The declining credibility of Palestinian objections to the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism

A dramatic sense of how this process is unfolding was on display at the United Nations—the citadel of global anti-Zionism.

Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas addresses the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 26, 2019. Credit: UN Photo/Cia Pak.
Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas addresses the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 26, 2019. Credit: UN Photo/Cia Pak.
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen, a senior analyst with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics.

A group of Palestinian and Arab intellectuals, 122 in all, endorsed a statement last week published by The Guardian newspaper that attacked the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism. These intellectuals were concerned because the definition continues to be adopted by hundreds of governments, local authorities and civic associations in the United States and across the world as an effective instrument for countering the hatred of Jews.

As is often the case such statements such as these, what wasn’t said was as telling to the critical reader as what did make the text.

It’s not that these Arab intellectuals endorse anti-Semitism. They declare early on that “no expression of hatred for Jews as Jews should be tolerated anywhere in the world.” They recognize, too, that anti-Semitism “manifests itself in sweeping generalizations and stereotypes about Jews, regarding power and money in particular, along with conspiracy theories and Holocaust denial.”

Yet despite featuring the names of some of the Arab world’s most respected academics, writers and filmmakers (arch-foes of Israel all), the statement on the IHRA definition at no point acknowledges that anti-Semitism as a social and religious phenomenon is deeply embedded within the Arab civilizations that these intellectuals represent. Instead, anti-Semitism is depicted as someone else’s problem, primarily Europe’s.

It is hard to take seriously the expressed commitment to fighting anti-Semitism in this statement in the face of such blatant airbrushing of Middle Eastern history. For millennia, Jews occupied a precarious place in Arab and Islamic societies, occasionally experiencing more benign rulers, but frequently serving as the targets of official discrimination and popular violence. That history, importantly, includes the Holocaust, as witnessed through the destruction of Jewish communities in German-occupied North Africa; the anti-Jewish riots in Baghdad, Cairo and other cities; and the broader ideological affinities between the Nazis and Arab nationalists, many of whom would come to power and expel their Jewish populations in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt and other countries in the coming decades.

None of this is apparently relevant to these intellectuals, who see their role as nourishing the national mythologies of the Arab world—specifically, that anti-Semitism is not an Arab problem and, relatedly, that the problem of anti-Semitism has been imposed upon the Arabs as a result of European and American backing for Zionism, and the consequent “ethnic cleansing” of the Palestinians during Israel’s War of Independence in 1948.

It is this last claim that gets to heart of the objection these intellectuals have towards the IHRA definition. Recognizing that anti-Semitism is a dynamic phenomenon, the definition includes as examples both classic tropes about Jews and more modern ones that revolve around Israel and Zionism. Asserting that Jews as a nation have no right to self-determination and depicting the State of Israel as a racist original sin against the Palestinians are, under the terms of the definition, indubitably anti-Semitic.

Not surprisingly, this grouping of intellectuals is infuriated that the very positions they promote—that Israel is a racist undertaking, that Jews are an invented nation, that Israeli policies towards the Palestinians are a reincarnation of the Nazi persecution of the Jews—are defined as anti-Semitic, and therefore as morally and politically tainted, by a growing segment of international opinion. But instead of honestly reviewing these positions in the light of historical changes—something that intellectuals are supposed to do—they have simply doubled down on the discredited anti-Zionist campaign that was waged by Arab regimes and the Arab League before Israel even came into existence.

Centrally, they want to establish as an uncontested fact—in exactly the way that the Holocaust or the Cambodian genocide or the Transatlantic slave trade are uncontested facts—the Palestinian claim that Israel’s creation was a nakba (“catastrophe”). “As it currently exists, (my emphasis) the state of Israel is based on uprooting the vast majority of the natives—what Palestinians and Arabs refer to as the nakba—and on subjugating those natives who still live on the territory of historical Palestine as either second-class citizens or people under occupation, denying them their right to self-determination,” the statement reads.

Those states and bodies that have endorsed the IHRA definition understand this argument very differently. They do not see it as an objective statement of fact, but as a highly politicized account of the origins, nature and policies of the Jewish state. They do not accept as uncontested the claim that Israel, in the process of establishing its independence, deliberately expelled 750,000 Palestinian Arabs, or that Israel is solely responsible for the perpetuation of the refugee question almost 80 years on. Indeed, partly because of the IHRA definition’s spread, a growing number of opinion-shapers are beginning to understand that the anti-Zionist explanation for the plight of the Palestinians is itself built upon an anti-Semitic caricature of the Zionist undertaking.

Coincidentally, a dramatic sense of how this process is unfolding was on display at the United Nations—the citadel of global anti-Zionism—in the same week that the IHRA statement was published. The General Assembly passed five routine anti-Israel resolutions that essentially renewed the operations of the Division for Palestinian Rights—a dedicated department of U.N. employees who service the various anti-Israel committees, conferences and propaganda campaigns that operate under the General Assembly’s aegis.

Up until very recently, such resolutions would pass by a predictably large majority, as the governments of democracies and autocracies alike colluded in perpetuating a massive anti-Zionist propaganda apparatus that has existed within the United Nations for more than 40 years. But in the last decade, the number of member states abstaining on or opposing these very same resolutions has increased dramatically. In 2011, a total of 114 states voted in favor of the resolutions. In 2020, that number sank to 82, with 78 U.N. member states openly opposing, abstaining on or not reporting for the vote on the resolutions.

As the strategic significance of the Palestinian issue has receded over the last few years, the use of the nakba as a narrative to undermine both the Jewish claim to national self-determination and the fight against anti-Semitism in its anti-Zionist guise is becoming less and less effective. In time, perhaps, some Arab intellectuals will realize that this development was, above all, a stroke of good fortune for the Palestinians, helping to liberate them from their damaging shibboleths towards a life of peace and looking forward.

Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.

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