Last week, an international group of more than 200 scholars specializing in antisemitism, the Holocaust and the Middle East, as well as other fields, published a document called “The Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism.” The declaration defines and characterizes antisemitism, which unfortunately is rearing its head in many parts of the world, in order to fight it more effectively. The declaration also distinguishes between antisemitism and criticism, even if harsh, of Israel and its policies.
In so doing, this important declaration provides a basis for a new approach to fighting the threat of antisemitism while preserving the sacred values of freedom of expression.
The declaration was the product of a year-long process of seminars and discussions. As a signatory to it, I would like to explain why it is so vital at this time.
The Israeli government and its supporters have a keen interest in blurring the distinction between criticism of Israel and antisemitism, in order to paint any substantive, harsh criticism of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians as antisemitic. By these lights, opposing the occupation is considered antisemitic, BDS is antisemitic, criticism of Zionism is antisemitic, and the International Criminal Court in the Hague is of course without a shadow of doubt antisemitic. The Israeli government and its supporters have put tremendous effort into advancing this notion. Just recently, Haaretz published a comprehensive report on the witch hunt taking place in Germany against critics of Israeli government policy.
This effort by the Israeli government and its supporters makes use of the definition of antisemitism adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) in 2016. Since that time it has been used, perhaps contrary to the intention of some of its authors, to stifle any biting criticism of Israel and its policies.
That definition focuses mainly on actions concerning Israel that it considers antisemitic, and provides Israel with a shield against any significant criticism. Thus, for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the IHRA definition serves as a basis for totally conflating anti-Zionism with antisemitism. Jared Kushner, former adviser to former U.S. president Donald Trump, made the same argument on the basis of the same definition. Based on that definition, B’Tselem, which recently issued an opinion stating that Israel was implementing a regime of apartheid, was accused by the influential NGO Monitor of being antisemitic.
A charity race to raise money for Gazans that was scheduled to take place in London in 2019 was canceled because the local authorities worried that they would be accused of antisemitism on the basis of the IHRA definition. The European High Court of Justice’s ruling requiring that settlement products be marked as such was called antisemitic by the Israeli government, again citing the IHRA definition. And, on the basis of the IHRA definition, a Finnish diplomat, who had the temerity to criticize the blockade of Gaza, was accused by the World Jewish Congress of antisemitism, arguing that Israel was being held to a double standard.
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Things have even reached the point where Palestinian students feel threatened on campus by this definition. And these are just a few examples out of numerous documented instances of the way the IHRA definition is used to silence criticism of Israel.
Supporters of the definition insist that it does not harm freedom of expression, but reality proves exactly the opposite.
There’s more: this definition and the kind of thinking it has come to embody enable Israel to justify its support for oppressive regimes that persecute minorities, suppress the opposition and even engage in antisemitic demagoguery, provided they don’t criticize Israel’s occupation policy. Filipino leader Rodrigo Duterte and Hungarian leader Viktor Orban are just two of many examples. The same applies to the agreement between the Polish prime minister and Mr. Netanyahu regarding Polish memorial laws, which the authorities have used to attack scholars who condemn Polish collaboration with the Nazis during the Holocaust.
Antisemitism is indeed a mounting threat around the world and must be fought as strongly as possible. However, turning this effort into one that is meant to defend Israel’s policies against criticism greatly weakens it, because it diverts attention from the much more dominant and dangerous expressions of antisemitism that are occurring.
Foremost among these are the violent, sometimes lethal actions by the extreme right, generally supported by populist and dictatorial regimes that are often friendly to Israel’s occupation policy. It also diverts attention from the tendency toward Holocaust denial or distortion of Holocaust remembrance on the national level as in Hungary and Poland.
This manner of “combating antisemitism” also significantly divides the Jewish world, which is engaged in a heated debate over a definition that impairs the freedom of expression, which is a sacred value to many Jews the world over, and particularly in the United States.
Just as serious is the fact that use of this definition makes it harder to recruit allies among other minority groups experiencing racism, whose partnership is necessary in order to truly combat antisemitism. And an even greater problem is that this definition diminishes the possibility of partnership with Palestinians and Arabs in combating antisemitism.
To counter these trends, the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism proposes a new, clearly argued and informed definition that aims to restore the fight against antisemitism to the right track, which is urgently needed at the moment. Unlike the IHRA definition, the JDA differentiates between cases in which hostility or even hatred toward Israel qualify as antisemitism, and cases that do not, both in terms of freedom of expression and as part of a legitimate political struggle, and provides clear examples of both. It emphasizes that context matters in evaluating each and every incident, and distinguishes between different historic situations. It is a definition that takes universal values and the importance of freedom of speech seriously. It is a definition that redraws the line between the urgent need to combat antisemitism around the world and the cynical use that the Israeli government and its supporters make of this need in order to justify Israel’s policies.
Professor Omer Bartov teaches at Brown University. His book, “Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz,” was awarded the 2019 Yad Vashem International Prize for Holocaust Research.