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Why we need the IHRA definition of antisemitism

Mar 17, 2023 | Jamie Hyams

Image: Shutterstock
Image: Shutterstock

Note: AIJAC’s Jamie Hyams submitted the following article to Crikey in response to an article by Michael Bradley (March 14) which criticised universities for adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance Working Definition of Antisemitism, implying it threatened academic freedom.

Crikey declined to publish the article, but agreed to publish a 300-word letter and did so today. The text of the published letter appears below the article.

 

Why we need the IHRA definition of antisemitism

Jamie Hyams

The reasons for adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of antisemitism are quite simple. The scourge of antisemitism must be fought. To properly combat something, it needs to be understood. The IHRA definition is the most authoritative definition of antisemitism ever produced. It was drafted over many years by a distinguished international panel of experts on genocide and the Holocaust. Therefore, the IHRA definition is an important tool in the fight against antisemitism.

For that reason, it has been adopted or endorsed by most Western democracies including Australia, as well by NSW and Victoria, and by many institutions in those countries such as universities, including now five in Australia. International bodies including the UN and European Union have also expressed support for the definition.

It is only those who oppose the adoption of the definition with its 11 examples, such as Michael Bradley (“Does being anti-Israel mean you’re anti-Semitic? Discuss” March 15), who seek to make it about politics. It is not. It is purely about fighting racism. Similarly, it is not about restricting academic freedom, beyond the freedom to be racist, which is surely beyond the bounds of academic freedom.

The critique most commonly made of the IHRA definition is that it unduly restricts criticism of and debate about Israel. However, the definition itself specifically states that “criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic,” something wilfully ignored by many of the definition’s detractors. Those who feel unduly restricted by the definition should therefore reflect on why they feel the need to criticise Israel in a way that is not similar to the way they would criticise any other country.

It is true that some of the examples in the definition refer specifically to the targeting of Israel. The examples are intended to cover modern manifestations of antisemitism, and there can be little doubt that some modern antisemites substitute “Israel” or “Zionists” for “Jews”, or attack Israel precisely as a way of expressing their antisemitism. As the definition says, Israel may be targeted because it is “conceived as a Jewish collective.”

However, the definition doesn’t bluntly state that the examples given unquestionably constitute antisemitism. Instead, it says the examples “could” be antisemitism “taking into account the overall context.”

“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” is rightly included among the examples. Those who do so are effectively saying Jews have no right to a state in the Jewish homeland, where Jews are indigenous people and have lived in substantial numbers for thousands of years, while other indigenous people in the area do have that right. Isn’t it antisemitic to deny Jews the same rights as anybody else? Similarly, comparing the actions of Israel to those of the Nazis should be regarded as doubly antisemitic, because it is both an outrageous and deliberately offensive and provocative slur against the Jews of Israel, and a form of Holocaust denial.

Opponents of the definition often raise Kenneth Stern, somehow raised to the status of “lead drafter”, probably because he is the only one among the drafters of the definition who oppose its adoption, although he still has said this is the best available working definition. In fact, as the actual three main drafters, Rabbi Andrew Baker, Deidre Berger and Michael Whine MBE, explain in a letter written specifically to set the record straight, it “is simply not true” that Stern was the author or primary drafter and that “this mythical elevated status is primarily touted because he is a vocal critic of using the Working Definition and thus a helpful (witting or unwitting) ally for those who today seek to discredit the IHRA Working Definition. Virtually all others who were involved in its development believed then and continue to believe now that the adoption and use of the Working Definition is an essential component in the fight against antisemitism.”

They further explain that “Ken played the vitally important but limited role of being the communications hub as various drafts and proposed language were circulated, slowly moving toward a consensus agreement where his role ended.”

They conclude that “this proper and comprehensive definition is now an essential element in our common fight against antisemitism.”

So to answer the question posed in the title of Michael Bradley’s piece, merely being anti-Israel does not, under the IHRA definition, mean you’re antisemitic. However, criticism of Israel can cross over into antisemitism, and the definition gives examples of where this may be the case. The definition provides the most authoritative tool yet for identifying, and therefore combating, antisemitism, and this should be welcomed by anyone who is serious about fighting racism.


Letter to Crikey, March 17, 2023

Jamie Hyams, senior policy analyst at Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council: 

The reasons for adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of anti-Semitism are simple. Anti-Semitism must be fought. To properly combat something, it must be understood. IHRA’s definition is the most authoritative ever produced, drafted over many years by an international panel of experts on genocide and the Holocaust.

It has been adopted or endorsed by most Western democracies including Australia, and supported by international bodies including the UN and European Union.

Only opponents of the adoption of the definition with its 11 examples, such as Michael Bradley, claim it is about politics, or restricting academic freedom. It is not. It is purely about fighting racism.

Critics claim it unduly restricts criticism of Israel. However, the definition specifically states that “criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitism”. Those who feel unduly restricted by the definition should reflect on why they need to criticise Israel in a way not similar to how they would criticise any other country.

Some examples refer specifically to the targeting of Israel because, as the definition says, Israel may be targeted because it is “conceived as a Jewish collective”. But it only says the examples “could” be anti-Semitism “taking into account the overall context”.

“Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination” is rightly included, because doing so, while demanding that right for others, discriminates against Jews.

Bradley cites supposed “lead drafter” Kenneth Stern, but a letter by the actual three main drafters, explains Stern “played the vitally important but limited role of being the communications hub” and “virtually all others who were involved … continue to believe now that the adoption and use of the working definition is an essential component in the fight against anti-Semitism”.

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