Antisemitism, Amnesty and the IHRA definition

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Amnesty International report that they’ve joined with a number of civil rights organisations in writing to the UN asking them not to adopt the IHRA’s definition of Antisemitism.  They are arguing that the definition can and has been used in order to suppress legitimate protest against the state of Israel, particularly in relation to its treatment of the Palestinian people. You can read the Amnesty statement here and the letter here.

The IHRA definition states:

“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.”

It is worth noting that there is nothing in the definition itself which has anything to do with the State of Israel.  However, the IHRA offered a number of examples in order to help illustrate what antisemitism might look like these include:

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. Antisemitism frequently charges Jews with conspiring to harm humanity, and it is often used to blame Jews for “why things go wrong.” It is expressed in speech, writing, visual forms and action, and employs sinister stereotypes and negative character traits.


  • Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.

It’s these examples that Amnesty has problems with.  Their argument is that when people have sought to criticise the State of Israel that the charge of “antisemitism” has been thrown at them in order to silence them.

It is worth observing a few things here.  First, that it is always possible to throw an accusation out in order to try and silence others.  With our without the examples in the definition, someone can still accuse a critic of Israel as being motivated by antisemitism, just as anyone can spuriously accuse others of racism or sexism.  We recognise that racism and sexism are real and serious. We don’t see the spurious usage of the charges as a reason to deny the reality. In fact, having a clearly articulated illustration of when something becomes antisemitic will be helpful, to reduce the need to second guess.

This leads to the second point, that the drafters of the IHRA were absolutely clear in their view that it is possible to critique Israel.  The point is that it should be possible to challenge the actions of specific Israeli politicians, parties, the Government and even the State in terms of its constitutional set up without falling into antisemitism.   

Antisemitism happens whenever someone goes beyond critiquing the State of Israel to conflating the existence and survival of that State with the existence of the Jewish people and attaching to that a form of conspiracy theory which sees it as the root of other problems.  In other words, for example, to argue that when human rights abuses are recorded against Palestinians that the cause of those human rights abuses is not just police brutality or unjust laws but the very existence of Israel itself, the so called Zionist Project, then that moves into antisemitism.  It would be like arguing that Brtiain is unavoidably racist because it is a white, racial endeavour and so that the only way to defeat racism is for Britain to no longer exist.

The third observation to make is that whilst people might have argued that criticism of Israel is antisemitic, this has not in fact prevented criticism of Israel in institutions and places where the IHRA definition has been adopted. However, I would argue that we’ve seen examples of legitimate criticism of Israel being used as an excuse or cover for antisemitism. This was exactly the problem with the Stephen Sizer case and the controversy within the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.

So, why would anyone want to remove those examples from any working definition of Antisemitism if they are opposed to antisemitism?  Well have a look at the letter that Amnesty have signed up to. First there’s some rather mendacious arguments made. “Applying double standards” does not mean as the letter claims that you cannot criticise a state of human rights abuses if worse is happening elsewhere.  The point is that we should uphold a certain standard against one country and not another.  This means for example, that it would be wrong to say that Israel should not deploy her military to protect herself against terrorist attacks whilst accepting that this has been necessary in other countries.  It would not mean as the letter ridiculously claims that we could not critique human rights abuses in Tibet or Saudi Arabia.

It is fascinating though isn’t it that the letter instinctively goes for those examples when comparing the foundation of Israel.  Why for example do they talk about China’s occupation of Tibet as comparable.  Why not refer to the way that the US exists because a country with an existing population was settled.  Why not argue that the Scottish Independence campaign could be regarded as a racist endeavour, noting that the Scots themselves migrated into Caledonia at the expense of the Picts or that the United Kingdom is founded on the suppression of the native Britons for the benefit of Angles, Saxons and Normans?

And here we come to the crux of the matter.  The only reason why you would want to remove those examples is if you want to insist that they are not potentially antisemitic.  The letter cites a number of examples of events and activities being prevented under the definition. However, it never contemplates the possibility that there was an antisemitic dynamic and overtone to those events. Unless, we assume that denying Israels’ right to exist or placing different standards on the Jewish people through the State of Israel are not and cannot possibly be antisemitic, then it is crucial that some explanatory language is used.

Now, this doesn’t mean that the IRHA definition is perfect, cannot be improved on and doesn’t require a level of interpretation. In fact, the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism attempts this, so that it would be helpful for anyone seeking to investigate a claim of antisemitism to refer to this document as well. However, what that document does is interact with the IRHA definition and seek to offer further clarification. It is more a related document to be used in conjunction with than an alternative to replace it.

Returning to Amnesty’s statement.  We need to be very clear about what the letter is requesting. It is asking that we no longer consider one example of antisemitism to be antisemitic.  The letter fails to offer a reasonable argument as to why we should do this. 

It is deeply disturbing that Amnesty have aligned themselves with this questionable agenda. I urge them to remove their name from the signatories. 

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