A matter of definition: Why the IHRA working definition of antisemitism has become more important than ever

A new CNN survey has once again put antisemitism into the news headlines. According to the survey of 7000 people across seven European countries, as many as 25% of Europeans have traditional antisemitic attitudes, such as believing Jews have too much influence in business and finance. Moreover, almost one in five of those surveyed (18%) blamed Jews for the antisemitism in European countries, saying it was a response to the “everyday behaviour of Jewish people.”

Meanwhile, the latest Executive Council of Australian Jewry annual report showed a sharp uptick in reports of antisemitic incidents in Australia over the past year. New data from the FBI has also indicated a sharp rise in the antisemitic incidents in the US. 

It is clear that not only is this growing problem being tackled inadequately, but there are some forces determined to actively deny or minimise it.

For instance, following the antisemitic attack on the synagogue in the US city of Pittsburgh which left 11 people dead in late October, a local United Kingdom Labour Party (the Norton West) branch refused to pass a motion condemning it, according to a party activist. Members of the branch reportedly demanded that a reference to antisemitism be removed from the statement on the shooting, saying that the motion should simply condemn all racism. The motion was voted down after members claimed there was too much focus on “antisemitism this, antisemitism that”. (This goes to the heart of antisemitism – the denial of antisemitism.)  

In the US, there has been considerable controversy about the leadership of the left-wing Women’s March movement. This is due both to the association of several leaders with the openly antisemitic Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, and to key leader Linda Sarsour effectively dismissing concerns about such antisemitism by saying antisemitism is “different than anti-black racism or Islamophobia because it’s not systemic.” In other words, it’s not real racism and doesn’t really matter very much.

Education and a clear approach to the problem are required. That is why the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism is today more important than ever. 

What is the IHRA?

In 1998, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) was formed under the guidance of then Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson. This intergovernmental organisation brings governments and experts together to strengthen, advance and promote Holocaust education, research and remembrance worldwide and to uphold the commitments of the Declaration of the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust – the “Stockholm Declaration”.

After a 1997 survey revealing many Swedish school children lacked knowledge about the Holocaust, Persson initiated a debate in the Swedish parliament regarding  Holocaust education, whereby a Swedish information campaign entitled “Living History” was created. Then US President Bill Clinton and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair answered Persson’s call for an international partnership and the first meeting took place in May 1998. That year, Germany and Israel joined the initiative, followed in 1999 by the Netherlands, Poland, France, and Italy. It now consists of 31 member countries and 11 Observer and Liaison Countries (Australia became a liaison member in 2017), and its founding document is the Stockholm Declaration  (the outcome of the International Forum convened in Stockholm between 27-29 January 2000 by Persson and attended by the representatives of 46 governments including 23 Heads of State or Prime Ministers and 14 Deputy Prime Ministers or Ministers). The Australian delegation was led by Ambassador Stephen Brady and included AIJAC’s Jeremy Jones. The Declaration states, “With humanity still scarred by… antisemitism and xenophobia the international community shares a solemn responsibility to fight those evils”.

Three conferences followed: Combating Intolerance (2001);  Truth Justice and Reconciliation (2002); and Preventing Genocide – Threats and Responsibilities (2004).

During the 2001 conference, the Australian delegation, led by Ambassador Stephen Brady, was particularly active. Jeremy Jones of AIJAC was a speaker. The Declaration of the Stockholm International Forum: Combating Intolerance was created.

This comprehensive declaration outlines steps to address genocide, ethnic cleansing, racism, antisemitism and xenophobia through education, legislation, cooperation, participation, research, and public-private partnerships. It acknowledges and supports international contributions up to 2001 on the subject and offers “support to those affected by and vulnerable to all forms of intolerance”.

Both within and outside the IHRA processes, scholars and experts then engaged in devising working definitions of antisemitism over a number of years and across several countries. Individuals such as Kenneth S. Stern of the American Jewish Committee, a human rights lawyerIsraeli scholar Dina Porat, then head of the Stephen Roth Institute at Tel Aviv University; and Community Security Trust‘s Michael Whine led the process in consultation with individuals such as Jeremy Jones.

Informal discussions about the definition took place in Israel in October 2004 at a conference at Tel Aviv University’s Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry. Michael Whine outlines part of the process in his article, “Two Steps Forward, One Step Back: Diplomatic Progress in Combating Anti-Semitism (Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs IV:3 (2010)).

The Committee on Antisemitism and Holocaust Denial called on the IHRA Plenary in Budapest 2015 to adopt the following non-legally binding working definition of antisemitism, which was adopted on 26 May 2016:

“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.”

There are 11 contemporary examples that serve as illustrations in the IHRA working definition of antisemitism:

  1. Calling for, aiding, or justifying the killing or harming of Jews in the name of a radical ideology or an extremist view of religion.
  2. Making mendacious, dehumanizing, demonizing, or stereotypical allegations about Jews as such or the power of Jews as collective — such as, especially but not exclusively, the myth about a world Jewish conspiracy or of Jews controlling the media, economy, government or other societal institutions.
  3. Accusing Jews as a people of being responsible for real or imagined wrongdoing committed by a single Jewish person or group, or even for acts committed by non-Jews.
  4. Denying the fact, scope, mechanisms (e.g. gas chambers) or intentionality of the genocide of the Jewish people at the hands of National Socialist Germany and its supporters and accomplices during World War II (the Holocaust).
  5. Accusing the Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust.
  6. Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.
  7. 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.
  8. Applying double standards by requiring of it a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.
  9. Using the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism (e.g., claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis.
  10. Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.
  11. Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.

The United Kingdom adopted and endorsed the working definition on 12 December 2016, but within the Labour party there has been quite a tussle regarding adopting the working definition.

The US State Department also says it has adopted and “uses this working definition and has encouraged other governments and international organizations to use it as well.”

What happened in the UK recently inside the Labour party regarding antisemitism?

Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour party recently found himself in a political tussle regarding the IHRA working definition. He, as the leader of Labour, initially proposed the Labour party should refuse to accept four of the “contemporary examples” in the  IHRA working definition of antisemitism earlier this year.  Nonetheless, it was adopted in full in September at the national executive committee (NEC) meeting. An accompanying clarification proposed by Corbyn – stating it should not be considered antisemitic to “to describe Israel, its policies or the circumstances around its foundation as racist” – was not adopted by the party.

(Here is a video (scroll down in the article) of Jeremy Corbyn addressing antisemitism in the Labour party since his about-turn.)

Corbyn had wanted to exclude points 6, 7, 8, and 10 (see above) – all related to Israel – from the party’s definition of antisemitism.

What relevance does the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism have to Australia?

The NSW Nationals have, in the last month, banned members of alt-right groups from joining the party, forcing out 22 people after the attempted infiltration by neo-Nazis and white supremacists. At least three of the NSW Young Nationals were or had been members of a group called the Lads Society, which is headed by some of Australia’s most prominent alt-right nationalists like Blair Cottrell.

In February 2016, in a Facebook message discussion between Blair Cottrell (former leader of the United Patriots Front – UPF) and another Nationalist, Neil Erikson, on the future direction of the UPF, Erikson advised: “My personal opinion is stick to the Muslim shit and Cultural Marxism for max support do Jews later you don’t need to show your full hand.” Cottrell responded, “Yeah good advice and that’s my current attitude as well. It will take years to prepare people for the Jewish problem. If any of us came out with it now we would be slaughtered by public opinion.”

Australia is currently a Liaison Country in the IHRA and has not yet adopted and endorsed its working definition of Antisemitism as government policy. We can see from the process in the UK that, although the UK adopted and endorsed the definition on 12 December 2016, it took until the middle of 2018 for the UK Labour Party to adopt it in full and through the process, not only has existing antisemitism been made visible but the particular examples of it have been identified through Corbyn’s initial refusal to adopt the full working definition. This has been an educational, powerful, and practical exercise which offers support, recognition, validation and acknowledgement to those on the receiving end of antisemitism, at a government level.

Given the growing international antisemitism problem, such support and recognition, as well as the clarity the definition supplies when confronted with controversial cases of antisemitism, appears sorely needed today.