An appeal to Facebook to show some sense on antisemitism

JVL Introduction

Prof Amos Goldberg of the Hebrew University explains why he and 55 other academics around the world have sent an open letter to Facebook, urging it to fight hate speech but not by using the IHRA definition of antisemitism.

As the letter points out the IHRA definition is highly problematic and controversial, neither neutral nor nuanced.

“Fight all forms of hate speech on Facebook. But don’t do so by adopting and applying a politicised definition of antisemitism, which has been weaponised to undermine free speech, in order to shield the Israeli government and to silence Palestinian voices and their supporters.”

This article was originally published by Forward on Sun 13 Sep 2020. Read the original here.

Dear Facebook: Please don’t adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism

A coordinated public pressure campaign is attempting to induce Facebook to adopt the controversial definition of antisemitism used by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance and to use it to police content published on its platform. On August 7, 128 organizations sent an open letter to Facebook’s Board of Directors, calling on them “to fully adopt the IHRA working definition of antisemitism” and to implement a hate speech policy on antisemitism with that definition “at its core.”

“The full IHRA working definition of antisemitism provides Facebook an effective, neutral, and nuanced tool to protect Jewish users from hate speech and imagery that incites hate and oftentimes leads to violence,” write the organizations. To amplify their call, a campaign website has been launched.

But contrary to their claim, the IHRA definition is no “effective, neutral, and nuanced tool.” In fact, the IHRA definition is highly problematic and controversial. The two sentences representing the definition are unclear and indefinite, in particular the first one, which states, “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews” (emphasis added). It’s so ambiguous as to hardly be a definition at all. It thus does not and cannot provide an effective instrument to fight antisemitism.

It is also not neutral nor nuanced. The definition provides “contemporary examples of antisemitism” and these examples extend the definition of what constitutes antisemitism to include criticism directed at the State of Israel, for example, “applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation” and “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.” Someone displaying these behaviors or making these statements may be an antisemite, but it would require additional evidence to suggest anti-Semitic intent.

These examples can be and have been weaponized to attack, delegitimize and silence activists, experts, human rights defenders and civil society organizations criticizing the State of Israel and Zionism within the limits of freedom of speech. Even Kenneth Stern, director of the Bard Center for the Study of Hate who drafted the IHRA definition fifteen years ago, has denounced the definition’s use to undermine free speech.

Indeed, among the signatories of the open letter are many organizations that have taken the lead in weaponizing the IHRA definition, who act in close coordination with the Israeli government — which they shield from international criticism even while Israel entrenches its occupation and moves closer to formal annexation of Palestine. And these organizations have reached out to Israeli Minister of Strategic Affairs Orit Farkash-Hacohen to amplify their campaign targeting Facebook.

Their campaign is a mistake.

I, too, am deeply concerned about the rise in antisemitism around the world. Antisemitism and all other forms of racism and bigotry pose a serious threat that must be fought forcefully. I commend Facebook’s efforts to ban antisemitic content and encourage it to intensify them. But the effort to combat antisemitism will only succeed if Facebook’s policy and approach are rooted in integrity and universality, and are perceived by its wider community of users as credible and sincere.

The IHRA definition of antisemitism doesn’t meet these essential standards. Adopting it would be a trap for Facebook and its users. It would be used as a benchmark against Facebook, exposing it to ongoing and increasing pressures to remove content interpreted as violating the “contemporary examples of antisemitism” attached to the IHRA definition.

Considering how the IHRA definition and its examples are being used in the public domain, this could have far-reaching implications for Facebook and for freedom of speech. Someone criticizing Israel in a way perceived as a double standard could then be accused of antisemitism under Facebook’s corporate policy. Somebody embracing Anti-Zionism and supporting a democratic one-state or binational solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could be booted from Facebook, as could someone blaming Israel for institutionalized racism (a common accusation against almost any country across the globe).

One can certainly disagree with these utterances. But such opinions are legitimate, and also held by many Jews around the world. Suppressing such opinions doesn’t boost the fight against antisemitism, but undermines it.

With 55 other scholars specialized in antisemitism, Jewish and Holocaust history and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I have just sent my own letter to Facebook’s Board of Directors warning them against adoption and application of the IHRA definition. We call on Facebook to fight all forms of hate speech on Facebook. But don’t do so by adopting and applying a politicized definition of antisemitism, which has been weaponized to undermine free speech, in order to shield the Israeli government and to silence Palestinian voices and their supporters.

Prof. Amos Goldberg teaches at the Department of Jewish History and Contemporary Jewry at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel. Find the letter he sent to Facebook with the full list of signatories here.

Comments (6)

  • William Johnston says:

    Interesting that those advocating adoption of the IHRA definition seek to bolster their argument by citing how many countries and organisations have already adopted it.

    Shouldn’t we recognise how misleading – and destructive – majority opinions can be.

  • Alan Stanton says:

    I look back on the misguided and ill-informed decision in July 2017, when my own borough Council – Haringey – adopted the IHRA “definition”.
    I wasn’t at the meeting as – thankfully – I was no longer a councillor. But realised how most of my former colleagues had been suckered into voting for a deeply flawed resolution presented as a way to: “take a stand against antisemitism”. And against: “any form of racism, hatred or bigotry in our borough”.
    The flaws were smoothly glossed over with an assurance from the then Council Leader. “No-one thinks criticism of any state should be silenced – not Syria, not Britain, not Saudi Arabia and not Israel”.

    Well, more of us now know better. As its critics suggested, the “examples” in the IHRA “definition” have turned out to be its substance. So that a key sentence in the letter by Professor Amos Goldberg and 55 other academics is the statement that:
    “These examples can be and have been weaponized to attack, delegitimize and silence activists, experts, human rights defenders and civil society organizations criticizing the State of Israel and Zionism within the limits of freedom of speech.”

    The enemies of free speech and supporters of authoritarian governance have learned the lesson only too well. Complaints can be used – “weaponized” – to silence dissenting views, threaten jobs; block promotions; damage reputations; discredit whistle blowers. We may hear about prominent tenured academics and well-known journalists forced into exile. How many people lower down the pecking order are bullied into silent aquiesence?

  • Vera Lustig says:

    It is utterly essential that we have free speech on Israel, just as we are able to criticise the US, Iran, China, Saudi or any other sovereign state. This shouldn’t even be up for debate. Some of the examples in the IHRA definition of AS are nothing more than gagging clauses. I suspect that those organisations and nations that have signed up to the IHRA definitions did so because they were afraid of seeming anti-Semitic. How many more times do we have to repeat it: criticism of Israel is not of itself anti-Semitic.

  • Alan Stanton says:

    Hi Vera Lustig, while agreeing with what you posted I’d like to ask you to consider a couple of extra examples which I’ve also observed.

    Yes, people may support the IHRA “definition” out of fear of seeming antisemitic – or being accused of it. But perhaps their motivation might also be more positive. Over the years I’ve met many Labour Party members who are appalled by antisemitism. They may be Jews, non-Jews, or people who choose not to state any religion.

    But then they are offered an apparent opportunity to speak-out or stand-up and “do something”. In this case to support the IHRA resolution. The process may be a version of what’s sometimes referred to as the “The Politicians’ Fallacy” or Syllogism .
    ● Something Must Be Done
    ● Here’s Something
    ● We must do it.
    The intentions are good. Maybe a whole bunch of people who you like and respect are also in favour. What could possibly go wrong?

    Less positive is the “bait-and-switch” approach; the well-known “upselling” of a bargain which turns out to be out-of-stock; or where the salesperson talks you into a set of higher priced products and extra charges.
    Not everyone who recognises and resists this in a store will automatically spot the technique in a political context.

    So, as we know, decent, caring left-wing people may have been willing to endorse a nice short simple “definition” of antisemitism – as part of opposing something they deplore. But then the proponents throw-in, entirely for free, a handy list of “illustrative examples”?

  • RC says:

    I notice that someone posts on Facebook using the tag “Mavet La’aravim” (“Death to Arabs”). A common cry in Israel, especially on Yom ha Yerusalayim. And a sentiment shared by advocates of the ‘IHRA’ misdefinition of antisemitism. Listen to these people in their cups, especially those who “believe in Israel”, chortling at the deaths of Palestinian. (dining out during the last Conference at Blackpool, for example); or look at Tower Hamlets council and its refusal to permit aid to Palestinian children. And plenty of others. Were it not for the principle that we believe in political discourse and persuasion we might be tempted to point out that the LP is offering itself up to the EHRC for discriminating against Palestinians.

  • DJ says:

    Supporters of the IHRA definition use a variety of terms to describe it. These include “Internationally recognised”, “established” and “authoritative” I’ve even come across it being described as a “gold standard”. Correct me if I am wrong, but as far as I am aware, the majority of governments to adopt it are confined to Europe along with Canada, Uruguay and Argentina. Its quite bizarre that anti semites in parts of Europe support it. There is no shortage of critics of this definition. I call it “controversial”, “contested” and “of little value”. In reality this relatively new redefinition is an unsubtle attempt to expand the coverage of the term antisemitim to include opposition to zionism. Supporters of Israel are simply rebranding anti zionism as the “new antisemitism” or”left wing antisemitism”. It seems defending ethnic cleansing and apartheid has become more important to them than fighting real anti-Jewish racism. Time for a proper definition of antisemitism that can be taken seriously and achieve international recognition! JVL have produced a statement on what is and what is not antisemitic misconduct. No doubt there will be other useful statements and definitions out there. If only they could be developed further to present an alternative to this awful IHRA definition.

    [JVL web suggests you take a look at this one: What is – and what is not – antisemitic misconduct]

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