How the IHRA's anti-Semitism definition is a threat to British democracy
"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." - The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism.
Israeli politicians and the Diaspora-based Israel lobby recognise that Israel faces a huge and growing level of criticism and obloquy in the international community.
Israel has used conventional methods to combat this erosion of support including diplomatic efforts, public advocacy, marketing and branding, and legislative lobbying. These are all traditional approaches used by the lobby in promoting Israeli interests.
But nearly two decades ago, it struck upon a new strategy devised by Israeli Holocaust scholars and their partners among Israel lobby groups, such as the American Jewish Committee (AJC). They were already known for their expertise in detecting and combating anti-Semitism.
They had done their work so well that Jew-hatred had become a dirty word in polite society, though of course it continued unabated in far-right and other circles. Similarly, Holocaust denial was exposed and associated with anti-Semitism through events like the libel trial of David Irving.
The new anti-Semitism
At the same time, these scholars - and the Israel lobby factotums - had become alarmed by attacks largely perpetrated by groups claiming to be Islamists targeting European Jewish institutions and individual Jews (there were also attacks by white supremacists against Jews in Europe and the US, but the pro-Israel groups devoted considerably less attention to them).
These scholars perceived that Islamist fundamentalism was fuelled by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a deliberate effort on the part of such radical groups to conflate Israel with Diaspora Jews.
Thus was developed a controversial term, the "New Anti-Semitism". That is, anti-Semitism divorced from the old tropes of Jews with big noses and global conspiracies by Jewish financiers to control world commerce. Instead, they posited an anti-Semitism largely based in the Arab and Muslim worlds, which supposedly saw Israel as a radical conspiracy by Jews to colonise the Middle East and infect it with western values.
In the intersection between classical anti-Semitism and so-called Islamist- Jew hatred, Israeli academics and their allies saw an opportunity to link a modern evil with an ancient one
In this intersection between classical anti-Semitism and so-called Islamist Jew hatred, Israeli academics and their allies saw an opportunity to link a modern evil with an ancient one. Thus, Palestinians and their supporters would be linked not only to terrorism, but to one of the oldest hatreds known to humanity. This clever device permitted those using it to sabotage any legitimate critique of Israel.
If you can label all pro-Palestinian activists and their arguments as anti-Semitic, no one will engage with them seriously. They will be defanged before they're even heard.
Dina Porat, the historian of the Israeli Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem, is a leading promoter of the New Anti-Semitism. In this paper, she places her new coinage in the context of the history of anti-Semitism studies.
In the early years of the 21st century, she struck upon another clever idea: to combat what she perceived as a rising tide of anti-Israel sentiment on US college campuses which she believed was anti-Semitic in nature. To do so, she prevailed upon her colleagues to develop a new definition of anti-Semitism.
The history of the IHRA definition
The new definition would absorb the classic meaning (hatred of the Jew) and go much farther. It would suggest that many of the key criticisms levelled at Israel and its policies toward the Palestinians were themselves anti-Semitic.
In a paper he delivered at a 2011 academic conference marking the tenth anniversary of the development of the New Anti-Semitism, Kenneth Stern, the then-anti-Semitism "czar" of the American Jewish Committee, recounted the history of what has come to be called the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism.
He credited Porat with the original idea for the concept and acknowledged that he, and Rabbi Andrew Baker, the AJC’s international director of Jewish affairs, had become part of the brain trust behind crafting a new expanded definition of anti-Semitism.
The new definition would absorb the classic meaning (hatred of the Jew) and would suggest that many of the key criticisms levelled at Israel and its policies toward the Palestinians were themselves anti-Semitic
In Stern's paper, it's clear that the animus to create this new definition was a perceived rising tide of attacks by Islamists in Europe and elsewhere on Diaspora Jewish targets. Though the attackers may have viewed such Jewish institutions as "soft targets", while Israeli ones were much harder to penetrate, they viewed an attack on any Jew as an attack on Israel. Though one may call such an attack anti-Semitic, it begs many questions which I'll address later.
The main motive of this new campaign was to persuade the world that not only are such attacks anti-Semitic full-stop, but that the Muslim world is riddled with Jew hatred. Thus, along with the standard "conventional" anti-Semites - white supremacists, neo-Nazis, etc - there was a much larger, more dangerous threat that could potentially encompass the entire Muslim world.
The IHRA project ignored several critical factors complicating the motivation of such terror attacks. While some Islamists did conflate Jews with Israelis, why did they do so? Was this confusion calculated and based on ideological or theological principle? Or was it based on ignorant assumptions?
Zionism, Israel and Jews
In fact, the very notion that Jews and Israel are the same is part and parcel of the Zionist ethos. Classical Zionism posits that the Diaspora will eventually "wither" in the face of insurmountable Jew hatred, and all Jews will be forced to "return" to Zion in order to survive as Jews. A parallel term for this in Zionist parlance is "negation of exile". Thus, Israel becomes the be-all-and-end-all of Jewish existence, a stand-in for Jewry as a whole.
However, most Diaspora Jews reject such thinking. They vote with their feet to remain in the Diaspora, despite the ominous pronouncements of doom by figures like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
It's clear that once you've removed those key tools of naming and shaming Israel for the injustices perpetrated on Palestinians, you've immunised Israel from criticism. That’s the entire goal of this exercise
Nevertheless, this concept underpins the entire Zionist superstructure. Further, Israeli leaders themselves encourage such conflation with their far-fetched claims that enemies like Iran seek to destroy not only Israel, but the entire Jewish people.
In their need to dramatise perceived threats to the outside world, Israel exaggerates the dangers it faces by claiming its enemies seek not just the destruction of "little" Israel, but the entirety of world Jewry. This, in turn, conjures images of the genocide perpetrated by the Nazis.
In truth, neither Iran nor any Arab state has ever stated a goal of destroying all Jews. And the notion is not just exaggerated; it is self-serving and overreaching of the worst sort.
Israel: a Jews-only state
Despite its claims to be a "Jewish democratic state", Israel has increasingly become a state of, by and for the Jews. Non-Jews may be tolerated, but just barely. By privileging Jews in the Nation State law, which I prefer to call the Jews-Only law, Israel is making clear that democracy is at best an afterthought. Instead, a Jewish theocracy fuelled by violent, homicidal racism is what the state has become.
So, while no one wishes to excuse or defend violent attacks against Jews, is it any surprise that those who seek to avenge Israeli attacks on Palestinians follow the lead offered to them by Israel’s leaders themselves?
The new definition casts a wide net over many behaviours, statements and acts which cast a critical eye on Israel. Calling the state racist is anti-Semitic, comparing it with Nazi Germany is anti-Semitic, attacking Israel while refusing to attack other nations which are viewed as equally blameworthy is anti-Semitic, comparing Israeli mistreatment of the Palestinians to the sufferings of Jesus is anti-Semitic, using the term genocide in the context of criticising Israel's wholesale massacres of Palestinians is anti-Semitic.
Though the original definition was coined before the BDS movement was launched, I'm certain the idea of boycotting Israel is also viewed as anti-Semitic, since it targets Israel for its policies.
You can see where this leads. It disqualifies many of the most potent criticisms of Israel from legitimate political discourse. While the sponsors of the definition claim that they are not denying the right to criticise Israel (apparently there are some unspecified, appropriate ways to do so), the ultimate impact is to do just that.
It's clear that once you've removed those key tools of naming and shaming Israel for the injustices perpetrated on Palestinians, you've travelled far beyond categorising anti-Semitism. Instead, you've immunised Israel from criticism. That’s the entire goal of this exercise.
The rise of Jeremy Corbyn
In the 15 years since the IHRA protocol was drafted, its authors have broadened their ambitions. They've seen it adopted by several European Union countries as their national arbiter to define anti-Semitic acts. But over the past year, it has gone far beyond its original confines to be used to sabotage the political career of a national political leader.
Despite the fact that Britain has experienced anti-Semitism for centuries (Jews were expelled not once, but twice from the British Isles), and such hate has generally originated in the ruling classes, the UK Israel lobby, with the covert assistance of the Israeli government, has targeted the nation's Labour Party as a major malefactor.
The reasons are clear: the Tories have embraced Israel with a vengeance. They are more Catholic than the Pope when it comes to supporting it. There is no Israeli act that can trouble the conscience of the Tories.
The rise of Jeremy Corbyn has offered a different sort of Labour leader: one who embraces the historic grassroots and hearkens back to the working-class origins of the party
The Labour Party, however, is troublesome. It has often seen itself as a bastion of anti-colonialism and anti-war sentiment. Its voters and many of its leaders strongly opposed militarism and supported the cause of human rights and self-determination of oppressed peoples like the Palestinians.
That does not mean that Labour is anti-Israel. In fact, one can argue that it has been as pro-Israel as the Conservatives. But the rise of Jeremy Corbyn has offered a different sort of Labour leader: one who embraces the historic grassroots and hearkens back to the working-class origins of the party.
Corbyn has often been compared to that American upstart populist, Bernie Sanders. While the comparison isn’t always apt, it is in this regard: both are willing to question conventional wisdom and old consensus around issues like Israel-Palestine. As such, they are dangerous both to Israel and its Diaspora lobby.
So, the lobby's strategists determined to do all in their power to sabotage Corbyn and persuade the British people that he is a dangerous, anti-Semitic ideologue.
That’s why we hear the cascade of lurid charges that Corbyn consorted with Hamas activists, laid wreaths on the graves of Palestinians terrorists, and insulted British Zionists by supposedly claiming they didn’t understand British customs and norms. It's why we hear story after story in the media bemoaning the purported hate spewed against Jews within the party: Jewish MPs are revolting; they’re going to form a new party; British Jews fear for their lives and plan on emigrating to Israel for their own safety, etc.
A toxic mix
Into this toxic mix, the lobby introduces the IHRA definition and pressures the Labour Party to adopt it wholesale. Any attempt to modify it is an attempt to mollify the anti-Semites in the party. The strategy appears to be to use all these attacks as an encircling device that will eventually squeeze Corbyn and his supporters like a vice until they have no further room to wriggle free.
At that point, the hope seems to be that Corbyn will be so discredited that the rank and file will finally revolt and return to the comfort of the Blairites, who will resume control of the party and return to full-throated, unconditional support of Israel.
Thus, the IHRA definition is yet another tool in the arsenal of Israel’s far-right government and the UK Israel lobby to destroy any possibility of developing an independent government approach to Israel-Palestine. It also becomes yet another method of projecting the power of these entities into the domestic politics of Great Britain.
Frankly, I’m shocked that Britons haven’t reacted with more outrage at Israel’s bald-faced intervention into the nation’s politics. In fact, such intervention used to be the hallmark of colonial powers like Britain, the US and others. Both countries did precisely this when facing Iranian prime minister Mossadegh’s nationalisation of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company.
To overturn the seizure of the company, they orchestrated a coup.
So, in some fashion, Israel has learned at the feet of its masters, some of the great colonial powers. You’ll recall the 1956 Suez War in which Britain, France and Israel jointly attacked Egypt. The Europeans did so in order to ensure continued European control of the Suez Canal. And the Israelis did so to give the anti-Israel nationalist firebrand, Gamal Abdel Nasser, a bloody nose.
Now, it uses these lessons against its own teachers. Today’s firebrand isn’t an Arab nationalist, but a British populist, Jeremy Corbyn.
The Israel lobby's effort to foist the IHRA definition on the world is not without its critics. Of course, there are the "usual suspects" on the left who understand the danger it poses to their activism, and the destructive impact it would have on the campaign for Palestinian rights and Israeli democracy.
But even mainstream British jurists and academics have weighed in against it. Historian and anti-Semitism scholar, David Feldman, stated in 2016:
"Does the IHRA definition that Britain has adopted provide the answer? I am sceptical. Here is the definition's key passage: 'Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred towards Jews'.
"This is bewilderingly imprecise. The text also carries dangers... Some of the points [within the definition] are sensible, some are not. Crucially, there is a danger that the overall effect will place the onus on Israel’s critics to demonstrate they are not antisemitic. The [parliamentary] home affairs committee advised that the definition required qualification 'to ensure that freedom of speech is maintained in the context of discourse on Israel and Palestine.' It was ignored."
British appellate court judge, Stephen Sedley, also weighed in on the IHRA’s deficiencies: "[It] fails the first test of any definition: it is indefinite.
"…It permits perceptions of Jews which fall short of expressions of racial hostility to be stigmatised as anti-Semitic.
"[It] …plac[es] the historical, political, military and humanitarian uniqueness of Israel’s occupation and colonisation of Palestine beyond permissible criticism…[It] bristles with contentious assumptions about the racial identity of Jews - assumptions contested by many diaspora Jews but on which both Zionism and anti-Semitism fasten - and about Israel as the embodiment of a collective right of Jews to self-determination."
It is critical for Labour and its progressive supporters to have a laser-like focus on the UK Israel lobby and the Israeli government’s effort to intervene in the nation’s domestic politics. The smears and false charges of anti-Semitism and support for Palestinian "terrorism" must be seen for the sham they are.
They must be called-out, exposed and denounced in no uncertain terms. Otherwise, Britain risks becoming Israel's poodle, a pliant tool of Israeli racism, settlerism, and blatant injustice.
- Richard Silverstein writes the Tikun Olam blog, devoted to exposing the excesses of the Israeli national security state. His work has appeared in Haaretz, the Forward, the Seattle Times and the Los Angeles Times. He contributed to the essay collection devoted to the 2006 Lebanon war A Time to Speak Out (Verso) and has another essay in the collection Israel and Palestine: Alternate Perspectives on Statehood (Rowman & Littlefield).
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: People take part in the so-called "Kippa Day" against anti-Semitism in Hamburg, northern Germany on 14 May 2018 (AFP)