Some things get a quite incorrect reputation for being controversial. One of these is the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-semitism, a definition which the UK Government has adopted and which I also support unambiguously.
The definition has been consistently attacked by self-described “Anti-Zionists” as attempting to shut down criticism of Israel, when it does no such thing. Conversely, it is also occasionally misused by particularly staunch supporters of Israel for precisely that purpose, to label some critics of Israel as antisemites when it is clear from other evidence that they hold no hostility towards Jews. Both groups fail to read the definition properly.
The issue matters because it often poisons political debate in our country. Now that the Runnymede Trust has published a new definition of Islamophobia (which I will write about separately) we can expect similar misguided argumentation of what is or is not Islamophobic.
A closer look at the IHRA definition
The IHRA definition is quite short:
“Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”
Anti-semitism is something inside a person’s mind: “a certain perception of Jews” or “hatred toward Jews.” As we cannot yet read people’s minds, we can only decide if they are antisemitic by evaluating their rhetoric and their physical actions. One is seeking to determine from their words and actions whether a person hates Jews.
That is it. The definition stops there, and I have not found any controversy surrounding the definition. All the controversy comes from some helpful guidance (and in my view it is genuinely helpful) that the IHRA publishes in the same document to assist people seeking to apply the definition.
“Manifestations might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity. However, criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”
The word “might” clearly indicates that sometimes such targeting will be evidence that the person hates Jews, and sometimes it might not be. When a person “bangs on” (to use David Cameron’s memorable phrase) about Israel, one has to assess what they are saying, and also what they are saying and doing in the rest of their activities, to decide whether or not they hate Jews.
The IHRA goes on to give some more useful help.
Contemporary examples of antisemitism in public life, the media, schools, the workplace, and in the religious sphere could, taking into account the overall context, include, but are not limited to:
The above words are followed by a list of 11 illustrative examples. People tend to dive straight into the list, while failing to do what the above text requires, namely “taking into account the overall context.”
To show how one should think about the examples, take the following:
“Denying the fact, scope, mechanisms (e.g. gas chambers) or intentionality of the genocide of the Jewish people at the hands of National Socialist Germany and its supporters and accomplices during World War II (the Holocaust).”
There is universal agreement amongst all serious historians about the basic facts of the Holocaust. Accordingly, when someone seeks to argue that six million Jews were not deliberately killed by the Germans, but say only 500,000 died because Eastern Europe was a combat zone, it is overwhelmingly likely that they are arguing this because they hate Jews, and not because they are seeking to do serious history.
Several of the eleven examples relate to Israel. The key point about critics of Israel is that some of them are anti-semites, and some are not. You have to look at what they say and do about Israel, and what they say and do about Jews, and then form an overall assessment taking into account the overall context. I wrote about this in Jewish News shortly after the IHRA definition was first published, in my piece “When is being anti-Israel evidence of anti-Semitism?”