What the issue?
In 2016, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) formulated a definition of anti-Semitism that has so far been adopted as the official definition by the following countries: Great Britain, Israel, Austria, Scotland, Romania, London, Germany, Bulgaria, Lithuania and Macedonia. On June 1st 2017 the European Parliament published a resolution calling on its member states to adopt and apply the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism.
What is the IHRA?
Founded in 1998, IHRA is an intergovernmental body that brings governments and experts together to promote and promote Holocaust education, research and remembrance worldwide. Members of the IHRA are almost all EU countries as well as the USA, Argentina and Switzerland.
What is the IHRA's definition of anti-Semitism?
All members have agreed on the following definition of anti-Semitism1
"Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews that can express itself as hatred towards Jews. Anti-Semitism is directed in word and deed against Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, as well as against Jewish community institutions and religious institutions".
The definition is contradictory and vague. Who or what defines what is a "particular perception" of Jews who "can" express itself as hatred of Jews, but apparently does not always? In which cases can anti-Semitism also be directed against "non-Jewish individuals" and/or their property?
This unclear definition is followed by a first concrete implementation:
"Appearances of anti-Semitism can also be directed against the State of Israel, which is understood as a Jewish collective. However, criticism of Israel that is comparable to that of other countries cannot be regarded as anti- Semitic. Anti-Semitism often includes the accusation that the Jews were engaged in a conspiracy against humanity and that they were responsible for "things not going properly". Anti-Semitism manifests itself in words, writing, images and other forms of action, using ominous stereotypes and implying negative traits".
The IHRA definition is followed by eleven examples of anti-Semitic attitudes and statements. These examples are intended to supplement and explain the definition. Of the eleven examples, seven deal with criticism of Israel. Some of the examples listed make sense, most do not:
"The denial of the Jewish people's right to self-determination, e.g. by claiming that the existence of the State of Israel is a racist enterprise.”
The nationalistic use of the term "people" is not the same as the religious use of the word. In the Jewish religious context there exists a "Jewish people". But by equating the "right of the Jewish people to self-determination" with the modern state of Israel, the definition adopts a Zionist discourse that has never been hegemonic, not even in Jewish circles. The definition thus strengthens the idea that the State of Israel represents all Jews in the world.
It should be remembered that the majority of the Jewish population does not live in the present-day state of Israel and has not responded to the Zionist call to settle there. However, most Jews support the existence of the State of Israel - also in the sense of a secure haven in case of persecution. Because of this special situation and the historical experience of centuries of persecution up to the Holocaust, Israel is not a state like any other - even if this was the formulated goal of the Zionist movement.
But the questioning of the state of Israel as a Jewish state is not, as IHRA suggests, anti-Semitic per se, just as the existence of the State of Israel is not racist per se. The State of Israel was created at the expense of the resident populations, such as the Palestinians. Even Israel's existence today as a "Jewish state" is "owed" only to the politics of oppression and expulsion of Palestinians. Like all states, Israel is obliged to examine the content of criticism of its policies without exposing criticism to the suspicion of anti-Semitism from the outset. It is unacceptable that the Palestinians' right to self-determination is not given the same weight as the self-determination of the Jewish inhabitants of Israel/Palestine.
"The application of double standards by requiring Israel to behave in a way that is not expected or demanded by any other democratic state".
This example would be acceptable if it had an counterpart in reality. In fact, however, an opposite double standard is maintained: Israel’s policy of oppression toward the Palestinians is tolerated in a way the policy of no other democratic state would be tolerated. The decisive word is "democratic". Neither China, Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia and other dictatorships define themselves as democratic. A state that claims to be democratic and oppresses an entire indigenous population, denies their right to self-determination, has occupied foreign territories for decades, and settles its own population in occupied territories contrary to international law must be measured by the rules of democracy. The term "double standard" is borrowed from Israeli propaganda, which wants to make believe that people expect more from Israel than from other states.
Why is the focus on the Middle East conflict problematic?
It is human beings that must be protected from anti-Semitism - such as racism or Islamophobia - and not states. It may well be that criticism of states - for example of Saudi Arabia or of Zimbabwe - is expressed for Islamophobic or racist motives. Nevertheless, no one would think of including seven examples of criticism of African or Muslim states in a definition of racism or Islamophobia.
Instead of placing anti-Semitism in the context of racism, Islamophobia, sexism and other discriminatory ideologies against minorities, the IHRA definition places anti-Semitism in the context of the Middle East conflict. Thus it meets the wishes of the Israeli government. The IHRA definition does a disservice to Jews living outside of Israel and to the fight against anti-Semitism.
How is the culture of debate on Israeli politics influenced by the IHRA definition?
Organizations and politicians are regularly branded as anti-Semitic because they declare the IHRA definition and it’s examples to be inadequate and are unwilling to adopt it., The non-violent campaign for boycotts, disinvestments and sanctions BDS, launched by civil society, is systematically described as anti- Semitic with reference to the IHRA definition. As a result, critics of Israeli policy who, for example, want to make BDS a public issue, are discriminated against in many countries. Venues are cancelled for such events, certain people are refused to talk and events are disturbed by disruptive manoeuvres. Such interference with the right to freedom of expression and the right to assembly calls fundamental democratic principles into question. By instrumentalising the IHRA definition, they aim to prevent legitimate, non- violent and democratic activities in favour of international law and human rights in Israel/Palestine. This limits the scope for civil society activities in an exemplary manner. Similar restrictions also take place in Israel/Palestine itself, where civil society forces reminding of the "Nakba" (expulsion of Palestinians in 1948) and thus questioning the purely Jewish character of the historical territory of Palestine have come under pressure from the Israeli authorities by law.
Conclusions and appeal to official Switzerland
We take a stand as a Jewish civil society organization because we are concerned about the question of what is legitimate criticism of Israeli policies and where when is criticism based on anti-Semitism. Because we stand for democracy and justice in Israel/Palestine and because we ourselves are confronted with the accusation of anti-Semitism and the accusation of "Jewish self-hatred". Because we stand up for the preservation of democratic principles and practice and we do not want to accept the shrinking space for civil society activities.
It is the task of official Switzerland to take active action against anti-Semitism as hostility and hatred of Jewish people because they are Jewish. But we also appeal to the Swiss government not to restrict the civil society space for organizations and individuals criticising Israeli policies. We call on the Swiss government to take a public and active stand against the shrinking space for civil society whenever ideological groups and individuals want to hinder non-violent criticism of Israeli policies, This also includes the cases of instrumentalizing the IHRA definition in order to delegitimize unpopular but legitimate criticism of Israeli policies as anti-Semitic and ultimately silence this criticism altogether.
Zurich, 25 November 2018
Jewish Voice for Democracy and Justice in Israel/Palestine, jvjp.ch, 8000 Zurich