The IHRA definition, revisited by its lead drafter

No-one needs a definition to recognise this as antisemitic

JVL Introduction

Kenneth S. Stern, lead drafter of what became the IHRA Definition of Antisemitism, has long been an outspoken critic of the uses to which it has been put.

In this new article he outlines his criticisms for the benefit of the new Department of State’s Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism, shortly to be appointed by President Biden.

In sum, he says:

  • “the working definition has been primarily used (and I argue, grossly abused) to suppress and chill pro-Palestinian speech”;
  • “it has not, to date, had the transformative effect on data collection and hate crime analysis hoped for”;
  • “When you are asking institutions and governments to adopt a definition — to enshrine it, to consult it, to use it in codes and procedures — that’s using the definition like a law”;

And, most importantly:

  • “IHRA’s zealous supporters often say that to combat antisemitism, one has to define it. In my view, that simply isn’t true. Definitions are useful for data collectors, but it’s not as if people didn’t fight antisemitism before the definition was created over 16 years ago.”

And he quotes a critic, Peter Eisenstadt, who said of Stern’s own role in all this: “If you give witch hunters a manual for the discovery of witchcraft they will find witches.”

This article was originally published by Forward on Tue 27 Jul 2021. Read the original here.

Biden’s pick for antisemitism envoy will need to answer these tough questions

Sometime soon, President Biden will likely nominate a candidate for the Department of State’s Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism.

Regardless of who is selected, the envoy-designee will be asked at their confirmation hearing what they think of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism, which has been adopted by many governments, and which Israel and many Jewish organizations are energetically promoting.

The U.S. State Department is already on record, calling the IHRA definition the “gold standard,” but this definition has been criticized by pro-Palestinian activists and some progressive pro-Israel Jewish groups, especially over concerns that it is being used to censor and suppress pro-Palestinian speech.

I was the lead drafter of the “working definition” of antisemitism, which eventually became the IHRA definition. It was created more than 16 years ago after the uptick in attacks on Jews, particularly in Western Europe, during the Second Intifada. Its main purpose was to provide European data collectors common guidelines of what to include or exclude in reports about antisemitism.

The definition notes that antisemitism is, at heart, a conspiracy theory claiming Jews conspire to harm non-Jews, thus providing an “explanation” for what goes wrong in the world. When individual Jews are held responsible for events in Israel/Palestine, it’s like holding Jews collectively responsible for the death of Jesus or the disappearance of Christian children or the Black Plague: antisemitic.

The working definition provides clear language designed to help law enforcement and others avoid trying to psychoanalyze the perpetrator of every alleged antisemitic incident. This was particularly important for hate crimes, as the focus should not be on the actor’s motive (generating debates on if he really  hates Jews), but rather on his intent to select a victim of a criminal act specifically because they were Jewish (or connected to a Jew).

There were examples about Israel included in the working definition because there was a correlation (as opposed to causation) between increased anti-Israel expressions and upticks in attacks on Jews (something we recently witnessed again this May.)

Unfortunately, as I testified before Congress in 2017 and wrote in a recent book, the working definition has been primarily used (and I argue, grossly abused) to suppress and chill pro-Palestinian speech, starting on campus in 2010, and then more broadly.

In the last days of the Trump administration, Secretary of State Pompeo even floated the idea of designating groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International antisemitic because of their statements about Israel (and thus threatening their funding).

The European Commission “Handbook for the practical use of the IHRA working definition of Antisemitism” describes using the definition for similar purposes, so that “funding does not go to entities and projects that promote antisemitism… and to refrain from making premises and infrastructure available to organisations and associations that express antisemitic views or question Israel’s right to exist.”

Further, the Handbook advocates using the definition for “engaging with social media companies,” “[e]valuation of educational material” and when drafting “Codes of Conduct at universities.”

The Handbook also notes that “only a few countries have implemented relevant programmes or initiatives…[b]ecause adoption, endorsement and application of the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism is a rather recent development.”

This is somewhat misleading — it’s true that the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance adopted the definition in 2016, but the “Working Definition” itself has been around and promoted since 2005. And while it has been used over the years for such things as police training and diplomatic discussions, it has not, to date, had the transformative effect on data collection and hate crime analysis hoped for. (The Handbook underscores that “few EU Member States record antisemitic incidents in a way that allows them to collect adequate official data.”)

It’s also disingenuous for the European Commission Handbook (and IHRA’s promoters generally) to claim the definition isn’t “legally binding,” presumably meaning you can’t be thrown in jail in most countries for expressions perceived as violative.

When you are asking institutions and governments to adopt a definition — to enshrine it, to consult it, to use it in codes and procedures — that’s using the definition like a law. And indeed President Trump’s 2019 executive order required the Department of Education to consider the definition while evaluating claims of antisemitism. Jared Kushner was explicit that the adoption of the definition reflected government policy equating anti-Zionism with antisemitism, full stop.

While anti-Zionism can certainly be expressed as antisemitism, the question of whether anti-Zionism is antisemitism is one largely allergic to the bright lines definitions seek to create. One can oppose Zionism for political or theological reasons that have nothing to do with hatred toward Jews or belief in Jewish conspiracy.

The nominee should make clear that while the U.S. will call out antisemitic tropes and actions by leaders of other countries, it won’t support efforts anywhere to insist that NGOs and campus activists have the “correct” line about Zionism and Israel.

Would the nominee object if the education secretary of a country threatens the funding of universities that don’t adopt the IHRA definition, as happened in the UK?

Similarly, a leader of a major Jewish organization has advocated the use of the definition to stop pro-Palestinian campus organizing with which he disagrees, such as “Israel Apartheid Week.”

I’m no fan of Israel Apartheid Week, but I’m more concerned when people advocate that governments and universities restrict the freedom to speak, the freedom to assemble or the freedom to advocate a political position.

We should counter expressions we find disagreeable, not ask governments to suppress them. Will the nominee go on record saying that he or she disagrees with those who want to use the definition to suppress speech? Will they agree that campus-adopted definitions are invitations to group-think, thus undercutting the goal of a university education — to create critical thinkers? Will they underscore that academic freedom and liberal education are important cornerstones of democracies, here and abroad?

And would they agree that definitions can actually make combating antisemitism more difficult?

As I and many others have written — no one more eloquently than Joe Cohn of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education — there already exists a tendency of the political right and the political left to censor and chill political opponents. A definition applied like IHRA, as one reviewer of my book pointed out in criticism of my role, has a clear effect: “[i]f you give witch hunters a manual for the discovery of witchcraft they will find witches.”

IHRA’s zealous supporters often say that to combat antisemitism, one has to define it. In my view, that simply isn’t true. Definitions are useful for data collectors, but it’s not as if people didn’t fight antisemitism before the definition was created over 16 years ago.

The next special envoy will need to tackle antisemitism in the real world, outside the myopic debate about whether any antisemitism definition should be treated like the holy grail. The Capitol Insurrection happened just a few months ago and democracies around the world are under stress. Jewish security is inextricably linked to the strength of our democracies, and how well they protect free speech.

Antisemitism involves attitudes, identity, crimes, politics, religion, the push for media ratings, rumors and so many other things. Antisemitism isn’t just informed by how people feel about Jews, but also about larger social forces that encourage conspiratorial thinking as personally comforting and politically expedient.

I hope the nominee will help guide us all out of this dangerous definitional rabbit hole, and help us stop fighting each other about definitions while ignoring the most important things.

 

Comments (12)

  • Rodney Watts says:

    Well, the situation couldn’t be put any clearer, and from the horse’s mouth. Hopefully Deborah Lipstad will take due note. In fact I imagine she already has made more than a few notes, and it will be more than interesting to see what she actually does and says. You can always lives in hope!

  • Doug says:

    Safest country in Europe for the Jewish Community thanks to people like Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour party
    Vexatious claims of anti semitism are hate crimes and should be prosecuted
    The evil behind the holocaust was not uniquely German because its in all of us, it could have happened in any other country, we know this to be true when we look at Ireland and the British Empire
    We know it’s true when we look at Israel, its there for all to see
    I was taught never again and I’m not from the Jewish Community but my relatives were at Cable Street
    In those days good people were really all in it together and the only chance you had was to look out for each other
    Men and Women, Young and Old, poor and destitute, British and The Rest of the World
    We seem to have lost a lot since then
    What say you

  • Deborah Lipstadt has in fact already criticised the IHRA as not targeting far-Right anti-Semitism.

    I know that Kenneth Stern is a hero to many people for his latter day conversion to the idea that the IHRA has been used to stifle pro-Palestinian and anti-Zionist speech, however I think we need to ask of him serious questions.

    How for example does the illustration that comparing Israel to the Nazis have anything to do with anti-Semitism? That is so clearly about political speech that it barely needs mentioning.

    How has ‘double standards’ ie criticising Israel but no other country have anything to do with antisemitism? Again that is political speech.

    The sad fact, which Stern does not recognise is that he fashioned a weapon for others to use in ways he doesn’t approve. At best he can be accused of naivety at worst disingenuousness.

    Stern says that ‘the working definition provides clear language designed to help law enforcement and others’. Really? David Feldman was right when he said that the WDA/IHRA was ‘bewilderingly imprecise’.

    Stern also says that ‘the focus should not be on the actor’s motive (generating debates on if he really hates Jews), but rather on his intent to select a victim of a criminal act specifically because they were Jewish (or connected to a Jew).’

    I don’t see how you can separate motive from intent. They amount to the same. A simple example. I am robbed in the street. If I’m robbed because I’m a Jew and you believe all Jews are rich that is clearly anti-Semitic because my assailant intended to attack a Jew and his motive was to attack someone who was rich, which in his eyes a Jew always is.

    But if I was robbed because I looked well off and my attacker knew nothing of my being Jewish that is not an anti-Semitic attack. That is why motive is extremely important.

    The reason why Jews are attacked because of what Israel does is simple. Israel calls itself a Jewish state, the Board of Deputies et al claim to support what Israel does in the name of Jews and unfortunately some people believe them.

    I really do believe Stern’s rationalisation should be challenged. His criticisms of how the IHRA is being used is obviously welcome but his reasoning is still faulty

    avoid trying to psychoanalyze the perpetrator of every alleged antisemitic incident. This was particularly important for hate crimes, as the focus should not be on the actor’s motive (generating debates on if he really hates Jews), but rather on his intent to select a victim of a criminal act specifically because they were Jewish (or connected to a Jew).

  • Susan Greaves says:

    “One can oppose Zionism for political or theological reasons that have nothing to do with hatred toward Jews or belief in Jewish conspiracy.” This one sentence, so simple, so true, brings crashing down most of the accusations of anti-semitism thrown at members of the LP including the accusation thrown at me. (Threatened with suspension more than two years ago, dutifully filled in their stupid questionnaire, never heard anything, not even confirmations of my requests for clarification).

  • Philip Ward says:

    This is a small step forward, but if you say the IHRA definition is useful for data collection, you need to explain why and how. He does not explain how such data will not be tainted by the biases and ambiguities in the definition and does not refer to the multiple examples where such manipulations are plain for all to see. He does not give examples of “honest” or “unbiased” use of the IHRA definition for data collection.

    How is keeping the IHRA definition going to stop witch hunters “finding witches”? I think the next step for Kenneth Stern is to join the campaign for it to be abandoned by all the various institutions that have adopted it, and especially the IHRA itself. There is plenty of data collection on racism taking place in various countries without the deployment of elaborate (and therefore most likely flawed) “definitions”.

  • Philip Inglesant says:

    In the UK, the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill (a title that George Orwell would surely have shrunk from), currently going through parliament, would forbid HE institutions and student unions from denying the use of any of their premises to any group or individual on the basis of their policy, beliefs or views. Thus, a university or student union could be forced to rent a meeting space to a holocaust denier or a promoter of the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, but forbidden, under an abuse of the IHRA definition that UK universities are all-but compelled to adopt, to rent a space to a human rights group to discuss illegal Israeli settlements in occupied territories, for example.

  • Huw says:

    This is certainly helpful from Kenneth Stern, but it still leaves me mystified.

    He says: “The definition notes that antisemitism is, at heart, a conspiracy theory claiming Jews conspire to harm non-Jews, thus providing an ‘explanation’ for what goes wrong in the world.” In fact, that point is not made in either the definition or the 11 “illustrations” but is casually included in the rubric that introduces the latter — and the wording there (as throughout the whole definition-plus-illustrations) is notably less clear:

    “Antisemitism frequently charges Jews with conspiring to harm humanity, and it is often used to blame Jews for ‘why things go wrong’.”

    What does that mean, “antisemitism [is] used to blame Jews”?

    I have honestly tried hard to make sense of the definition itself, which seems to me almost perversely unclear — a deliberate “indefinition”. The only specific thing it says is that AS is a “perception” of Jews — so, not an attitude towards them? The definition promises exactness (“a certain perception”) but delivers anything but. And, inexplicably, in all its profusion of words it nowhere finds space to make the crucial point that AS targets Jews *as Jews*.

    Stern is clearly very articulate and well-intentioned. That only makes the IHRA “indefinition” all the more puzzling.

  • Allan Howard says:

    Yes, exactly Philip, and one has to ask WHY he doesn’t (explain how such data will not be tainted etc). Doesn’t make sense to me. One thing’s for sure though, that only a relatively small number of people get to hear about Stern’s criticisms of the definition and the examples anyway, and they are mainly on the left of course. And the target of its misuse!
    __________________________

    Anyway, JVL posted the following back in April, which is well worth reading if you haven’t done so before (and worth reading again even if you HAVE!)

    IHRA ‘misrepresents’ own definition of anti-Semitism, says report

    New report obtained exclusively by Al Jazeera details how the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance misinformed the public over its anti-Semitism definition.

    https://www.jewishvoiceforlabour.org.uk/article/ihra-misrepresents-own-definition-of-anti-semitism-says-report/

  • Dave says:

    Stern has spent too long trying to justify the IHRA ‘definition’ in the context he says it was aimed at but that doesn’t stand up. It was shoddy work that should never have seen the light of day and he should tear it up and disown it.

  • DJ says:

    I agree with the majority of comments about this article which is totally incoherent, disingenuous and dishonest. It,s time for the author to repent and disown the colonial IHRA definition of antisemitism. He needs to come clean and admit that calling Israel a”racist endeavour”is a legitimate political point of view even if he disagrees with it. The same goes for the argument that Israel is guilty of apartheid to deliver a settler colonial project.
    All this talk about using the IHRA definition to facilitate data collection on antisemitism is humbug. The data collected using this definition indicates an increase in anti Israeli sentiment as opposed to antisemitism. Given recent events of ethnic cleansing in East Jerusalem and the blitz on Gaza this is hardly surprising. Events like these lead to mass demonstrations across the globe in solidarity with the Palestinians. People were outraged by the treatment of the Palestinians by the Israeli settler colonial regime. They were not motivated by antisemitism. The author has nothing to say on the JDA or recent charges of apartheid levelled against Israel by human rights organisations. I can only assume he will carry on with the pretence that the only problem with the IHRA definition is how it is interpreted by the Israeli lobby.

  • DJ says:

    The author claims it is not necessary to define antisemitism to fight it. What a hopeless statement! Misdefining antisemitism will certainly not help anyone to fight it. Surely the author of this article understands that redefining antisemitism to include opposition to Israeli settler colonialism is the real source of the problem with the IHRA definition. The majority of anti semites actually support the state of Israel and would welcome a mass exodus of Jews from their countries to Israel. Like the Zionists they believe the nation state of Israel is the homeland of Jews. So you are not really Jewish if you live outside Israel and its OK to treat the Jewish diaspora as foreigners.

  • Naomi Wayne says:

    I have never understood and still do not understand how Stern drafted such a dopey incoherent document, much less one that so obviously got antisemitism and anti-zionism twisted up together. Nevertheless, I really don’t see him as ‘the enemy’. Irrespective of what you think of the IHRA document as a tool for data collection (not a lot), or for anything else (equally, not much), Stern’s objection to it being used effectively to outlaw discussion on Israel, and to put supporters of Palestine beyond the pale of acceptable debate and opinion, has been genuine and unwavering. He is a thorough-going defender of the First Amendment, and is clearly appalled to see his work, no matter how dire we think it is, be used for a purpose for which it was never intended – to shut down free speech on Israel. To that extent, he is a very important (and very persistent and unrelenting) ally.

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