Defining Anti-Semitism

Stephen Sedley, Letters, London Review of Book
8th February 2018


Neve Gordon mentions the definition of anti-Semitism ‘adopted by the current UK government’ and its accompanying list of examples (LRB, 4 January). I’d like to add a word about its origins.

In 2005 a working party of the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia, an EU institution, produced a forty-word ‘working definition’:

Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred towards Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed towards Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, towards Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.

It was followed by a series of examples, of unknown authorship, which, depending on their context, might constitute acts of anti-Semitism. Of the 11 examples, seven referred to Israel rather than to Jews. But both the definition and the illustrations were rejected by the EUMC, and in 2013 its successor, the Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA), removed the entire text from its website as part of a clear-out of non-official documents.

In May 2016 the same text was adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (the IHRA), a Berlin-based association of 31 states, at its meeting in Bucharest. To it were added, in the IHRA’s press release, the list of 11 examples. I wrote about this composite text in the LRB of 4 May 2017, because the definition seemed to me clumsy and open-ended, and a number of the illustrations, by seeking to conflate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, slanted.

What I did not appreciate then was, first, that the IHRA text was not original but had been retrieved from the files of two other bodies which had never adopted it; second, that the ‘examples’ had been added to the adopted text; and, third, that the content of the versions adopted by UK institutions and bodies (and by governments such as those of Austria and Romania) has itself been variable.

In December 2016, a press release from the Department for Communities and Local Government and the prime minister’s office announced that the UK had ‘formally’ adopted the IHRA’s working definition of anti-Semitism, setting out the forty-word definition without any of the associated examples. It is not known what ‘formal’ adoption means in constitutional terms: either a text has to take legislative form, with all that this entails, or it remains simply a policy. On the same day Jeremy Corbyn announced that the Labour Party was adopting the definition.

In neither of these announcements were the tendentious illustrations included. But central government has cited them as grounds for rejecting the advice of the Home Affairs Committee that the ‘definition’ should be qualified by spelling out that in the absence of additional evidence of anti-Semitic intent, it is not anti-Semitic to criticise Israel’s government, to hold it to the same standards as other liberal democracies or to take a particular interest in its policies or actions. A number of municipalities, including London, Manchester and Birmingham, have adopted the list wholesale – London, among others, using a version which omits the proviso that the listed examples depend on their context.

What is at issue is suggested by the prime minister’s contemporaneous speech, quoted in the government’s press release: ‘Israel guarantees the rights of people of all religions, races and sexualities, and it wants to enable everyone to flourish.’ From this it isn’t far to the first of the ‘examples’ of anti-Semitism: ‘Manifestations could also target the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity.’ Leaving aside the difference between targeting and criticism, one asks: conceived by whom? The world at large, millions of Jews included, conceives of Israel as a state with the same rights and obligations as any other state, including an obligation not to extend its territory by incremental colonisation or to occupy and administer the land of others under military law. It is hardline Zionism and hardline jihadism which coincide, as extremes tend to do, in regarding Israel as a ‘Jewish collectivity’ – jihadism by seeking to identify Israel with all Jews (making every Jew a legitimate terrorist target), Zionism by seeking to identify all Jews with Israel (whence the description of Israel’s Jewish critics as ‘self-hating’).

None of this is addressed by a definition which sets the bar needlessly high by stipulating hatred rather than simple hostility as the defining characteristic of anti-Semitism, nor by tendentious examples which look to immunise Israel from sharp criticism. Those who seek to make use of such material in the UK should perhaps remember that public authorities are bound by the Human Rights Act to give effect to Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees the right of free expression subject only to restrictions prescribed by law – which the IHRA definition is not.

Stephen Sedley
London WC1