ANTISEMITISM: a defining moment

Julia Bard looks at the Jerusalem Declaration and assesses its potential to re-set the political dial

Published in the Jewish Socialist, 3 August 2021.

I know they said there would be no exams this year, but here’s a question just to keep you in practice. Compare and contrast these two definitions of antisemitism. Discuss them in terms of their clarity, efficacy and what you might deduce from the text about their purpose.
1. Antisemitism is discrimination, prejudice, hostility or violence against Jews as Jews (or Jewish institutions as Jewish).
Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism (JDA), 2021
2. 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.
International Holocaust Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of Antisemitism, 2016
Don’t worry if you’re struggling with the second one. You’re not alone. In fact, anticipating your difficulty, the authors have helpfully provided 11 examples to illustrate what “a certain perception of Jews” and “directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals” could possibly mean. Unfortunately, though, many of the examples have proved even more controversial and confusing than the definition itself.
Thousands of words of criticism have been written (including by Kenneth Stern, its key author) about both the IHRA Working Definition itself and the way it has been employed. These have focused mainly on two issues: that institutions have come under intense pressure to adopt the definition on pain of being branded antisemitic; and that seven out of the 11 examples seem to elide “Jews” with “Israel”, designating certain types of criticism of Israel’s actions antisemitic but making any criticism of Israel appear suspect.
One of the IHRA’s “contemporary examples of antisemitism”, for instance, is: “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour.” I won’t take the entire phrase apart here, but despite its apparent simplicity, it encapsulates and perpetuates highly contested assumptions. One is that “the Jewish people” – all of us – equate self-determination with a Jewish state. This is an astonishing claim about a group that has lived as an identifiable minority amongst other peoples across the world for millennia. The drive for Jewish self-determination is not and never has been predicated on a nation state. Even if such a state was like the Garden of Eden before the Fall, rather than one that dispossesses and abuses the rights of another people, most Jews would (as they do now) choose to live wherever they find themselves in the world. Unfounded claims and oversimplifications of this sort are scattered through the “contemporary examples”.
Although the IHRA website announces it as a “non-legally binding working definition of antisemitism”, and bills the examples as a “guide” that “may serve as illustrations” (my italics), proponents of the Working Definition have insisted on the exact opposite. They have demanded that the examples be treated as integral to the definition, and the whole caboodle used to enforce its perspective and to punish dissent. And that is how it has panned out in many of the organisations and agencies that have adopted it – including the Labour Party – whether willingly, under duress or after bitter arguments.
In a New Statesman article which takes repeated aim at Jeremy Corbyn, Robert R Singer of the World Jewish Congress presents, with all its contradictions, the demand to superglue the examples to the definition itself and to treat the resulting bundle as legally binding. Firstly, he says, the Labour Party “should unequivocally accept the non-legally binding definition of anti-Semitism already adopted and sanctioned by the British government.” Then he insists that “national parliaments need to recognise the importance of applying the definition systematically, to yield as an effective tool for law enforcement. Adopt; encode; and enforce.” (My italics.)
This has not only stifled discussion about Zionism, the Occupation and the Palestinian struggle for justice at a time of increasingly harsh repression, but it’s had no impact on rising levels of antisemitism. Indeed, the governments of some of the countries that have adopted or endorsed it – including Austria, Hungary, Lithuania and the USA under Trump – have turned a blind eye to and in some cases fanned the flames of antisemitism.
Whatever its usefulness or otherwise in fighting anti-Jewish racism, the argument over the IHRA Working Definition has undoubtedly been a proxy for wider and deeper political conflicts. This was amplified in Britain by its launch in May 2016 coinciding with a wave of accusations that the Labour Party, under its new left-wing leader, had suddenly become infested with antisemitism.
Arguments over antisemitism and the meaning, uses and interpretations of the Holocaust are not new. In academia, in politics and over family dinner tables, this has been a topic of complex and emotionally charged debate since the Second World War. But until recently, the boundary between valid questions and an antisemitic rewriting of the history of the Nazi genocide seemed reasonably clear; and when it was breached, the courts were brought in to rule, as in the case of the self-styled historian, David Irving.
Now those certainties seem, at best, to be crumbling. At one extreme there are more diffuse and pervasive attempts to distort or deny the Holocaust; at the other is concerted pressure to interpret the history of persecution through a singular, Israel-centred, Zionist ideology. A disturbing aspect of this ramping up of the erosion and instrumentalisation of this history is the timing. The unseemly scramble for ownership of the narrative has coincided with the last of the generation who lived through the Holocaust reaching the end of their lives. While they were with us, they could – and did – object vociferously to the use and misuse of their suffering and loss. Now they are gone, the key shared understandings of this painful but still recent history seem to be up for grabs.
This is the context in which the IHRA Working Definition evolved. It started life in 2005 as the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) Working Definition of Antisemitism. This was drafted to include supposedly “new forms [of antisemitism] that related to Israel”. From the start, this definition and the concept of a “new antisemitism” were roundly criticised by academics and campaigning groups within and beyond the Jewish community, and it seemed to have been abandoned. Then, in 2016, it resurfaced, slightly edited, but with all its logical inconsistency and ideological bias intact, as the IHRA Working Definition.
Various bodies that claim speak for all Britain’s Jews, from the 260-year-old Board of Deputies to the recently assembled, entirely unelected, Jewish Leadership Council, forcefully presented the IHRA Working Definition as the definitive recipe for tackling antisemitism, and they and the mainstream news channels repeatedly (and inaccurately) billed it as “the internationally recognised definition” of antisemitism (my emphasis). Political parties, local councils, universities and colleges, state and private institutions, trade unions and other organisations were given the impression (and many readily accepted) that adopting it would grant them the Jewish community’s seal of approval for their commitment to fighting the scourge of antisemitism – and the converse, that not adopting it would be antisemitic. This meant that any attempts to question or even clarify the definition or provide caveats were tainted as antisemitic or at least insensitive to Jewish people’s experience, even though many of the objections to it came from Jews themselves.
At the same time, every debate about the IHRA Working Definition has generated echoes of other arguments. This has drowned out urgent and necessary discussions, not only about Israel/Palestine and Zionism, but also about the point of the exercise: how to understand and challenge antisemitism, just at a time when incidents are rising in the UK and elsewhere.
There seemed to be no way out of this predicament until the launch of the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism (JDA) on 25th March 2021. This was the outcome of a year’s work, endorsed by an international group of 200 scholars in Holocaust history, Jewish studies and Middle East studies, whose aim was to “provid[e] clear guidance to identify and fight antisemitism while protecting free expression”.
The Declaration’s preamble positions it unambiguously as a response to the IHRA definition, which, it says, “has caused confusion and generated controversy, hence weakening the fight against antisemitism”. Instead, the JDA aims to provide a clear definition and a more responsive approach to dealing with antisemitism in practice.
This is a strategic intervention in an ideological conflict which has numerous moving parts – within the Jewish community, between Jews and other minorities, and between Jews and the wider society, as well as an international dimension.
It has been widely welcomed by Jewish antiracists and campaigners who have not only struggled to interpret the peculiar wording of the IHRA text, but are outraged by how it has been invoked to weaponise antisemitism in proxy battles between right and left, between Zionists and anti-Zionists, and to inhibit, if not silence, Palestinians and their supporters.
The IHRA Working Definition has also undermined our ability to challenge antisemitism by particularising the Jewish experience of victimisation and oppression as if it is unrelated to other manifestations  of racism. It implies that Jewish people face a unique struggle, standing alone against a hostile world. Far from helping or encouraging Jews to find common ground with other communities under pressure, its impact has been to divide us from other minorities. Where it has been used in practice, it has been detrimental both to the campaign for justice for the Palestinians and to building the broad-based anti-racist alliances that we need to fight antisemitism.
The JDA’s authors reject this particularism, basing their definition firmly on internationally agreed universalist principles, including the Declaration of Human Rights. In contrast, they say, “[We] hold that while antisemitism has certain distinctive features, the fight against it is inseparable from the overall fight against all forms of racial, ethnic, cultural, religious, and gender discrimination.
This difference in framing the problem of antisemitism is crucial for how we work to prevent it. Our ability to challenge antisemitism depends on solidarity and shared interests with other minorities. We have to acknowledge our differences but put them on one side in order to find common ground from which to work together.
The authors themselves have been through this process and say that they “do not all share the same political views and … are not seeking to promote a partisan political agenda.” They assert that disapproval of a view or action is not the same as defining it as antisemitic – a distinction that has been deliberately or otherwise obscured in the fog of war over this question.
Most importantly, the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism has unblocked the path to discussion and analysis of what antisemitism is, where it comes from, why, how it is manifested, and its relationship to other forms of racism, so we can develop effective, dynamic, multifaceted ways to tackle it.
By providing a clear alternative, not flawless but drafted in good faith, the JDA is opening up opportunities to reverse the adoption of the IHRA Working Definition, whose divisiveness has made it more difficult, rather than easier, to challenge antisemitism. And that’s already happening. University College London has now overturned a 2019 decision to adopt the IHRA Working Definition “and replace it with one that respects Academic Freedom and freedom of speech”. Goldsmiths and other universities are following suit.
This is an important chance for us to campaign for our political parties, workplaces, schools, colleges, councils and trade unions to rethink the decision to adopt the IHRA Working Definition, which many organisations were coerced into, and which is plainly not helping them fight antisemitism.
The JDA does not bill itself as the ultimate answer. It is not a “one size fits all” solution to a complex, multi-layered problem. It elucidates the distinction between antisemitism and criticism of Zionism and Israel, and aligns itself with work for human rights and social justice everywhere and opposition to all forms of racism. It is also explicitly open to change, if that is what’s needed. So it is a tool that organisations and institutions can use to respond sensitively to different manifestations of antisemitism in their particular context, not a commandment, carrying a penalty that threatens jobs, political careers and reputations of anyone who dares to think differently.
Many socialist Jews are campaigning to win people to progressive politics within the Jewish community at the same time as working to ensure that the issues we face as Jews, including antisemitism, are understood and addressed on the left. The JDA is an important vehicle for us to restart debate and build bridges.
Despite many objections, the conservative (big and small c) bodies that claim to speak for all Jews assert that the IHRA Working Definition represents the view of the Jewish community. This is an attempt to marginalise any Jews who reject it and to discredit them in wider, non-Jewish political arenas, such as the Conservative Party or among the Labour right. And, together with an approach that makes no distinction of scale or seriousness between a 10-year-old ill-informed passing comment on social media and a violent attack or swastika daubing, has made it infinitely harder to challenge antisemitism when we do encounter it on the left.
Just as one personal example, in a discussion among some Labour Party comrades, I recently sounded a warning note about people using the names “Rothschild” and “Goldman Sachs” as code for “banks” or “the finance industry”. Without reproducing the argument, what was striking was that most people instantly fled from the conversation. Rather than wanting to understand and resolve the issue, they simply didn’t want to get tangled up in it. Those who stayed were disproportionately angry with me for raising the subject because the stakes were so high. They were worried about taking a wrong step or being misquoted beyond our closed group in case they ended up being suspended or expelled from the Party. Far from being able to explore and analyse the impact of this rhetoric, people were so fearful of the topic that it was left unresolved, and that’s how it remains.
At the same time, on request from someone who claims to speak for the Jewish community, Keir Starmer pulled out of an Iftar gathering – the evening meal to break the daily fast during Ramadan – to which he had been invited in a traditional Muslim gesture of welcome. He walked away because one of the participants had encouraged people not to eat dates from illegal settlements in the Occupied West Bank. Was Starmer afraid that being in the same room as such a person would be construed as (or actually) colluding with antisemitism – so afraid that he was prepared to make headlines by publicly insulting his hosts as well as Muslims in general? This is stretching any definition so far out of shape that it is unrecognisable.
Definitions have their limitations (and I think the campaign among some Muslims for the government to produce a definition of Islamophobia as an equivalent of the IHRA is seriously misplaced). However, a definition that is designed not as a political cosh, but is well and honestly crafted in accordance with the universal principles of social justice, can be a basis for confronting antisemitism in practice. Whether that means educating people, changing hearts and minds, dismantling discriminatory structures and practices, challenging political abuse, as in countries like Hungary and Poland, or dealing with rising levels of physical and verbal attacks in Britain and elsewhere, it can’t be done without an understanding that antisemitism can only be fought in solidarity with other targeted groups, that “What is true of racism in general is true of antisemitism in particular.”
The IHRA Working Definition is finally unravelling, but over the last five years it has set back the real fight against antisemitism. We have a lot of work to do to replace it, to end its use in weaponising anti-Jewish racism, and to rebuild alliances and solidarity with other minorities.
The Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism has presented us with an opportunity to strengthen the fight against racism everywhere, including the vital challenge to antisemitism which has been so ill-served by the IHRA Working Definition. If we seize this opportunity, we can also ensure that it is used to create crucial space for progressive campaigners to understand and contribute to the liberation of the peoples of Palestine and Israel.   

Julia Bard wrote this article for Jewish Socialist No.75. The views of contributors to the Balfour Project are not necessarily those of the Project itself.

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