CST Blog

The Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism: a flawed definition that risks setting back efforts to tackle antisemitism

1 April 2021

An edited version of this article by CST’s Director of Policy Dr. Dave Rich appears in this week’s Jewish Chronicle.

Last week 200 academics published a document called The Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism that they recommend should replace the IHRA working definition of antisemitism. You might wonder why: in the five years since the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance drew up their working definition, it has been used or adopted as an informal tool for investigating antisemitic incidents by governments, police, prosecutors, local authorities, football clubs, universities and regulators. It has been endorsed by the European Parliament and recommended by the United Nations Secretary General, and in the UK is widely accepted as the standard guide to defining and identifying antisemitism.

For these academics, though, the IHRA definition is a problem because of what it says about when, and how, antisemitism is expressed through anti-Israel language. For example, the IHRA definition says that when people deny Israel’s right to exist, compare Israel to Nazi Germany or discriminate against Israel through using double standards, it could, depending on the context, sometimes be antisemitic. You might think this is just a statement of the obvious, but the painful struggle to persuade the Labour Party to adopt the IHRA definition under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership shows that not everybody agrees.

As its name suggests, the Jerusalem Declaration is largely focused on the appropriate language to use when discussing Israel and Palestine. It mentions Palestine or Palestinians nine times but doesn’t include a single mention of hate crime. Ten of its fifteen “guidelines” are devoted to Israel and Palestine, despite criticising the IHRA definition for placing “undue emphasis” on this same issue.

The Declaration is over twice as long as the IHRA definition and is written in a way that is much less accessible, or relevant, for incident investigators. The academics who wrote it did not consult with Jewish community organisations, hate crime monitors or other complaint investigators, and it shows. It is difficult to imagine a football stadium safety officer or an Ofcom complaints handler using the Jerusalem Declaration to assess a complaint of antisemitism. Instead, it reads like guidelines for an academic seminar on Israel and Palestine.

Even then, the Jerusalem Declaration has some serious flaws. Its core definition tells us antisemitism is “discrimination, prejudice, hostility or violence against Jews as Jews (or Jewish institutions as Jewish).” This formulation of antisemitism being targeted at “Jews as Jews” is favoured by opponents of the IHRA definition, but it risks missing all but the most overt cases. The Hungarian government’s campaign against George Soros never mentions the fact Soros is Jewish – it doesn’t attack him ‘as a Jew’ – but it derives its resonance and force from the use of undeniably antisemitic language.

The Jerusalem Declaration agrees that antisemitism and anti-Israel language sometimes come together, but it differs significantly from IHRA over where to draw the line between the two. The IHRA definition’s warning against comparing Israel to Nazi Germany has been removed; instead we are told that “even if contentious, it is not antisemitic, in and of itself, to compare Israel with other historical cases”. Whereas the IHRA definition says it could be antisemitic to deny the Jewish people their right to self-determination, the Jerusalem Declaration finds a convoluted way to say that it is not, on the face of it, antisemitic to argue for the elimination of Israel, as long as Jews’ “collective rights” are respected in any future arrangement.

On these two points in particular, the Jerusalem Declaration runs contrary to what surveys have shown most Jews in Europe and the United States to believe about Israel-related antisemitism. You might expect any definition of antisemitism to prioritise the views of Jewish communities over the interests of those who want to campaign against something Jewish, but that is not the case here. It would be bizarre, for example, if a definition of antisemitism went out of its way to protect the right to campaign for shechita or brit milah to be banned, yet the Jerusalem Declaration’s authors felt the need to explicitly say it is not antisemitic to call for the world’s only Jewish state to disappear. It is hard to see this attracting much support amongst Jewish communities, but perhaps they are not the Declaration’s primary audience.

Ultimately, the academics who have written and signed the Jerusalem Declaration are responding to an environment in which the IHRA definition has been repeatedly misrepresented as silencing all criticism of, and campaigning against, Israel. The belief that the IHRA definition has a chilling effect on pro-Palestinian activism is so widespread that opposition to it has become totemic for many opponents of Israel, just as support for the definition is seen by others as indicating an institution’s desire to take antisemitism seriously. Yet even the Palestine Solidarity Campaign has acknowledged that in the UK “there is no known case of any university directly citing the IHRA definition to close down an event that is legitimately critical of Israel and is therefore not anti-Semitic”.

Nevertheless, if a bunch of academics want to write themselves some guidelines about how they and their students can discuss Israel and Palestine, that is up to them. They might even consider that it is often Jewish students who are inhibited from expressing their support for Israel, rather than Israel’s critics who are silenced. But calling this a definition of antisemitism and suggesting it could replace a widely-accepted practical tool used by investigators and hate crime monitors is irresponsible and risks setting back genuine efforts to tackle antisemitism.

Cover image: www.shutterstock.com

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