It has been claimed that the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of Antisemitism, ‘including its eleven examples’, reflects an international consensus of antisemitism experts. Jamie Stern-Weiner’s doctoral research at Oxford University, ‘the Politics of a Definition’, shows that no such consensus exists.
It was not scholars of Jewish history who were principally responsible for drafting the Working Definition and negotiating its adoption by the IHRA, but pro-Israel advocacy groups: the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC). These are both partisan organisations that engage in blanket pro-Israel advocacy, conflating legitimate criticism of Israel with antisemitism.
In May 2016, the IHRA’s general Plenary adopted by consensus a document with two distinct parts:
a two-sentence working definition of antisemitism, and
a list of eleven examples of potentially antisemitic statements and behaviours
However, Stern-Weiner reveals there was no IHRA consensus for including any of the examples in the working definition. Several IHRA Member Countries objected to them, so a revised text was adopted in which the examples were separated from the Working Definition. The examples were simply there as illustrations, to guide the IHRA in its own work.
This posed a serious problem to the pro-Israeli activists for whom the examples, and not the working definition, were all important. Seven of the eleven examples relate to Israel and are regularly used to stigmatise legitimate criticism of Israel, including everything from reports by human rights organisations to the EU's decision to accurately label imports from Israel’s illegal settlements. Moreover, pro-Israeli activists repeatedly promote and use the examples as a tool of censorship, and to condition the funding of European NGOs that seek to hold Israel accountable for its abuses to Palestinians.
As Jonathan Cook shows in an excellent article, this is indicative of Israel’s lobbyists’ wider ambitions for the IHRA definition. They are already successfully using it to pressure universities and political parties to deny a platform to critics of Israel, and intend to use it regulate the content of the internet, and to stymie efforts to enforce critical positions on Israel (like EU labelling of settlement products). It is also likely to be weaponised if and when the International Criminal Court decides to start investigating Israeli officials for war crimes.
The AJC and SWC have misrepresented the status of the examples. Worst of all, Stern-Weiner shows that permanent officials of the IHRA have themselves colluded with this deception, arbitrarily overriding the authority of the IHRA Plenary, which has neither revisited nor revised its 2016 decision. This is scandalous for an organisation whose core mandate is to preserve historical truth, showing its own officials have participated in a campaign of gross misinformation.
As Professor Avi Shlaim says in his introduction, the ‘Politics of a Definition’ deserves the widest possible readership, especially among policy-makers.