How the IHRA Definition of Anti-Semitism Fractures Community Relations Whilst Silencing the Voices of Human Rights Defenders
To wholeheartedly accept almost every single term of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition and wholeheartedly reject racism against Jews, one has to recognise the few examples in it that have the propensity to infringe on freedom of speech, particularly regarding the Israel-Palestine conflict. National action held by Palestine Solidarity movements across campuses, such as that known as ‘Israeli Apartheid Week,’ have been referenced by government ministers (who have cited the IHRA definition whereby an example of anti-Semtism is “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor”) as ‘causes for concern,’ however a letter signed by over 200 academics has cited this as an outrageous interference with freedom of expression. Upon reading this letter, it becomes clear that acceptance of this definition gives institutions the unfortunate capacity to remove the platform provided by certain societies for speakers that are raising awareness for human rights abuses in the region — an unfortunate stepping-stone towards blocking valid and internationally acclaimed criticism of the State of Israel.
It is often claimed that 31 democratic countries accept and endorse the IHRA definition, and so every institution should, however this is not the case. We have no choice but to admit that it is not a straightforward issue, but is currently up for broad-spectrum debate. It is true that the Conservative Party has accepted the definition, however the Labour Party only recently accepted the definition towards the end of summer 2018 after increasing pressure, both publicly and politically to accept, due to growing concerns of anti-Semitism within the party. It is also interesting to note that in the meetings between senior Labour officials and the National Executive Committee, the definition was only accepted in full “after a tense meeting in which an accompanying clarification put forward by Jeremy Corbyn was not accepted.” Corbyn mentioned in his draft statement, “It cannot be considered racist to treat Israel like any other state or assess its conduct against the standards of international law. Nor should it be regarded as anti-Semitic to describe Israel, its policies or the circumstances around its foundation as racist because of their discriminatory impact, or to support another settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict.”
Holding Jewish people collectively responsible for the actions of Israel is something that we should be fighting against. I can relate to this on the deepest level: I, as a Muslim, would hate to be associated with crimes against humanity committed in the name of Islam by anyone in the world. As I have learnt from Jewish friends, a Jewish person cannot be held responsible for the actions of the state of Israel, and that it and Jewish identity should be two separate entities. It is time for communities to come together and call out the paradox in a definition which claims that “Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel” is anti-Semitic, whilst at the same time saying it is an anti-Jewish sentiment to “claim that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour” — we should adopt a definition that separates Jews from the actions of the state of Israel.
Our democratic proceedings should allow us to do better. At the end of the UCL Union General Assembly debate that took place on Monday 21st January, members of both sides came together in agreement with this sentiment. Comments such as “because he’s a Jew, so he’s obviously got money” or “I’ll pay for this one — reparations payments!” are totally unacceptable and should be dealt with as any other form of discriminatory comment would be. It is wrong, and should be uncharacteristic of supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement— the Jewish identity should be separate unless otherwise mentioned. Organisations such as Jewish Voice for Peace campaigning against racially targeted crimes committed by the State of Israel exist and it would be absurd to accuse them of anti-Semitism for accepting the racist nature of Israeli policy.
It is time for us to remove the link and automatic association that being Jewish means you don’t condemn the existence of the State of Israel — Ilan Pappé, an expatriate Israeli historian and socialist activist who was born to German Jewish parents who fled Nazi persecution in the 1930s; a supporter of the one-state solution, envisaging a binational state for Palestinians and Israelis. In our increasingly conflicted world, it is of utmost importance for us to remember historical tragedies such as the Holocaust, and to take lessons from them and apply those lessons to the conflicts of today.
‘Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour.’ — In 1975, UN resolution 3379 resolved that Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination, and so the scope for freedom of speech and academic freedoms within the academic and student body is strangled by this example — even the Home Office Select Committee (who produced the shining template of the Prevent Scheme to fight terror at home) admitted that the full definition with examples had the propensity to encroach on freedom of speech.
I’ll end with a quote from Nkosi Zwelivelile Mandela, grandson of anti-apartheid revolutionary, Nelson Mandela.
“Even before Israel passed its nation state law (stipulating that only Jews have the right of self-determination in the country — [another term that the definition deems it anti-Semitic to deny]) it was easy to see, for anyone willing to look, that the country’s government was committing the crime of apartheid. Its segregation wall, discriminatory admissions committees, ID-card systems, roads built for settlers which are not accessible to Palestinians, and the bantustan-like fragmentation of the West Bank gave the game away.” This is the voice we would be silencing, this is the narrative we would be shutting down.
Should non-Jewish people have a voice in deciding what constitutes anti-Semitism? We cannot define their oppression, but it is only after everyone comes together and recognises what unacceptable discrimination is that we can actively fight it. Look at South Africa, look at the Civil Rights Movement in the USA and look at the Holocaust. The only way to end discrimination across the world is by coming together and recognising each other’s struggles — only then can we begin to feel each other’s pain as human beings. Mandela says in his article “It took an international effort to end institutionalised racism in my country… while my country has long been free from racist minority rule, the world is not yet free of the crime of apartheid.”
No matter how many times I try and reiterate that racism and discrimination of any form is unacceptable, there will always be people who tell me that I am anti-Semitic, but those who know me personally will know that throughout my activism for Palestinian human rights, it is done it on the basis of an anti-racist, anti-fascist and anti-apartheid viewpoint. I would not alter this view of the world with regards to any definition of any form of racial or religious hate crime.
With anti-Semitic attacks on the rise, as well as anti-Black, homophobic and Islamophobic attacks, the need to recognise all forms of discrimination is more necessary than it has ever been and it is in our hands to recognise and put a stop to all kinds of discrimination, no matter who they are targeted at.
Link to full letter signed by 243 acacdemics https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/feb/27/university-wrong-to-ban-israeli-apartheid-week-event
Link to full article by Nkosi Zwelivelile Mandela https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/oct/11/grandfather-nelson-mandela-apartheid-parallels-israel-palestinian