Why the antisemitism definition is flawed

JVL Introduction

Prof Geoffrey Alderman, author of British Jewry Since Emancipation, The Jewish Community in British PoliticsModern British Jewry and more, takes a brief, highly critical, view of the IHRA definition of antisemitism.

While those who drew it up were well-intentioned, he says, “it’s merely a work-in-progress. And deeply flawed into the bargain!”

This article was originally published by Jewish Telegraph on Fri 12 Jul 2019. Read the original here.

Why the antisemitism definition is flawed

 JUSTICE is a peer-reviewed journal published by the International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists.

Its autumn 2018 edition carried an informative article by Michael Whine tracing the history of what is known as the “Working Definition” of antisemitism adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance on May 26, 2016.

Whine — currently a member of the Council of Europe’s Commission against Racism and Intolerance — is a leading expert on all things antisemitic.

His article provides a succinct account of how the Working Definition came about and of its embrace by the UK government and by numerous governmental organs in this country.

He reminds us that although the government “formally adopted” the Working Definition in January, 2017, and although its espousal since then by well over 100 devolved elected governmental bodies in the UK — not to mention political parties and other entities — has endowed it with an almost sacrosanct status, it is not, in fact, “a binding legal act”.

As Whine explains: It was not designed to be transposed into European or domestic legislation, and this was made clear by the team that drafted it . . . it was only meant to be a guide to assist police officers and human rights activists to understand contemporary antisemitism, and not the basis for legislation.

The Working Definition — the grammatical construction of which is indeed “cumbersome”, as Whine concedes — is confusing, not least because it is composed of two unequal parts.

The first consists of the definition itself. The second comprises 11 examples of what that definition might mean in practice.

The definition declares: Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred towards Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed towards Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, towards Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.

So antisemitism “may” be expressed as hatred towards Jews, but need not necessarily be so expressed.

If not, then surely we’re entitled to ask how else it might be expressed. The definition is silent on this point.

The 11 examples are interesting, not least because they embed internal contradictions.

One of them affects to condemn as antisemitic “drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis”.

But the preamble that introduces all 11 examples explains that manifestations of antisemitism “might include the targeting of the State of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity. However, criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic”.

Well, a number of political regimes around the world have been criticised because they are alleged to be pursuing policies reminiscent of the Nazis.

For example, the policy of Myanmar in relation to the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities. So how in principle can it be antisemitic to draw a comparison between “contemporary” Israeli policy and that of the Nazis?

[For the sake of clarity I state now that I do not believe any Israeli government has, in fact, ever pursued policies remotely reminiscent of the Nazis. The point I make is one of principle].

Another of the examples declares it to be antisemitic to accuse Jewish citizens “of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations”.

This exemplar strikes me as very valid — up to a point.

There is no world Jewish conspiracy. There is no secret Jewish “government” endeavouring to manipulate to the exclusive advantage of the Jewish people the destinies of mankind.

But I know many Jews who hold dual citizenship — they are, for example, citizens of both Israel and the UK — who, under certain circumstances, would act (and have indeed acted) in the interests of Israel rather than of Great Britain.

How can it possibly be antisemitic to point this out?

The examples also allege that it is antisemitic to make “stereotypical allegations about . . . the power of Jews as a collective — such as, especially but not exclusively, the myth about Jews controlling the media”.

Well, in my book British Jewry since Emancipation, I point out — as other scholars have done — that in the early 20th century there was a case to be made in support of the view that Jews controlled important parts of the British film industry (of course, in so doing they had no Jewish “agenda” in mind).

In summary, those who framed the IHRA’s Working Definition of antisemitism were well-intentioned, and the definition itself has commendable features.

But it’s merely a work-in-progress. And deeply flawed into the bargain!

Comments (2)

  • Peter Cave says:

    Geoffrey Alderman makes some highly appropriate and sensible comments here – if I may be so bold. Had I known of his work, I should have incorporated it in my book co-authored with Rabbi Dan Cohn-Sherbok – where certainly my philosophical contribution accords with Alderman’s approach, the book of 2018 being “Jews: Nearly Everything You Wanted to Know – but were too afraid to ask”.

  • Guinevere Tufnell says:

    If the IHRA definition is still seen as “work in progress”, it would be good to know when there will be a review of the progress, if any, that is being made.

Comments are now closed.