Australia/Israel Review


The Last Word: A Definition and its Discontents

Oct 26, 2021 | Jeremy Jones

The IHRA Working Definition is being targeted by people who effectively oppose any action against antisemitism
The IHRA Working Definition is being targeted by people who effectively oppose any action against antisemitism

Earlier this year, an “open letter” appeared in print and online, which opened, “We the undersigned regret any attempt to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s IHRA definition of antisemitism [sic].”

The signatories stressed their “deepest concern” at Labor Shadow Foreign Minister Senator Penny Wong having publicly “asserted federal Labor’s adoption” of the Working Definition. 

The full letter rehashed familiar fantasies concerning the way issues relating to Israel are debated in Australia and contained both a revisionist history of the adoption of the definition and a comical summary of its content.

Most of the signatories had no track records indicating a concern with the problem of antisemitism, while a number had rather dubious relations with Jewish Australians. 

A few days after the letter was published, I was at an event in Sydney where I encountered a signatory of the letter. He told me that the definition had to be opposed as he was informed it was a product of nefarious Israeli propaganda and intelligence efforts as part of an attempt to stop any exposure of Israeli interference in Australian politics.

When I told him I was involved in a minor way in drafting the definition and had firsthand knowledge of what had inspired it and who had been the most important individuals in its genesis and development, I received a blank stare. 

When I asked for a single example of the Working Definition having been the key factor in stopping any criticism of Israel which he himself would not have regarded as antisemitic, I was told that this was beside the point – what mattered is that any action against antisemitism helped Israel, so he would remain steadfast in his opposition to it.

A publisher of the letter told me he hadn’t bothered reading the IHRA Working Definition but happily promoted the letter as he felt that condemning antisemitism could help Israel, and he wanted to do what he could to promote an environment where any form of attacks on Israel could flourish. 

The Working Definition is concerned with antisemitism, in the process recognising that some antisemitism is disguised as political debate. 

Some of the campaigners against the adoption of the Working Definition in Australia make it clear that “anything goes” in the war on Israel, declaring that “anti-Zionism is not antisemitism” – a rather inane statement given that the IHRA definition does no more than recognise that anti-Zionism may or may not be antisemitic in its motivation or effects.

A website which has published more attacks on the definition than any other is “Pearls and Irritations” – which is also a favourite of anti-Israel maximalists.

Contributors to this site rarely deal with the reality of contemporary antisemitism, but the site has found space for a series of bizarre theses in defence of calls for the Government and Opposition to abandon support for the IHRA definition.

Readers have been treated to the idea that opposition to antisemitism is per se anti-Palestinian, and that a definition allegedly subject to misuse should be replaced by a less practical suggestion which is also able to be misused. 

Some individuals within the Jewish community have found a comfortable place to snipe at mainstream Jewish organisations knowing their critiques will be uncontested on this site.

The latest article in the series argues that the fact that not a single delegate at the NSW ALP Conference opposed its adoption of the Working Definition, despite a campaign directed at parliamentarians and other delegates demanding they oppose it, was evidence that its supporters had something to hide. 

As Professor Irwin Cotler, former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, told a recent AIJAC webinar audience, the Working Definition came about after a decades long process of consultation and debate involving community representatives, scholars, politicians, law enforcement officials and others, in a transparent democratic manner. 

Any genuine opponent of antisemitism will welcome Australia joining so many other democratic nations in embracing a sensible and practical Working Definition of antisemitism. 

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