On 26 May 2016, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Plenary adopted its Working Definition of Antisemitism, which declares:
“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.”
The definition includes eleven reference points, or examples, to aid the identification of this age-old hatred.
Despite efforts by the international community to put a label on anti-Jewish hate, there are many who claim that their antisemitic or anti-Israel comments are simply their opinions, the objective truth, or lack malicious intentions. These individuals often claim that their criticism of Israel has nothing to do with the people who live there, and that their accusations of Jewish global domination are supported by fact (hint: they aren’t).
That’s why we’ve taken the time to debunk some of the misconceptions and mistruths circulating about IHRA’ Working Definition of Antisemitism.
Constitutionally protected free speech and thought doesn’t prevent individuals from expressing antisemitic views. With that said, it does not protect citizens from the social ostracization and repercussions that result from spreading hateful views.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination stand against incitement to discrimination and hatred. Therefore, we must recognize that the right to freedom from incitement to hatred and discrimination has as much status as a human right as the right to freedom of expression.
One cannot hold this belief, if one believes that part of governmental and parliamentary responsibility is to combat incitement to discrimination, hatred, terrorism or war. Definitions of various forms of hate are essential to informing authorities what incitement is.
Many countries have increased penalties for hate or terror crimes. Whether the penalties should be applied, reported, requires an understanding to be able to distinguish hate or terror motivated crimes from other crimes.
When it comes to the topic of defining antisemitism there are limitations any definition can have. Antisemitism is a shapeshifting virus that has mutated throughout time. However, the true problem isn’t with the IHRA definition of antisemitism or its examples, but the failure or refusal of some critics of the definition to recognize or accept the antisemitism in themselves.
Today only marginal figures self-identify as antisemites or racists. Yet many individuals, even some who are highly respected hold views which fall within the IHRA definition of antisemitism. The problem is not the definition, but the individuals perpetrating antisemitism.
The European Union and IHRA published a Handbook for the practical use of the working definition which gives many examples of how governments and their criminal justice agencies, as well as others, are using the Working Definition.
Of course it would be ideal if fighting antisemitism were uncontroversial in circles where this sort of hate is promoted. However, the fact that it has become controversial is not a reason in principle for opposing antisemitism. It is, on the contrary, a reason for opposing those use antisemitic trope to further their political agenda.
In domestic politics, politicians often criticize their political rivals by alleging that their opponent is assisting sexism, racism, homophobia and so on. Unfortunately, when it comes to defending its political allies, politicians often ignore the inconvenient sexist, racism, homophobia and so on.
To deal with this phenomenon, we must remain steadfast and not change the definition of antisemitism to excuse any allegations of antisemitism.
To combat the rise of politicization of bigotry, definitions are essential, particularly when they are endorsed by governments and a wide range of experts, as in the case of the IHRA definition of antisemitism. The IHRA definition of antisemitism provides a much-needed clarity to conversation on antisemitism and thereby depoliticizes the ‘debate’ over antisemitism.
Despite the accusation, the definition does not prohibit any form of speech, has no enforcement mechanism, but is simply a tool for identifying antisemitism. Referring to the IHRA definition to describe contemporary forms of antisemitism does not violate anyone’s right to freedom of speech as there is no right to be free from criticism for promoting hate. While some may allege that the IHRA Definition has a “chilling effect” on criticism of Israel, there is little to no evidence of this, as many vocal advocates criticizing Israel do not perpetuate antisemitism.
The definition itself notes that its working examples “could, taking into account the overall context,” be antisemitic. The definition is intended to strengthen the ability to recognize individuals who are engaging in antisemitism, which is one of civil society’s most powerful weapons against combatting bigotry, in this case antisemitism.
Alleging that Jews are faking antisemitism to smear some with allegations of antisemitism is itself antisemitic. The allegation puts Jews on the defensive and impinges their motivation simply for identifying antisemitism. Furthermore, it downplays the threat of antisemitism and politicizes it against the Jewish people for a second time.
Dismissing the claim that IHRA is intended to squash criticism of Israeli policy, Professor David Hirsch writes, “IHRA is explicit that criticism of Israel is not antisemitic. IHRA explicitly exhorts any judge to look at the complexities of context. Yet, say those who are afraid of IHRA, the text of the definition isn’t the real definition.”
The definition does not interfere with freedom of speech but leaves room for vigorous criticism of Israel’s government, as the definition itself states that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.” In short, criticism of Israel is by no means itself antisemitic, but at times, when classic antisemitic tropes are used or Israel is demonized and treated like no other state, can, taking into account the overall context, constitute antisemitism or hide antisemitic prejudice.
The IHRA definition of antisemitism draws a clear line outlining which criticisms of Israel are often antisemitic, as such criticisms undermine free speech and create hostility. Not being able to distinguish criticism of Israel from antisemitism not only perpetuates antisemitism, but hinders important conversation on Israeli policy.
Furthermore, the definition has several conditional verbs, saying that a certain behavior ‘may’ ‘could’ or ‘might’ be antisemitic. Its list of working examples is prefaced by the acknowledgement that the working examples ‘could’ provide cases of contemporary antisemitism, but that such antisemitism is ‘not limited’ to just those examples. The Definition makes clear that context is key, saying, shortly before it lists is examples of potentially antisemitic rhetoric that “Contemporary examples of antisemitism in public life, the media, schools, the workplace, and in the religious sphere could, taking into account the overall context…”
By arguing that a practice ‘may’ be antisemitic, the Definition text allows the possibility that it may not be antisemitic in a specific scenario. In other words, to say that applying a specific treatment to Israel could in some cases be antisemitic, leaves ample room for possibility that in some cases it is not antisemitic and taking into consideration the overall context. Therefore, the IHRA Definition contributes to one’s ability to criticize Israel without implicit antisemitism, applying the definition as a mechanism to avoid covert hate speech.
As professor David Hirsh, a UK scholar of sociology, puts it, the IHRA definition “is a framework for thinking about what is antisemitic, not a machine which can automatically designate certain kinds of speech as antisemitic.”
Furthermore, the definition is a non-legally binding definition, intended to guide and educate without limiting debate or free speech. Therefore, the definition does not limit any speech per se, as long as it does not enter into legally defined protection from harassment or incitement to violence, just as others are free to openly criticize those who defend themselves from antisemitism.
The IHRA working definition of antisemitism serves as a useful tool for authorities and institutions to identify and understand antisemitism. After all, it seems obvious that in order to fight any form of bigotry, one should be able to define exactly what they are fighting. After identifying antisemitism, proper steps can be taken to combat it.
As European Commission’s coordinator on combating antisemitism, Katharina von Schnurbein, has explained “you can’t fight it if you can’t define it.”
The suggestion that one can define antisemitism or any form of bigotry out of existence is naive. It is unrealistic to expect antisemitism - which emanates across the ideological spectrum and has existed for millennia - to cease, simply because of a definition.
The allegation that the IHRA definition is ineffective due to rising antisemitism is a naive argument in a serious conversation about the merits of the definition itself.
The IHRA definition includes 11 illustrative examples that clearly demonstrate contemporary manifestations of antisemitism. This is a non-exhaustive list but still an intrinsic component of the definition so as to properly identify antisemitism, especially for government officials like judges, prosecutors or the police.
The IHRA definition, and specifically its working examples, is intended to reflect what the vast majority of Jews regard as antisemitic and what is happening on the ground to Jewish people around the world.
European Commission’s coordinator on combating antisemitism, Katharina von Schnurbein, referred to this as “evidence-based policymaking.”
Others, including Ambassador Deborah E. Lipstadt, the U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism, have urged countries and international organizations to adopt the IHRA definition, citing it as "an exceptionally useful diagnostic tool" in combating antisemitism.
Every organization or concerned community is free to develop any definitions that would be helpful to raising awareness and countering different phenomena. Each form of bigotry has its own particularities and context, so it needs to be properly framed in order to be effectively countered.
As such, several governments or NGOs may develop their own definition of forms of hatred and hate speech, based on their own priorities and needs. Drafting definitions for different forms of discrimination is not a zero sum game and in no way takes away from other definitions.
In the case of IHRA, in addition to its definition of antisemitism, it has also developed a working definition of Holocaust denial and distortion (2013) and a working definition of antigypsyism/anti-Roma discrimination (2020).
The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism does not “privilege” Jews, but merely an attempt to define hatred against them. Any effort to define hatred against religious or racial minorities has to start somewhere. The IHRA definition is simply the gold standard tool in defining antisemitism.
Unfortunately, attacking the definition has the opposite effect and undermines the effort to combat hatred from which every victim religious and racial minority suffers.
All definitions, especially ones that define something as complex as antisemitism, are going to have borderline cases, which may fall into its definition or not. However, the existence of borderline problems is not an objective way to critique the definition itself.
The IHRA definition originated from a democratic process within the European Union. An agency of the European Union known as the European Union Monitoring Centre (EUMC), drafted by experts and representatives of Jewish communities around Europe. Following that, it was introduced to the IHRA, where it was discussed and fine tuned by dozens of delegates representing relevant government ministries, and academic institutions (Holocaust museums and memorials, and civil society, inter alia.).
The final step was to finalize the wording of the definition in the relevant IHRA committee and then adopt it by the plenary. Since then, it has been adopted or endorsed by dozens of governments, parliaments, local authorities, universities and sports clubs in an open and transparent process.