The Definition That Never Was

Jonathan Rosenhead, Bricup Newsletter
22 January 2018

Q: When is a definition not a definition? A: When it’s a press release

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of Antisemitism has gone round the world. It has been adopted as a guide to policy by the UK government (and those of Austria and Romania), and approved and recommended by the European Parliament. In the UK it has been accepted in explicit votes by around 10 English local authorities, mostly in London but also including Birmingham and Manchester.

But it’s a fake. It was never approved by IHRA itself; and arguably its rapid spread has been greatly facilitated by the emotive power of ‘holocaust remembrance’ attached to its wording. Which it should not have.

The title of this article is a riff on the celebrated factually-based book and film “The Man Who Never Was”. The story, from memory, was of a successful attempt during World War 2 to fool the Germans into thinking that an impending allied invasion would take place in Greece rather than the actual target Sicily. The modus operandi was to acquire a dead body (don’t ask); equip it to look like a plane crash victim; secure documents to the corpse which ‘revealed’ Greece as the target; and then let it wash up on the coast of Spain on the prevailing current. They relied on the Spanish authorities alerting the Germans to the find.

We will see as my story unfolds that there is an uncanny resemblance of this scenario to the journey of the ‘definition’. Are Mossad’s spooks film fans?


As in all good thrillers we don’t know everything that happened. The story starts in 2005 when a working party set up by the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC – an agency of the European Union) reported back with a ‘Working Definition of Antisemitism’. This consisted of a 2-sentence definition plus a page or so of guidance giving 11 illustrative examples of statements which could be antisemitic (depending on the context). Of these examples 7 referenced Israel rather than Jews.

The principal author of this European definition was an American Zionist, Kenneth Stern, working for the American Jewish Committee. In recent testimony before the US Congress he explained the reason the definition was developed. It was drafted, he said, “with data collectors utmost in mind.” There seemed to be an up-tick in Western European antisemitic incidents, but every country was recording them on a different basis, and there was no single number to show the direction and extent of travel. That is not how the definition has, a decade and more later, been functioning. But that is getting ahead of the story.

Back in the day there were strenuous efforts by Israel’s friends to get this definition active on the public stage. Dennis McShane, then an MP (this was before his jailing for false accounting during the parliamentary expenses scandal) promoted it vigorously as chair of an inquiry by the All-Party Parliamentary Group against Antisemitism. But it never gained much traction, here or in other countries. In 2013 the EUMC’s successor body the Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) disposed of the definition. It had never been adopted by the EU, a spokesperson said, and had now been removed from the FRA website “during a clear out of ‘non-official’ documents”.

This then is the corpse – the unclaimed dead body that might yet serve a clandestine purpose.

The sting

Fast forward to 2016. Strenuous efforts to get the definition adopted somewhere influential were quietly proceeding without the sort of fanfare that could have alerted opposition. I believe that it came within 1 vote (that of Russia) of being accepted by OECD (the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) – but OECD decisions have to be unanimous. And then in May that year it was adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance at its meeting in Romania. Seemingly.

IHRA is a 31-nation inter-governmental organisation (technically a coming together of governments, not of nations). All its members are, understandably, from Europe except for Argentina, Canada, the USA – and Israel. The news of the breakthrough in Bucharest came, after a one month delay, in an IHRA press release which said that the Alliance had adopted a working definition of antisemitism, and provided a link to the text.

There are two disconcerting aspects of this arrangement. The first is that the only presence of the decision on the IHRA website is this press release. No ceremonial banner headlines, or redesigned masthead. The second is the ambiguous wording and layout of the statement reached by the link. This was however only realised in hindsight.

The payoff

The definition came ashore in Romania, rather than in Greece. Since then it has been making a triumphant progress round Europe, and beyond. If we just take the UK, our universities are still being bombarded by pro-Israel activists, citing the definition in support of their demands for the cancellation of campus events in support of Palestinian rights. At the time of last year’s Israeli Apartheid Week some universities fell into line. But the effects are more insidious than that, with the promulgation of the definition contributing to a general chill on freedom of expression on Israel/Palestine.

The unravelling

It was rather over a year later that rumours that all was not what it seemed began circulating. (By this time several governments and other bodies had adopted what they believed to be the text agreed by IHRA.) The Brussels-based ECCP (European Coordination of Committees and Associations for Palestine) put out feelers through its member organisation, and then pursued clarification with the IHRA Secretariat in Berlin, which finally emerged towards the end on 2017. It turned out that what all these august bodies had been adopting was not an IHRA definition at all – it was the corpse of the EUMC definition, injected with preservatives, propped up and re-purposed.

The key section of the press release (the equivalent of the false documents in the corpse’s attaché case, secured to the body by a chain) is as follows

On 26 May 2016, the Plenary in Bucharest decided to:

The press release then continues:

To guide IHRA in its work, the following examples may serve as illustrations:


and the text that follows is the set of 11 examples of potentially antisemitic statements which we have already encountered, seven of which target Israel rather than Jews.

Note that there is nothing about Israel in the material inside the box. What the IHRA Secretariat has now revealed is that it was only the boxed material that was discussed and agreed by the IHRA. Not the general words of guidance; and not that list of 11 statements, a list which attempts to taint criticism of Israel with antisemitism. These illustrations had adorned the EUMC version; they were not adopted by IHRA.

The reckoning

It is hard to believe that this all happened by accident. That this body did just arrive randomly on the shore, propelled by unpredictable ocean currents.

Clearly many people knew what the IHRA had actually decided in Bucharest: in particular the representatives of the 31 governments who participated in the plenary meeting. (Indeed the truth did eventually leak out from one of these participants.) Why did they allow the false document to be promoted round Europe, even adopted by their governments? Why was Teresa May not told before she committed the UK government to it? Why did the IHRA Secretariat allow the ‘definition’ to go ricocheting round the world in their name, when they knew it was a fake? Why was the press release formulated in so deceptive a way?

Could this all be coincidence? That seems unlikely. But nor does it take a conspiracy to make something like this happen. Those taking part (as plenary members, as IHRA officials) are deeply committed to commemorating the Holocaust, and presumably in opposition to any signs of recurrence of antisemitism. It is entirely possible, maybe probable, that many or most of them will feel an attachment, a commitment even, to Israel. When an apparent outcome had been announced that most supporters of Israel were quite happy with (even if it did contain a teeny fraud on the public) who would want to rock the boat?

The aftermath

It is hard to know what happens next. It is clear that energetic steps need to be taken to inform those public authorities and indeed governments that have adopted the ‘IHRA definition’ that they have been sold a pup. What are the chances that the mainstream media, here and elsewhere in Europe) will take up this story? It would be nice to think so but don’t hold your breath. It is more likely to fall to those groups which promote human rights in general and those of the Palestinians in particular to make sure that the information gets around.

There are clearly a number of stances that the organisations (up to national governments) that have adopted the definition under false pretences may take:

They may stuff their fingers in their ears

They may say ‘OK its not the IHRA definition, but we still like it and we are keeping it’

They may say ‘In that case we will just adopt the same 2 sentences as IHRA did’

They may say ‘Those 2 sentences are a lousy definition. We need a better one’

They may say ‘It is pretty obvious what antisemitism is. We managed till last year without a definition. Who needs a definition anyway?’

The efforts of those who support Palestine should be to get the organisational responses down towards the bottom of this list of options.

It is worth mentioning that the Labour Party got some stick at the time for adopting the definition almost in lock-step with the UK government. But they only adopted the two sentences, not the improperly inflated version. Hats off!

A better definition?

Those two sentences do not make an adequate definition. Inspect that box: A ‘certain’ perception? ‘May’ be expressed? There is an almost total lack of specificity. It could be this perception, or that, or indeed the other. And if antisemitism only ‘may’ be expressed through hatred, what are the other ways? This is a rank failure in defining. With hindsight it seems plausible that this vagueness was deliberate – to necessitate interpretation, to facilitate the inclusion of critiques of Israel within the dragnet.

It is quite possible that the promulgation of this deeply flawed definition has by now done sufficient damage to the previously consensual understanding of antisemitism that we do need a new one. This will need to be a definition that concentrates not on Israel, just on those negative perceptions of Jews (as members of a group, whether ethnically, religiously or culturally defined) which still do persist especially on the proto-fascist right that has reared up in Europe and the United States. Paradoxically these groupings just love Israel.