The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) “working definition of anti-Semitism” has become a hot political topic, from Britain to the United States. Though the IHRA’s Committee on Antisemitism and Holocaust Denial has described it as “non-legally binding,” the working definition is being used by governments, civil society groups, and political institutions as part of a concerted effort to suppress criticism of Israel.
The German parliament has recently passed a resolution condemning the BDS campaign as antisemitic and cutting off funding from any organization that supports it. In the UK, the secretary of education has threatened universities — already reeling under the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic — with funding cuts unless they adopt the IHRA definition.
Though such measures are facing increasing public scrutiny and challenge, they have had a chilling effect on those who seek justice for the Palestinians — and with good reason. The IHRA definition does in fact actively constrain advocacy for Palestinian rights and criticism of Israel. The man who originally drafted it, Kenneth Stern, has even said as much and has argued against its adoption by the incoming Biden administration.
I recently participated in drafting a letter with other Palestinian and Arab writers and intellectuals, published in the Guardian, that shows exactly why the IHRA definition is a flawed tool for tackling rising antisemitism and should be discarded. In what follows, I will set out the logic of the letter on the IHRA and the question of Palestine, and then examine what is behind Israel’s ideological assault on free speech. Why is it so vicious, and why is it being imposed in a top-down fashion through institutions of state power?
Shutting Down Debate
Israel is silencing speech rather than engaging in argument because it has become extremely hard for that state and its backers to win the political argument in public. It is more and more difficult to conceal some basic facts.
It is clear to anyone who looks directly that the occupation has actually deepened and worsened during the period of the so-called peace process. They can see that there is a huge power imbalance between Israel and the Palestinians — a nuclear power, armed to the teeth with the most advanced technology, facing a defenseless, occupied people who can barely muster primitive rockets — and that, as every human rights report shows, Israel is the one violating the rights of the Palestinians and denying them freedom — not the reverse.
If you don’t want to rectify any of these facts, the only alternative is to cover them up. Israel bullies and criminalizes those who draw attention to such uncomfortable realities, accusing them of antisemitism and supporting terror. The intention is to weaken, confuse, and disorganize opposition to its ongoing colonial plans.
Does it work? If what happened in the British Labour Party — the ousting of a pro-Palestinian leadership — is representative of a broader trend, then it clearly does. In the grand scheme of things, this silencing tactic keeps on delaying justice for the Palestinians.
Before considering this political context in more detail, I want to say a couple of things about the Guardian letter, which also appeared in equally prominent venues in Arabic (al-Quds daily), Hebrew (Haaretz), and in newspapers in Germany and France. Its signatories, who include many of the world’s most prominent Arab writers, took a robust public stance against growing antisemitism and voiced their support for teaching the lessons of the Holocaust and other genocides — including in the Arab world.
The spirit of the letter was universal, critical of exclusionary nationalism, and committed to international law and human rights as the best way to fight racism and oppression. It called for an acknowledgement of the political realities of Israeli aggression, Israel’s national dispossession of the Palestinians, and its ongoing occupation, while at the same time affirming the right of both Israelis and Palestinians to live in security and safety. It also advanced an understanding of self-determination as a form of non-domination over others — as the route to justice and peace for both peoples.
On the question of antisemitism, more specifically, the letter accepted the definition of antisemitism adopted by the IHRA “as hatred toward Jews.” But it objected to the examples that the IHRA provides as potential evidence for such hatred. The key issue here is about whether you can state any or all of the following things (some of which are simply facts) without being accused of antisemitism.
Are you free to say that Israel as it actually exists is a racist state — that the state of Israel (not a hypothetical state of Israel, as the wording of the IHRA example has it) was founded on ethnic exclusivity, expulsion, and military conquest against the wishes of the majority who then lived in Palestine? And can you say that those it expelled have a right of return to their homeland?
Is it acceptable to describe Israel as a state whose laws and practices since its foundation have been structured to benefit Jews over its non-Jewish citizens, which now constitute 20 percent of the population? And to describe it as a state that allocates core rights based on ethnicity rather than citizenship? What else is the Nation-State Law in Israel today, if not the latest codification of Jewish supremacy in Israeli law?
Other key issues are whether you can criticize Israel’s daily aggression against the millions of Palestinians it occupies, whether you can say that Israel’s wars and occupation contravene international law, violate Palestinian human rights, and deny Palestinians their internationally recognized right of self-determination, and whether Palestinians can engage in any of the forms of resistance explicitly granted to an occupied people by the UN — including nonviolent forms like BDS — without having their actions branded as antisemitic.
Israel and World Opinion
The IHRA examples conflate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, preventing us from posing such elementary questions. Drawing attention to some obvious facts can land you with the accusation of being antisemitic.
The advocates of the definition have in fact mobilized it by weaponizing, exploiting, and abusing the concept of antisemitism in order to protect Israeli state power. They brand anti-Zionism (which is a long tradition in the Jewish community) as antisemitic, and target progressives around the world, who call for peaceful forms of action to end the occupation. They seek to exempt Israel — with great success thus far — from criticism or sanctions for its illegal conduct.
Why are Israel and its supporters employing this aggressive strategy? It is essential here to fill in the political context. Since the invasion of Lebanon and the first intifada in the 1980s, Israel has steadily escalated its military attacks on Palestinians and has been losing popular support around the world as a result. Its image has changed from that of a victim state to that of an intransigent, occupying power. This shift in perception has been most dramatic since the second intifada that began in 2000.
In a BBC World Service poll conducted in 2013, Israel ranked as one of the world’s least popular countries, at the bottom of the scale with Pakistan, Iran, and North Korea, with 52 percent of respondents declaring its influence in world affairs to be negative. The equivalent figure for North Korea was 54 percent.
Another important example comes from the Pew Research Center and its Global Opinion Survey the same year:
The US is the only country surveyed where a majority expresses positive views of Israel: 57% of Americans have a favorable opinion and 27% have an unfavorable view of one of their country’s closest allies in the Middle East … in predominantly Muslim countries, as well as in France, Germany, Britain and China, majorities or pluralities express negative opinions in Israel … in Lebanon (99%), Jordan (96%), the Palestinian territories (94%), Egypt (92%), Turkey (86%), and Tunisia (86%) offer unfavorable views … majorities in China (66%), France (65%) and Germany (62%) also express negative opinions of Israel, as does a 44%-plurality in Britain.
The British case is important to note because of what has been happening in that country’s politics recently. In answer to the question: “Now thinking about the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians, which side do you sympathize with more, Israel or the Palestinians?”, sympathy for Israel has consistently hovered around the level of 20 percent, with ups and downs in different years.
But the strongest and most consistent trend in Britain has been the rise in support for the Palestinians: from 28 percent in 2003 to 35 percent in 2013. There was also an increase in such support in France from 36 to 44 percent, although the percentage of those sympathetic to Israel rose in the same period there as well.
The Failure of Hasbara
Another worrying fact for Israel has been the declining support for it among Jews in the United States. Israel’s ongoing occupation jars with liberal Jewish views and support for human rights. There is an increasing trend of totally disengaging from Israel or being neutral about the conflict. Take, for example, a 2018 survey of the Jewish population in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2018:
While far more (43 percent) said they sympathized with Israelis than those citing the Palestinians (8 percent), almost half said they either sympathized with both sides, neither or were not sure.
Most troubling for Israel are the views among the new generation of Jews: “Among 18-to-34-year-olds, only 11 percent described themselves as very attached to Israel, [and only] 37 percent said they felt the existence of a Jewish state was very important.”
For a state that spends so much money and effort on public relations and hasbara, such results make stark reading. Increasingly, key populations and core constituencies around the world are either neutral or have negative views of Israel, and strong sympathies with the Palestinians. If you combine these statistics with the hard political facts that an overwhelming majority of states in the UN still support the right of Palestinian self-determination, Israel has a serious diplomatic and political problem on its hands.
It is Israel’s loss of prestige and public sympathy that ultimately explains the aggressive efforts to silence discussion of its conduct. Weaponizing charges of antisemitism is part and parcel of Israel’s efforts to hold on to the occupied territories and obstruct Palestinian statehood.
Invocations of antisemitism also perform another ideological role: they obscure the realities of the conflict and allow Israel to present itself as a victim of discrimination — as the injured party that is only trying to protect its fearful people from attack by supporters of terrorism and spreaders of hate.
Netanyahu’s Rhetoric of Victimhood
In 2016, in response to comments from the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon that presented Palestinian violence as an expression of despair at their long experience of occupation and oppression, Benjamin Netanyahu accused him of “stoking terror” and claimed:
The Palestinian terrorists don’t want to build a state; they want to destroy a state, and they say that proudly. They want to murder Jews everywhere and they state that proudly. They don’t murder for peace and they don’t murder for human rights.
Once again, Israel’s leaders claim that their state is merely defending itself against terrorists who want to destroy it. Once again, they erase from history the fact that the PLO had already recognized Israel as far back as 1988, and that its rival Hamas has de facto accepted a two-state solution for well over a decade now, having won an election on the strength of this new political moderation in 2006. Netanyahu totally inverts the reality that it is Israel that is blocking statehood for the Palestinians and denying them basic human rights.
For Netanyahu, resistance to the Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza is the same as antisemitic terror attacks in countries like France. They are simply two varieties of Islamic, antisemitic terrorism. The message is repeated endlessly: we in Israel are just like you in the West, fighting the supposedly murderous hatred of Islam.
In January 2015, for example, Netanyahu said the following:
Israel is being attacked by the very same forces that attack Europe … they might have different names — ISIS, Boko Haram, Hamas, Al Shabab, Al Qaeda, Hezbollah — but all of them are driven by the same hatred and bloodthirsty fanaticism.
While Netanyahu bandies these false and deeply Islamophobic conflations around, he is forging alliances with well-known antisemites like the rulers of Hungary and Poland. Israel’s main historian of European nationalism, Zeev Sternhell, has attacked Netanyahu for this and stated that Israel now “sees itself as an integral part of this anti-liberal bloc led by nativist xenophobes who traffic in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.” This is all part of Netanyahu’s strategy to divide the EU in its stance toward Israel’s occupation.
Netanyahu does not care about Viktor Orbán’s antisemitic demonization of George Soros, or the Polish government’s denial of any Polish responsibility for the fate of the Jews during World War II. What matters is the support of these governments for his right-wing, expansionist policies. For Netanyahu, as long as you support him, your views about Jews and Jewish suffering do not seem to count. As far as he is concerned, what is good for Israel is by definition good for Jews everywhere.
The controversy over the IHRA definition is another reminder that this is not the case. Progressives should oppose antisemitism everywhere it appears as well as taking a stand against Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians. Far from being in contradiction with each other, these stances should go hand in hand. And no state should be insulated from criticism for its abuses of human rights.