What the war over the IHRA definition obscures

Amid the mudslinging, the core issues of anti-Semitism and the escalating attacks against Jews and Jewish institutions are marginalized and even forgotten.

The front doors of Montreal’s Congregation Shaar Hashomayim were spray-painted with swastikas on Jan. 13, 2021. Courtesy: Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center.
The front doors of Montreal’s Congregation Shaar Hashomayim were spray-painted with swastikas on Jan. 13, 2021. Courtesy: Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center.
Gerald M. Steinberg
Gerald M. Steinberg is president of NGO Monitor and a professor of politics at Bar-Ilan University.

One of Montreal’s largest synagogues was vandalized and defaced on Jan. 13 with anti-Semitic symbols, including a swastika. The perpetrator was a supporter of anti-Israel boycotts and had been influenced by their propaganda campaigns. A few days earlier, three Israel-linked restaurants in Portland, Ore., were vandalized with “Free Palestine” graffiti. These attacks add to a lengthening list of anti-Semitic incidents around the world, including murderous attacks on synagogues, museums and Israeli institutions, 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 increasing levels of Holocaust denial 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 anti-Semitism … 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 BDS movement, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, are among the most vocal in attacking the IHRA definition.

Using this excuse, a group described as German cultural leaders launched an effort to rescind the Bundestag resolution adopting the definition and referring 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 Israel Defense Forces to the Nazis or labeling the Jewish state as inherently racist.

Amid 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. By politicizing and undermining this consensus, 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 European Union 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 President Joe Biden to head the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and will preside over a massive increase in funding for NGOs, should follow the E.U.’s lead and ensure that any group that promotes anti-Semitism will be ineligible for American government funding.

Defeating the perpetrators of 21st-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 a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University and president of the Institute for NGO Research.

This article first appeared in the Jewish Journal.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
You have read 3 articles this month.
Register to receive full access to JNS.

Just before you scroll on...

Israel is at war.

JNS is combating the stream of misinformation on Israel with real, honest and factual reporting. In order to deliver this in-depth, unbiased coverage of Israel and the Jewish world, we rely on readers like you.

The support you provide allows our journalists to deliver the truth, free from bias and hidden agendas. Can we count on your support?

Every contribution, big or small, helps JNS.org remain a trusted source of news you can rely on.

Become a part of our mission by donating today
Thank you. You are a loyal JNS Reader.
You have read more than 10 articles this month.
Please register for full access to continue reading and post comments.
Never miss a thing
Get the best stories faster with JNS breaking news updates