.”
The rest of the definition is full of examples that can be used as illustrations of when something is anti-Semitic.
Anti-Semitism is a unique form of prejudice that has permeated all levels of society and rages at both ends of the ideological spectrum. It has been called “the oldest hatred” because it is; it predates almost all others, especially in the West.
Unfortunately, there has never been a definition of anti-Semitism before due to resistance from those who might fall under its rubric.
Jews are unique in being one of the few victims of racism in Western society where the boundaries of what constitutes hate are set by the haters themselves, and not the victims.
However, in 1993, black teenager Stephen Lawrence was brutally murdered in a racist attack in London. During the subsequent inquiry into the murder and its ramifications, the official inquiry defined a racist attack as “any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim.”
According to this formulation—which is now widely accepted in legal circles in the United Kingdom and generally in the United States—Jews should be allowed to define whether an attack against them is a hate crime or not.
For too long, anti-Semitism has been defined by those who perpetrate it, its boundaries decided by those who defend them. They know the lack of a definition means that anti-Semites will continue to act with immunity and impunity.
In many cases, anti-Semites try to turn the tables, accusing the accuser. “The Livingstone Formulation,” named after the notoriously anti-Semitic former mayor of London, is a “response to an accusation of antisemitism,” wrote David Hirsh, the man who coined the term and a lecturer at the University of London, “which enables the user to refuse to engage with the charge made. It is a mirror that bounces back an accusation of antisemitism against anybody who makes it. It contains a counter-charge of dishonest Jewish (or “Zionist”) conspiracy.”
Since some of the examples focus on attacks on Israel that cross the line into anti-Semitism, some have raised the malicious and false accusation that the definition stifles debate about the Jewish state. It clearly does not.
It is only considered anti-Semitism when a person or institution delegitimizes, demonizes or subjects Israel to double standards (the “Three Ds” formulated by Natan Sharansky).
Some examples of this are:
• 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 anti-Semitism (e.g., claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis.
• Drawing comparisons between contemporary Israeli policy and that of the Nazis.
In other words, the overwhelming majority of criticism about Israel and its policies do not constitute anti-Semitism under the IHRA definition. Those who claim that adopting the definition will have a “chilling” effect on debate and is an attempt to repress speech about Israel cannot show a single example of it being used in this manner. This is a red-herring issue raised by some in bad faith, but unfortunately, by many in good faith.
Though the IHRA definition identifies actions of both the left and right as anti-Semitic, the issue has recently become politicized and weaponized against Jews, characterized as an act of bad faith or an attempt to stifle debate about Israel.
For example, the Progressive Israel Network recently issued a joint statement in opposition to adopting the universal definition.
“We are thus obligated to share our concerns about ways in which the effort to combat anti-Semitism is being misused and exploited to instead suppress legitimate free speech, criticism of Israeli government actions and advocacy for Palestinian rights,” the statement read.
Deplorably, a large number of those who oppose the definition include leftist anti-Zionist groups with Jewish leadership, such as J Street, New Israel Fund, Peace Now and IfNotNow. Dave Rich, director of policy at the Community Security Trust and a leading expert on left-wing anti-Semitism, argues that these accusations rest on a “misrepresentation of what the definition says and does,” “unevidenced claims” about its impact and confusion regarding its legal status and power.
Defining anti-Semitism is absolutely essential to fighting it. It places a line between what is legitimate and what is hate speech, including incitement against the Jewish people and the Jewish state.
The IHRA definition exposes those who use attacks on Israel and Zionism as a politically correct substitute for attacking Jews. If we look at such accusations, they generally follow the same ancient motifs of anti-Semitism that have been used against Jews throughout the centuries.
A prime example is Rep. Rashida Tlaib’s latest accusation—republished by many news media—that Israel is an apartheid state because it “refuses” to provide COVID-19 vaccinations to Palestinians. Of course, Palestinians live under the exclusive healthcare jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority, which also refuses any dealings with the Israeli government. Tlaib’s slander parallels the medieval blood libel, which asserted that Jews murdered Christians to use their blood in religious rituals.
For this reason, it’s vital (and high time) that we fight for the adoption of this definition, so the Jewish people can have what all other minorities currently do: the right to define prejudice and hate used against it. The right to identify our enemies clearly and fight against them.
James Sinkinson is president of Facts and Logic About the Middle East (FLAME), which publishes educational messages to correct lies and misperceptions about Israel and its relationship to the United States.