“That’s not a definition!” Once more on the IHRA…


Is there anything left to say about the IHRA definition of antisemitism?

Dave Bradney argues that there is. “Since 2015,” he writes, “much time and energy have been taken up, and many votes lost, with disputes about antisemitism in the UK Labour Party. At the heart of the debate has been the definition of antisemitism promulgated by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. But is the IHRA ‘definition’ actually a definition at all?”

He shows, indisputably, that it is not.

Since 2015 much time and energy have been taken up, and many votes lost, with disputes about antisemitism in the UK Labour Party. At the heart of the debate has been the definition of antisemitism promulgated by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. But is the IHRA “definition” actually a definition at all?

Some things in politics are much more talked about than understood – that is a phenomenon that we are all familiar with. And to understand something you first need to become acquainted with it.

Probably it was 2017 when I first encountered the IHRA definition. I remember the specific circumstances – I was in a small CLP reading group that was having a go at the works of Raymond Williams, when somebody mentioned it. I enquired what it was, and another group member looked it up on her phone and read it out for us.

I recall very clearly that it took me all of 15 seconds to respond, with the words: “That’s not a definition!”. It was that glaringly obvious.

And so, as the political years ground on, it became a source of gathering discontent and frustration for me that again and again this fatuous, inept and seemingly deliberately shoddy form of words was being thrown up as a sort of roadblock to Labour’s electability.

I could see no other explanation for its evident potency and longevity than that the people who advocated it simply hadn’t read it. Surely no one who had read it could take it seriously?

However, adjectives are not a good substitute for rational discourse, and so in this article I am seeking to apply a simple but rigorous form of logical analysis to the wording of the IHRA “definition”, to see whether it is robust enough to withstand even the fairly basic forms of scrutiny that I am able to deploy as a lay person. Given that the whole IHRA document is only about 564 words long, this should be achievable in a fairly concise format.

Readers will want to scrutinise the IHRA text itself, to see what I am on about, and this can be found in full here.

Before I get going, a word about the difference between definition and prescription. A definition equips the user to decide whether a thing, a situation, or a concept is “X” or “not-X”, by explaining in a comprehensive and watertight way what “X” is. A prescription, by contrast, instructs you on whether or not to take a particular course of action. A “do’s and don’ts list” would be a set of prescriptions, which potentially would be explicit when dealing with the issues on the list, but would tend to be unhelpful when you were trying to work out what to do about an issue that wasn’t on the list. A good example might be the Ten Commandments.

Closer to home in this discussion, a prescription might be “Don’t do anything antisemitic”, but that would lead on to the need for a definition, to answer the obvious question: “How am I to decide which things are antisemitic and which aren’t?”

I shall begin from the bottom of the IHRA text and work my way upwards, for reasons that will become apparent.

At the bottom of the IHRA text are three paragraphs which seek to explain when an antisemitic act is criminal, when a criminal act is antisemitic, and when “antisemitic discrimination” might be considered to have taken place. Nothing in these paragraphs seeks to establish an overall definition of antisemitism, so they are not relevant in this context.

Above the three paragraphs are two more paragraphs of text followed by 11 bullet points, comprising 373 words altogether (66 per cent of the total text). This section is prefaced by the remark that “To guide IHRA in its work, the following examples may serve as illustrations”, a remark that is picked out as a separate paragraph. (Bolding here is my own.)

So, clearly, nothing below this point can be taken to be an attempt to produce a general definition of antisemitism, and the 11 bullet points are intended to be seen as illustrative examples. The use of the phrase “may serve” seems to leave it up to the reader whether to accept or reject the inclusion of any particular bullet point, and the remark “To guide IHRA in its work” tends to suggest that the list of bullet points was not intended for use outside the IHRA’s own internal processes.

I am aware, of course, that there have been extensive discussions about whether the “examples” should be treated as part of the actual definition, but as can be seen above aspects of the wording of the actual IHRA document seem to argue consistently against that being the correct interpretation.

Furthermore, and to digress slightly, the idea that an example of how a definition should be applied can be taken to be part of the definition that it is exemplifying seems to be logically confused to say the least. If the content of the example was already part of the definition there would be no need at all to produce that particular example.

So that dispenses, for the purposes of this discussion, with the 11 bullet points and their two preceding paragraphs. I had better note here that in the preceding paragraphs there are several contentious statements that would need careful examination and debate (eg can the state of Israel ever reasonably be conceived of as a “Jewish collectivity”?; and, should criticism of Israel be restricted to “that levelled against any other country”?). But I am going to rule those statements out of this exercise because the IHRA document only offers them as “examples” and “illustrations”, and because the purpose of this article is to identify the actual definition that is being proposed and then to scrutinise that.

However I would like to assure readers that just because I do not feel encouraged by the wording of the document itself to see the bullet points and the two paragraphs that precede them as part of the proposed general definition of antisemitism – which is presumably to be found closer to the top of the document – I am perfectly capable of seeing that the behaviour described in many of the bullet points is or is likely to be antisemitic.

So what’s left, when the “examples” are put to one side? There are four paragraphs left. The first paragraph seeks to provide appropriate historical and political context. The second paragraph says: “On 26 May 2016, the Plenary in Bucharest decided to:”. The eye is then arrested by a box, within which the two remaining paragraphs have been placed. They read:

Adopt the following non-legally binding working definition of antisemitism:

“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.”

Arguably the first of these paragraphs should have been outside the box, and should run on from the first paragraph above the box. Arguably this positioning was a drafting error, and I shall treat it as such.

It is worth noting, in passing, that this sentence, which is inside the box but I am suggesting would have been better outside, describes the form of words inside the box as a “non-legally binding working definition”. I assume that “non-legally binding” means “not intended to be legally binding”, rather than “binding in some non-legal way”. The phrase “working definition” can only be taken to mean that the definition might need to be revised later on. Indeed it might!

So the substantive content of the definition within the box is the wording of the box’s second paragraph, and the fact that this has been placed inside quote marks strongly suggests that this wording is the resolution which the IHRA plenary passed in May 2016.

The use of the quotes and the visual emphasis given by the placing of text inside a box strongly suggest that these two sentences are the actual “IHRA definition”:

“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.” (38 words; bolding is mine)

So what are we to make of that? Once again let’s begin at the bottom, ie the second sentence, starting “Rhetorical …”. This tells you that antisemitism can be verbal or written, or expressed as physical acts, and lists situations in which antisemitism may occur. So it does not attempt to define what antisemitism actually is.

That leaves us with the first sentence, starting “Antisemitism …” (15 words). This says that antisemitism is “a certain perception of Jews”. What does “certain” mean in this sentence? If it doesn’t mean “particular” then I don’t know what it means. I don’t see how it can possibly have been intended to mean “proved or known beyond doubt”. So this sentence as far as I can see says that antisemitism is a “particular” perception of Jews, but which “particular” perception or perceptions of Jews?

The second part of the same sentence says that antisemitism “… may be expressed as hatred towards Jews”. This allows that antisemitism “may” be expressed in ways other than hatred, but gives no hint about what those other ways could be. So they could be anything. Harking back to the first part of the same sentence, they could be any expressed perception of Jews at all.

No attempt is made to define “hatred” or to differentiate it from other possible perceptions of Jews. Possibly the authors of the definition would ideally have wished to disallow the expressing of perceptions of Jews in general, but that is not a stated objective. If that had been an objective that would have made it impossible to generalise about Jews at all, in which case one would be left wondering why this prohibition should be restricted to Jews.

At this point I would hope that readers are well able to see that this proposed “definition” is seriously vague and completely open-ended, ie it doesn’t define anything satisfactorily, it doesn’t help you to decide whether a thing is “X” or “not-X”. It is not a functional definition. It is what is sometimes referred to as a “dog’s breakfast”. It just won’t do at all.

What else remains to be said? Firstly to say that I am sorry it has taken so many words to explore the shortcomings of the IHRA definition and some of the misconceptions that have surrounded it. However I am sure that any reader who has persevered with this turgid form of analysis will appreciate why it has to be so detailed.

Secondly, what is the practical importance of this discussion? Readers will know that political and journalistic folklore has it that the IHRA definition of antisemitism, including some or possibly all of the 11 “examples” has been incorporated into the Labour Party “rule book” as a code of practice.

That would mean that any alleged contravention of the IHRA rules could lead to disciplinary proceedings and possibly to expulsion. For some people whose lives have been heavily invested in their Labour Party activities, that would be a very serious state of affairs.

It was therefore surprising to see the FactCheck document published by Channel Four in May 2019, which claimed that “there is no mention of the IHRA, its definition, or any of the 11 examples in the 2019 Labour Party Rulebook – or the section of their website that deals with Labour’s code of conduct.”

I myself have been unable to find any mention, in the 2020 Rule Book or on the party’s members’ website recently. There is a section in the RB headed “Code of Conduct: Antisemitism and other forms of racism”, but this bears little or no resemblance to the IHRA wordings.

Doubtless some or all of the IHRA material is in the party’s labyrinthine works somewhere, or at least the Jewish Chronicle believes so, as it published a Labour Party “NEC Code of Conduct: Antisemitism” in July 2018. And if it is in there then it is likely to be used, as Labour’s new leader reaffirmed to the Board of Deputies of British Jews in April that he intends to “tear out this poison by its roots”.

I emailed a slightly shorter version of this analysis to Keir Starmer on 6 April but there has been no substantive reply, despite reminders on 6 May and 3 June.

In my initial email I made this request: “I would be grateful if you would take whatever steps are needed to develop a Labour Party definition of antisemitism which is sound, internally consistent, comprehensive, watertight, easy to use and wholly owned and operated by the party itself.”

In my 3 June reminder I stated: “This definition [the IHRA one] is so poorly constructed that it is not a definition at all, and so does not provide a viable base on which to rest any party policy or organisational principle.” That remains my concern.

Personally I find the first line of the definition of antisemitism in Wikipedia quite easy to understand and follow, with the addition of one word: “Antisemitism is hostility to, prejudice [towards], or discrimination against Jews”.

Comments (19)

  • rc says:

    Cde Bradney writes in transparent good faith, notably when he claims that the IHRA ‘definition’ is at the heart of the ‘debate’ about the alleged problem of the LP with AS.
    But has there been a debate in any sense? Certainly there has been no debate in which any participant has argued, or even alleged, that the traditional definition/s centred around hostility, prejudice and discrimination are inadequate. Such paltry evidence as can be discovered or deduced, of the working assumptions used by the NCC and the GLU in their secret proceedings, revelation of which is itself a disciplinary offence, suggests that the giving of offence, or the impression of giving offence, to ‘protected groups’ is near the heart of those assumptions. There is no specification of how anyone is to determine whether the taking of offence is reasonable (more gross inadequacy by any reasonable criterion of definition – a complete lack of definiteness).
    Under current conditions of identity politics, the taking of offence is easily recognizable as a potential – and all too often an actual – ploy in the bourgeois politics of factional manoeuvre. As in the dialogue of Alice and Humpty Dumpty, ‘the question is ‘who is to be master?”. This interpretation certainly sheds light on the astounding claim by David Evans that the IHRA ‘definition’ was properly adopted by the LP – for we know nothing of any discussion that may have taken place at the NEC meeting/s where this adoption took place. A claim less amazing only than his incomprehensible allegation that any questioning of the ‘definition’ would impede the LP in its struggle against racism (?).
    This secrecy in the concealment of what we might term the ‘common law’ or custom and practice of ‘rooting out this poison’ of course renders any claim of the LP to be a democratic party null, void and of no effect.
    We should favour any candidates for the NEC who support Cde Bradney’s courteous and constructive request to Sir Keir Starmer of 6 April as above; and we should oppose any candidates who do not support that request. In any case, CLPs should have regard to Cde Bradney’s criteria in proposing any definition of AS. For myself, I endorse his endorsement of the traditional definitions having principal regard to prejudice, hostility and discrimination, as found in Wikipedia and the accepted dictionaries; and any extension should be scrutinized with precise examination, the more so since the IHRA ‘definition’ actually exempts prejudice, hostility and discrimination from its condemnation.

  • David Hawkins says:

    During the Holocaust white Europeans tried to exterminate white European Jews. Nobody doubts this was a uniquely awful event, a permanent stain on European civilisation but why does that entitle white European Jews to have a “Right of Self Determination” in the Middle East ? And if the justification is religious why are some of the strongest advocates of a so called Jewish Right of Return atheists ? I genuinely would like to hear of a justification because I have so far heard of none.
    The Nazis tried equally to exterminate the Jews and the Roma. So why did it take until 1981 before West Germany fully recognised the Nazi Crimes against the Roma ? It seems clear that some Nazi victims are more important than others.
    And if white European Jews are entitled to the “right of self determination” why is that denied to the Roma ?

  • Martin Clay says:

    I wonder if by working definition the author (Stern) was also getting at this being a practical one for ‘working with’ (and provisional – i.e. open to further development).

    By ‘certain perception’ I read this meaning, not so much ‘particular’ but the opposite, a difficult to pin down or ‘kind of’ perception. This would even admit the reverse phenomenon of an unbalanced admiration of Jews (sometime called philosemitism) that manifests in some of the most assiduous crusaders (non-Jewish) or ‘witch-finders’. So the ‘may’ could then include a kind of false admiration or love, that is in fact more problematic.

    I would give far more weight to Stern’s reasoning here to find a meaningful term for what is a very difficult to nail down form of racism. It’s important to do so. One of the characteristics that is sought by the originators is the distinguishing character if antisemitism as more than denigration or negative as with other racial discrimination, in that it may pretend to vastly admire but still ‘other’ Jews, and holds in reserve the capacity to discriminate and persecute.

  • Stephen says:

    Isn’t the IHRA ‘definition’ a bit of a red herring as far as Labour Party judgements are concerned? Don’t the disciplinary panel usually expel members on vaguer grounds, such as ‘bringing the party into disrepute’?

    Presumably, expelling the high profile members on explicit grounds of anti-Semitism would have been problematic, since the evidence, even by the standards of the IHRA examples, was highly dubious? Justice can only be provided by confronting the vagueness of the charges used, the lack of transparency in the reasoning process, and the difficulty in appealing the decision if appropriate.

    So is it worth arguing the academic details of the IHRA in what seems to be a Kangaroo court even before the present change of leadership? Ironically the BoD suggestion of having an independent disciplinary panel could hardly be worse, providing that panel didn’t have obvious political, or religious-ethnic biases.

  • John Spencer says:

    This admirably logical analysis does not explain the ferocity with which its advocates insisted that the IHRA text be adopted verbatim by the Labour Party, the trade unions, local authorities, &c. The Board of Deputies and the Jewish Labour Movement to name but two of its most vocal advocates, did not explain what it was about the words of the non-definition they were seeking to impose that had an essential quality. Labour’s attempts to propose a more sensible form of words (actually something like a definition) were rudely shouted down and the IHRA text roughly stuffed down the party’s throat. What the IHRA had knocked out a few years before on the back of an envelope was accorded the status of holy writ.
    I’m not a theologian and I have no special knowledge of Jewish liturgical practice. But in the Protestant Christian world with which like any other English atheist I have a passing familiarity, even holy writ is not beyond improvement as I understand it. The actual wording of vernacular translations of the old and new testaments is subject to constant reworking apparently with a view to conveying the sense of the original Hebrew, Greek or Aramaic in the speech of today. Such is the status of the IHRA document that its proponents are most unlikely to tolerate or permit any attempt to clarify its meaning. This is a non-definition definition quite exempt from the ordinary process of refinement through practical experience or of amendment to convey its principles more clearly. Were it not for the danger that the use of such an adjective might be construed as per se antisemitic, the IHRA text might be regarded as a talismanic text, and its adoption as a purgatory ritual — the exact opposite of a democratic and collaborative approach.

  • Jack says:

    Dave Bradney has done at least two things.

    One, torn the IHRA ‘definition’ to shreds.

    Two, made it absolutely clear that the so called definition was deliberately never meant to be a ‘definition’, it was meant to be a net to be cast as wide as possible to catch anyone whom the witch-hunters wished to ensnare.

    It is only because certain members of the LP staff, plus MPs such as John McDonnell lobbied for it to be adopted that the LP walked headlong into this trap. Members need to ‘take back control’ ditch this millstone and adopt the simple and precise dictionary definition.

  • Eileen McKnight-Smith says:

    I suppose it’s the difference between an extensional and an intensional definition. The 11 points “include, but are not limited to…” therefore, it is a working definition not an authoritative definition.

  • David Sykes says:

    It’s the “Jewish or non-Jewish” bit that gets me. Everyone is either Jewish or non-Jewish.

  • Edward Hill says:

    Keir Starmer has already provided an answer to David Bradney’s purist plea by making a political (rather than legal) decision in January 2020 to accept the ten pledges of the Board of Deputies for British Jews, the sixth of which is “adopt the international definition of antisemitism without qualification”. By being “seriously vague and completely open-ended” it allows the Labour Party to say, paraphrasing Humpty Dumpty: “When I use the word ‘antisemitism’ it means just what I choose it to mean”, i.e. a term of accusation of wrongdoing that does not require evidence of “prejudice, hostility or hatred towards Jews as Jews.”

  • William Johnston says:

    I just so love this article.

    rc highlights the fact that being offended becomes a de facto definition of prejudice.

    As a man who finds (certain) men sexually attractive, I find references to “The Gay Community” offensive – no, seriously! My experience is that my own quite individual take on my sexuality is debased by this generalised term.

    In fact I find all similar uses of the word “Community” offensive and manipulative; a means to recruit me to a cause – and Lord help me if I betray the cause by questioning it.

    If I find the term “Gay Community” offensive, might I reasonably bring a complaint of homophobic language against anyone who uses it? Clearly, that would be a nonsense. Though I would certainly reserve my right to challenge the term.

    If, however, in response to my challenge, someone then accuses me of not being Gay Enough, or the “wrong sort of gay” – or even, homophobic and/or “a self-hating homosexual” – might I then reasonably bring a complaint of discrimination on the basis of my sexuality?

  • Susan Greaves says:

    Good article. Thank you. I would like to add that countries and institutions that sign up to the IHRA definition are simply ticking a box. (Hungary for example). Once the box is ticked, they can continue to have widespread and unfettered anti-semitic attitudes. Whereas, as one of the 130 unresolved cases of anti-semitism in the Labour Party, I continue to care deeply about the issue and am probably more knowledgeable about Jewish people, about Israel, about anti-semitism than the average member of the Labour Party. In other words, ticking a box signifies nothing. Pushing a statue of a slave owner into the harbour in Bristol was a thrilling and joyous act, but it unfortunately will not go very far to change the terrible and shameful racism towards black people in this country. To do that requires thoughtful debate and discussion, the confronting of personal and political beliefs, the coming together of people from all sides…ironically just what the Labour Party tried to do with the IHRA document. Keir Starmer does not reply because he cannot justify his stand.

  • RH says:

    The shame is that this reductio ad absurdum of the IHRA definition should be needed at all. The garbling of language and logic has always been plain for all to see.

    That there has been no substantive reply from Keir Starmer speaks – sorry ‘shouts’ -volumes; there is no way that an experienced barrister could fail to see the holes in the ‘definition’.

    Confirmation of the obvious judgment on the man is confirmed by the lack of essential opposition to current government authoritarianism. It is not due to misunderstanding.

  • Hazel Davies says:

    Some very insightful and rational discussion. Thank you.

  • William Johnston says:

    I think that John Spencer really has hit the nail on the head. The IHRA text is holy writ; and my observation is that most of the more savage religious practices are based precisely on bits of scripture, generally quoted out of context, and always vague and ultimately contradicted by other scriptures.

    The further essence of ideology is that it overrides all other forms of civilised behaviour. How otherwise could a follower of Christ justify burning people to death? And how else to explain how expulsion from the party on the basis of the IHRA text overrides any need actually to follow any normal rules of justice or decency?

    God forbid, therefore – from the perspective of those who have adopted this piece of ideology as justification for their rage against party heretics – that it should be re-drafted into something that actually stands up to rational debate.

  • Huw says:

    This is excellent. In truth, the 38 words are a non-definition, or an “indefinition”. You have only to ask what they explicitly exclude (“certain other perceptions of Jews”?) to see that actually they rule nothing either in or out. Which means that the 11 “illustrations” (which the IHRA specifically did not ratify) are not illustrating anything but in effect stand alone. And even they refer to things that only “might” be antisemitic, “depending on the overall context”.

    How can this be the “gold standard” of anything, except obfuscation? I would suspect that anyone who insists it is is not being entirely honest or sincere.

    The only thing I would add to the Wikipedia definition is the two final words “as Jews”.

  • michael ryan says:

    We all recognise what anti semitism looks like and sounds like. What is and has always been at issue, regarding the alleged offences committed by Labour Party members is whether expressions of concern about unfair and cruel treatment of non Jewish people in land occupied by Israel is in itself to be considered anti-Semitic, or whether attributing said unfair and cruel treatment, to the state of Israel, makes it anti-Semitic.
    If the answer to the first part is “no” and the answer to the second part is “yes” then to whom should we attribute the unfair and cruel treatment?

  • Harry Law says:

    The aim of the IHRA is to conflate criticism of Israel with Antisemitism, Israeli leader Abba Eban equated Anti-Zionism with Antisemitism in an effort to “exploit anti racist sentiment for political ends”, “One of the chief tasks of any dialogue with the Gentile world is to prove that the distinction between Antisemitism and Anti Zionism is not a distinction at all”
    Commenting on Eban’s statement Noam Chomsky replied “that is a convenient stand, it cuts off a mere 100% of critical comment” Quoted by Menachen Weker ‘In defence of self hating Jews’ May 2007 Jewish currents online at Archived 2017-03-12 at way back machine.

  • DJ says:

    Michael Ryan. Are you claiming that unfair and cruel treatment of non Jewish people by the state of Israel is “anti-Semitic”? If so, I think you are in danger of ignoring the specificity of anti Jewish racism. Furthermore I believe you are trivialising the debate about what constitutes antisemitism. Can you explain to me what has lead you to this position?

  • DJ says:

    Another good article on the IHRA definition of antisemitism. It is clearly confused, incoherent and contradictory. It is amazing that so many are willing to endorse it. I am lost for words to describe my anger about the NEC’s decision to adopt it. As a supporter of the Palestinian struggle for justice I am appalled!

Comments are now closed.