Why the man who drafted the IHRA definition condemns its use

Kenneth S. Stern, giving evidence to the US Congress on the IHRA defintion. November 2017

The man who drafted the IHRA definition of antisemitism condemns its use to curb freedom of speech

George Wilmers, 1st August 2018, updated 4 August

According to the latest hysterical criteria of the Israel lobby* and their camp followers, the original drafter of the so-called IHRA definition of antisemitism, an avowed Zionist, should himself be categorised as an antisemite, or perhaps a “kapo”. For that is the conclusion one must reach if one accepts the assertion that anyone who challenges any aspect of the holy writ that the IHRA definition has become is an antisemite – see here and here.

The drafter of what later became popularly known as the EUMC or IHRA definition of antisemitism,including its associated examples, was the U.S. attorney Kenneth S. Stern. However, in written evidence submitted to the US Congress last year, Stern charged that his original definition had been used for an entirely different purpose to that for which it had been designed. According to Stern it had originally been designed as a ”working definition” for the purpose of trying to standardise data collection about the incidence of antisemitic hate crime in different countries. It had never been intended that it be used as legal or regulatory device to curb academic or political free speech. Yet that is how it has now come to be used. In the same document Stern specifically condemns as inappropriate the use of the definition for such purposes, mentioning in particular the curbing of free speech in UK universities, and referencing Manchester and Bristol universities as examples. Here is what he writes:

The EUMC “working definition” was recently adopted in the United Kingdom, and applied to campus. An “Israel Apartheid Week” event was cancelled as violating the definition. A Holocaust survivor was required to change the title of a campus talk, and the university [Manchester] mandated it be recorded, after an Israeli diplomat [ambassador Regev] complained that the title violated the definition.[See here]. Perhaps most egregious, an off-campus group citing the definition called on a university to conduct an inquiry of a professor (who received her PhD from Columbia) for antisemitism, based on an article she had written years before. The university [Bristol] then conducted the inquiry. And while it ultimately found no basis to discipline the professor, the exercise itself was chilling and McCarthy-like. [square brackets added – GW]

Of course the groups which were behind this “McCarthy-like” repression of free speech condemned by Stern are the very same ones which are now engaged in the current vendetta against Corbyn. For example in the case of the Bristol University lecturer who was subjected to an inquiry into false accusations of antisemitism, it was the misnamed Campaign Against Antisemitism, in reality an aggressively pro-Israel lobby group, which had called for her to be sacked unless she recanted.

Tellingly Stern clearly recognises the intrinsic logical absurdity and threat to free speech which arises where consistent attempts are made to ban political speech regarding states or governments:

Imagine a definition designed for Palestinians. If “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, and denying Israel the right to exist” is antisemitism, then shouldn’t “Denying the Palestinian people their right to self-determination, and denying Palestine the right to exist” be anti-Palestinianism? Would they then ask administrators to police and possibly punish campus events by pro-Israel groups who oppose the two state solution, or claim the Palestinian people are a myth?

Kenneth Stern is a Zionist and certainly no leftist. Nevertheless to his credit the original author of the IHRA definition is a consistent defender of free speech who condemns the current McCarthyite usage of the IHRA definition.

So is the Zionist author of the IHRA definition of antisemitism a closet antisemite who has now outed himself? Was he perhaps a longstanding mole for a secret international conspiracy of antisemites led by Jeremy Corbyn? Perhaps Nick Cohen will tell us the answer?

As for all texts of holy writ the political process by which the IHRA definition acquired both its current interpretation and its sacred status amongst its fanatical devotees is still shrouded in mystery, despite some interesting attempts – here, here and here – to investigate its short 14-year history. It is a tribute to the abandonment of rational reasoning in official public discourse that the details of the definition and its obvious inadequacies as a legal or quasi-legal text are a taboo subject in the mainstream media. Despite a general belief to the contrary and its “adoption” by the UK government, the IHRA definition has no legal status in the UK, and for very good reason: as has been highlighted by leading legal authorities such as Hugh Tomlinson and Stephen Sedley, not only is it not a proper definition for legal purposes, but its legal adoption by any public authority would conflict with existing protected rights of free expression guaranteed by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Nevertheless such is the power of the propaganda campaign for the IHRA cult that, abandoning rational considerations, the leadership of the Labour party have felt obliged to make obeisance to the IHRA’s holy status, even while discretely seeking to modify the text in order to mitigate some of its draconian effects. Unfortunately however, you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. So whatever our beliefs may be concerning the functionality of the sow’s ear in its original setting, we must be grateful to the man who fashioned it for pointing out its obvious limitations with such clarity.


* I use the term “Israel Lobby” as a shorthand for those who use false or wildly exaggerated charges of antisemitism against the Labour party as a cover for their real goals which are (a) to make pro-Palestinian activism impossible within the Labour Party, and (b) to ensure that Corbyn is removed as leader of the Labour party. In reality, as Moshe Machover has repeatedly pointed out, this is a loose coalition of rather different political groups from the centre-right to the far right, some of which are connected to pro-Israel and rightwing Jewish organisations, but some of which have no particular connection or interest in either Judaism or the Israel-Palestine conflict, but are simply using the antisemitism hysteria as a means to attack the Corbyn political project. Some have suggested that the term “anti-Palestinian Lobby” might be a more appropriate terminology.

† The BBC may be taken as the paradigm example of this complete abandonment of rational argument, where news presenters and commentators almost always attempt to shut down any discussion of the detail or history of the IHRA definition or its legal inadequacy, concentrating exclusively on the supposed “perception of the Jewish community”, a concept which itself bears all the hallmarks of a racist stereotype. A very unusual exception to this shameful behaviour is the excellent recent BBC News interview on 23 July 2018 by Norman Smith of Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi, where the latter is respectfully allowed to present her case without bullying or partisan interruption by the interviewer.

The author thanks Richard Kuper and Murray Glickman for their substantial help and advice in preparing this article.

Comments (8)

  • Lesley Mathew says:

    Thank you for a clear, calm exposition of the matter. I fear the hysteria around this issue threatens the very exstence of free speech internationally.

  • William Marshall says:

    Very good article the IHRA definition is being used by anti-Corbyn groups anti – labour groups right wing labour MPs and the press barons and Netanyahu to smear Corbyn they are terrified what a socialist govt.will do to their position in this country.i and millions of others support Jeremy as our Socialist leader & cannot wait to have a Socialist govt.

  • Jill Barker says:

    I’m appalled that even the left wing press is pushing this strict IHRA agenda. I thought the Guardian was an intelligent person’s paper.

  • Mike Meir says:

    It’s also a good idea to note that the Stockholm Declaration of the IHRA, which is what the 31 member countries actually committed themselves to, says, at paragraph 3:
    “With humanity still scarred by genocide, ethnic cleansing, racism, antisemitism and xenophobia, the international community shares a solemn responsibility to fight those evils.”
    This appears to be exactly what Mr Corbyn has been attending to throughout his career.
    In addition the constant assertion that the IHRA working definition has been adopted by 31 countries is simply untrue. According to the IHRA web site it has been adopted by a total of 8 countries, although exactly what this implies when the document describes itself as “non-legally binding” is unclear.

  • bollos says:

    one day the crusade will fail.

  • Bobbie says:

    It’s the unfortunate perceiving of the sheer spiteful nature and manner in which the IHRA definition, a definition competing with other ‘definitions’ one might inquire, is appearing to be hatefully foisted into the UK Labour Party rule book by a single religious faction that seems to think it has an angry God Given right to do so.

    It shouldn’t be like that…

    Such ‘truths’ for rules and guidance for any institutions aught to be offered up with grace so that they are to be, ultimately, received if that is the majority call with a truthful understanding of the issues with joyful acceptance and humility.

    If not – grace and humility must prevail equally.

  • Z says:

    There’s one thing I don’t understand however, if someone can help me with in the comments.
    Wherever I look, I find that the IHRA’s definition is the following:

    “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.”

    It doesn’t mention anything Zionist-related, or any reactionary and revisionist concept about anti-Semitism (as for example Bibi, Macron, and Trudeau do, who all try to redefine anti-Semitism as anti-Zionism).

    So I wonder what the fuss is about, and where the “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, and denying Israel the right to exist” bit comes from.

  • Mark says:

    I’m amazed this has only come to my attention, the fact the author of the code has spoken against it’s use.
    Surly in a free and fair society, this should have been published / discussed on every news program, criticising Corbyn and Labour as being anti-Semitic.
    Obviously the doesn’t excuse anti-Semitism, but it would at least show there are two sides to a story, I’m deeply saddened where we’ve ended up by media pressure and falsities.

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