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It is time for Australia to adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism

Aug 20, 2021 | Naomi Levin

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As Australian Jews have seen in recent weeks, there are many people from across the political spectrum who are prepared to speak out against antisemitism.

But there is one tool available to Australia that would make combatting antisemitism even more effective – adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism.

Last month, there was a chorus of condemnation following a tweet by former Greens candidate Julian Burnside QC that compared Israeli policies to those of the Nazis.

Burnside’s antisemitic comment was slammed by numerous Coalition MPs and by Labor MP Josh Burns. The Australia Palestine Advocacy network distanced themselves from his comments, as did Adam Bandt, leader of the Greens. Burnside did eventually remove the offending tweet and apologise.

Then in August, it was vicious antisemitism that stemmed from the reporting of an event that spread COVID-19 in Melbourne. From Victorian Premier Dan Andrews and Opposition Leader Michael O’Brien down, there was broad condemnation of all antisemitism.

If antisemitism is already so broadly and urgently condemned, why is it important for Australia to adopt the IHRA working definition of antisemitism?

There are three major reasons:

  1. To clearly send a message that antisemitism is not acceptable in Australia.
  2. To educate Australians what antisemitism is.
  3. To help combat antisemitism.

If Australia moves ahead with adoption, it would become the 31st country to do so – and the second in our region, after South Korea.

 

(1) TO SEND A MESSAGE

AIJAC, and other Jewish community organisations, have urged the Australian Government and the Labor Party opposition to endorse the IHRA working definition of antisemitism in a bipartisan way in the Parliament.

This symbolic endorsement would send a clear message to all Australians that their democratic representatives are doing what they can to call out and combat antisemitism in all its forms.

It is important to note that taking this step would not make the definition legally binding in Australia. However its endorsement by the Government and Opposition would telegraph to those thinking of making antisemitic comments or perpetrating antisemitic acts that their behaviour is unacceptable.

Should the Government agree, a bipartisan endorsement is unlikely to be problematic, given Labor leader Anthony Albanese has already announced his support for the definition and his intention to endorse it, should Labor win government.

 

(2) TO EDUCATE ABOUT ANTISEMITISM

The primary function of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance is to educate and research about the Holocaust to prevent future genocides.

The root cause of the Holocaust was antisemitism and unfortunately, in the 76 years since the end of the Holocaust, antisemitism has not disappeared from the world. Even the United Nations General Assembly, in 2018, recognised the importance of education in preventing antisemitism and committed to develop education programs that address antisemitism in a framework of human rights.

The IHRA working definition of antisemitism provides a framework for the world to learn about the different forms hatred of Jews can take. Denying the facts or scope of the Holocaust, stereotyping Jewish people, spreading myths about Jewish power, accusing Jewish people of having loyalty to Israel rather than their country of citizenship, and denying Jewish people a right to self-determination – these are all different forms of antisemitism explained in the IHRA working definition of antisemitism.

The definition provides an opportunity to learn for those not familiar with the nuances of modern antisemitism, that is, antisemitism that hides in an anti-Zionist disguise. The United Kingdom saw this clearly during Jeremy Corbyn’s ill-fated leadership of the Labour Party. An independent investigation by the UK Equality and Human Rights Commission found the party under Corbyn had failed to address antisemitism, much of it masked as anti-Zionism, in its ranks.

Similarly, in France, antisemitic violence emerged at pro-Palestinian rallies earlier in 2021 but went largely uncommented upon. The Paris director of the American Jewish Committee Anne-Sophie Sebban said, “The extreme left was intellectually justifying what was happening on the ground against Jews as they integrated anti-Zionism as part of their core political ideology.”

If Australia adopts the IHRA working definition of antisemitism, it can become a go-to tool available to, for example, university administrators faced with accusations of antisemitism among students. It can become a tool for police officers to understand that “Zionism = racism” graffitied on a Jewish school is not merely petty crime. It can become a resource to inform human rights bodies how to craft meaningful anti-racism strategies.

 

(3) TO FIGHT ANTISEMITISM

In recent months in Australia, messages have been left on the phones of Jewish institutions calling for all Jews to die, TV shows have broadcast neo-Nazi groups calling for Jewish genocide, and social media regularly lights up with accusations of the “power” of the “Jewish lobby”. While Australia has fortunately not seen the recent violent antisemitic assaults of the US, UK or Europe, it would be wrong to assume antisemitism is not present and a growing concern in Australia.

As mentioned earlier, the IHRA working definition of antisemitism is not a legal weapon. It cannot impose penalties on those expressing antisemitism and does not need to. In Australia, individuals are protected from vilification and discrimination by legislation at a Commonwealth and State level.

However, it could be used as a supporting document when making a police complaint against an antisemitic incident. It could be used to draw the attention of media regulators and government authorities to the fact that promoting myths about Jewish power on social media is not just conjecture, it is hate speech. It could be used to demonstrate that commentary that goes beyond criticising Israeli government policy or the actions of the Israeli military can actually be a smokescreen for hatred of Jews.

 

CONCLUSION

Two years ago, Australia was promoted to become a member of IHRA. In accepting this, Australia confirmed its commitment to remembering the world’s most egregious example of antisemitism – the Holocaust.

This commitment has been encouragingly backed up by so many of our political leaders in Australia. However two further steps – parliamentary endorsement of the IHRA working definition of antisemitism and then its use as a meaningful education and explanatory tool by Australian institutions – are now required. It is time for Australia to adopt and apply the IHRA working definition of antisemitism.

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