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10th Dec 2022

Scholars to UN: Don't adopt 'weaponised' antisemitism definition

  • Israeli soldier on patrol in Hebron in the Israeli-occupied West Bank (Photo: Rosie Gabrielle)
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Israel is trying to gag its critics by formally labelling them as antisemites in the UN, Jewish academics have warned, but the EU Commission says there's no cause for alarm.

Some 128 scholars of Jewish history and Holocaust studies from around the world raised the red flag in a letter published in EUobserver on Thursday (3 November) entitled: "Don't trap the United Nations in a vague and weaponised definition of antisemitism".

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They did so over an Israeli push for the UN to say "manifestations [of antisemitism] might include the targeting of the state of Israel" or "applying double standards" to Israel.

The examples are part of a 572-word definition elaborated by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), an intergovernmental body in Berlin.

It is used by 35 countries, including the US and most EU states.

But it's also notorious for being used in Israeli bashing of people who try to hold it to account on Palestine, the academics said.

"We find this definition deeply problematic. Vague and incoherent," Thursday's letter said.

IHRA wording was systematically abused "to deter free speech and to shield the Israeli government from accountability for its actions," it said.

"Human rights defenders and organisations challenging Israel's violations would be fully exposed to smear campaigns based on bad-faith allegations of antisemitism, harming their freedom of expression," if the UN went ahead, it added.

The appeal comes after 54 scholars issued a similar warning last year.

But Israel, with full-throated EU support, is pressing ahead with plans to set the IHRA wording in political stone in New York despite the growing academic outcry.

The UN General Assembly (UNGA) discussed the pros and cons of the definition in a hearing on 31 October, in which the EU ambassador spoke out in favour.

One possible option is to enshrine it in a non-binding UNGA resolution, for instance on International Holocaust Remembrance Day in January next year.

The campaign is being spearheaded by Israel's UN ambassador Gilad Erdan, himself no stranger to throwing around accusations.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, the UN's Human Rights Council, the International Criminal Court in the Hague, and the UN itself were all "antisemitic", Erdan has said in public remarks or tweets in recent months.

And the IHRA-definition battle comes after Israeli elections brought to power a new right-wing bloc, including the extremist Religious Zionists party, auguring badly for Palestinian wellbeing.

But for her part, Katherina von Schnurbein, a senior EU official tasked with combatting antisemitism, told EUobserver the IHRA text "does not limit freedom of expression".

She did so on grounds it also includes the line: "Criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic".

"It [the IHRA text] has been endorsed by EU member states, numerous local governments around the world, many cities, dozens of universities, major sport and football clubs," she said.

"Defending ... all human rights is important to me," Von Schnurbein added.

"We know that the IHRA [definition] has been adopted by multiple governments, mainly in Europe and the US. That in itself is problematic. However, if the UN were to endorse [it], the harm would be exponentially greater," the 128 academics said in their letter.

"This could also weaken the UN's ability to act as a neutral mediator in Israel and Palestine," they said.

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