Sunday

26th Sep 2021

Opinion

A new antisemitism definition to ease IHRA confusion

  • In practice the International Holocaust Remembrance Association definition has turned into a source of confusion and contention. This has to do with 11 "contemporary examples of antisemitism" attached to the definition, seven of which relate to Israel (Photo: Ted Eytan)

Antisemitism is a continuing insult and a danger to Jews. In recent times, Europe has been the scene of far too many antisemitic incidents, ranging from toxic conspiracy theories on social media and verbal assaults to horrific terrorist attacks.

The harm done is not limited to Jews and Jewish institutions – antisemitism threatens and hurts society as a whole.

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Responding to this disturbing trend, the European Union and its member states have stepped up their efforts to fight antisemitism.

The European Commission appointed a Coordinator on Combating Antisemitism, established a dedicated working group to support the member states and will present a "comprehensive" EU strategy to fight antisemitism later this year.

These are welcome initiatives.

Another cornerstone of the EU's policy response has been to embrace the "working definition of antisemitism" of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), an intergovernmental organisation of 34 member countries, mostly European.

This definition, already developed in 2005, was adopted by IHRA in May 2016. Since then, it has been known as the "IHRA working definition".

Good intention

The EU's good intention behind endorsing this definition has been to introduce one clear and uniform standard for the collection and classification of data about antisemitic incidents and to provide a universal guidance tool for educational and training purposes.

In practice, however, the IHRA definition has turned into a source of confusion and contention. This has to do with 11 "contemporary examples of antisemitism" attached to the definition, seven of which relate to Israel.

In practice, these examples are exploited to delegitimise individuals and groups critical of Israel or Zionism as antisemitic.

This has a chilling effect on free speech and academic freedom and distracts from the acute danger of far-right antisemitism. Instead of unifying people in order to combat antisemitism the IHRA definition has unfortunately become highly divisive.

It is against this background, that a group of scholars from all over the world came together in 2020, under the aegis of the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem, to critically assess the IHRA definition and seek to clarify those aspects of it which cause confusion and concern.

The result of these deliberations, over the course of a year of workshops and meetings, is a definition of antisemitism published today, which is clearer, more coherent and politically neutral: the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism (JDA).

The JDA is endorsed by more than 200 scholars of antisemitism and related fields.

Among them are heads of leading institutes in Europe, the US and Israel. It consists of a preamble, the actual definition of antisemitism and a set of 15 practical guidelines.

The preamble, unlike the IHRA definition, invokes universal principles and links the fight against antisemitism with the fight against other forms of racism and discrimination.

The core definition in the JDA is short and succinct, capturing the essence of antisemitism in its main manifestations: "Antisemitism is discrimination, prejudice, hostility or violence against Jews as Jews (or Jewish institutions as Jewish)."

The guidelines consist of five general ones and 10 that relate to Israel-Palestine.

This emphasis reflects the focus of the "contemporary examples" attached to the IHRA definition and responds to a public need, among Jews and in the wider population, for guidance concerning political speech about Israel and Zionism: when should it be protected, and when does it cross the line into antisemitism?

In fact, the JDA approaches with care and rigour those areas where the IHRA definition has created muddle and controversy.

It does so without any underlying political agenda.

And unlike the IHRA definition, the JDA also specifies what is not, on the face of it, antisemitic. In this way, the JDA demonstrates it is possible to define and fight antisemitism without falling into the controversies invoked by the IHRA definition.

EU use?

The JDA is intended to be used for multiple purposes, such as education, awareness raising, policy-making and identifying when speech or conduct is antisemitic (and when it is not).

While it is not designed to be a (quasi-)legal instrument, it can also offer guidance for law enforcement authorities.

No definition is perfect, no document about antisemitism can be exhaustive. We are confident, however, that we have developed a cogent guide and effective tool to fight antisemitism. We owe this result to years of experience, research and ongoing dialogue about the IHRA definition.

We present the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism as an alternative to the IHRA definition. Institutions that have formally adopted the latter, may rely on the JDA where the IHRA definition is unclear and divisive.

To the EU and its member states, we say: seize the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism as an opportunity to critically reflect on how you use the IHRA definition.

Author bio

Aleida Assmann is professor of English Literature, Holocaust and Memory Studies at Konstanz University. Alon Confino is professor of History and Jewish Studies and director of the Institute for Holocaust, Genocide and Memory Studies at the University of Massachusetts. David Feldman is professor of History and director of the Institute for the Study of Antisemitism at Birkbeck, University of London.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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