Opinion

There’s Nothing Shocking About a Tool for Sussing Out anti-Semitism

A cake decorated by white nationalists with a swastika and picture of American Nazi Party founder George Lincoln Rockwell after a cross-burning near Atkins, Arkansas, March 9, 2019.
Jim Urquhart / Reuters

In his August 2 Hebrew-language op-ed for Haaretz – following up on his July 3 English-language piece “Maybe when it comes to anti-Semitism, no ‘other Germany’ exists?”Prof. Daniel Blatman calls the working definition of anti-Semitism adopted in April 2016 by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance “a scandalous document” and “shocking.”

I’d like to note that this definition has been adopted by many countries and organizations. It was adopted in 2005 by the Vienna-based European Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia, and then by the Organization for Security Cooperation in Europe at a major conference in Cordoba, Spain.

After its adoption by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance – which unites governments – the European Parliament and UNESCO recommended its use in 2017, and that year Vera Jourova, the European commissioner for justice, consumers and gender equality, announced she would put the definition on her website.

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In 2018, the Council of Europe expressed its commitment to fighting anti-Semitism that included a call to council members to adopt the definition. In February of this year, French President Emmanuel Macron called for its readoption in France, and the list goes on. So far 15 countries, including Germany and Austria, have endorsed it; Britain did after a strong speech by then-Prime Minister Theresa May. In June, Canada joined the list.

Even though the definition is legally nonbinding, for 15 years it has been a tool helping judges, prosecutors the police and nongovernmental organizations. Also, a guide published by an affiliate of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe recommends using the definition to improve the collection of information and data.

All this raises the question of how all those entities didn’t see the document as “shocking” and “scandalous,” and leading to distortions in the understanding of anti-Semitism. And why have countries that are harsh critics of Israel and its policies, and of Jews who support it, adopted the definition on their own or as members of one of the organizations mentioned above?

Joining the struggle against evil

The answer is that these countries and organizations have recognized their obligation to defend their Jewish citizens from physical and verbal attack. (Seven sections of the definition include examples of such attacks.) And they have also distinguished between Israeli policies (four sections), which can be criticized as can the policies of any other country, and an attitude toward Israel expressed through anti-Semitic or discriminatory motifs.

The definition explicitly states that criticism of Israel, which is no different than that of any other country, cannot be considered anti-Semitic. Those who see anti-Semitism in every corner don’t rely on this definition, and it’s doubtful they’ve even read it.

The definition has recently become a kind of barometer, a declaration of joining the struggle against evil. Authorities in the adopting countries have long recognized that anti-Semitism in the public sphere is the beginning, to be accompanied or followed by violence, public disturbances and abuse on social media, with the definition helping craft further definitions in addressing other ills. For example, the working definition of anti-Roma hostility was inspired by the definition of anti-Semitism.

Blatman sees in this definition “a historical revolution in the understanding of anti-Semitism,” because hitherto it was anti-Semitic Germans who defined who was a Jew that must be ostracized, and now “certain Jews define who is an anti-Semite or who is a philo-Semite.” But in any lexicon or encyclopedia one can find definitions of anti-Semitism that were written by Jews and by non-Jews alike.

Plus, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance isn’t a Jewish organization that dances to the tune of “certain Jews.” Its members are 33 states that seek tools against racism and xenophobia.

The authors of the definitions adopted by this organization have made a conscious decision not to define who is an anti-Semite, as Blatman puts it, but rather what is anti-Semitism: An anti-Semitic act can be carried out by someone who is not an anti-Semite but who is motivated by a desire to exploit, for his own needs, the existing hostility toward Jews. And it’s hard to know what’s in a person’s heart and what he actually feels about Jews and other groups.

As definitive proof of the definition’s supposedly harmful effect, Blatman cites the recent Bundestag resolution on the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel. The argument over whether BDS is anti-Semitic has dragged on for years and didn’t suddenly pop up in the Bundestag as a result of external pressure.

A July 27 article in The New York Times on the subject, “Is B.D.S. Anti-Semitic? A Closer Look at the Boycott Israel Campaign,” concluded that according to the “three-Ds test” – actually first developed by Natan Sharansky – BDS is anti-Semitic in that it demonizes and delegitimizes Israel while applying a double standard to it. But the article also lays out all the pro- and anti- arguments for that claim, as does the 2018 report on anti-Semitism worldwide by Tel Aviv University’s Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry.

'Don't buy from Jews'

Indeed, a close reading of the Bundestag resolution and the deliberations that preceded it presents a much more complex picture than the common notion that the German parliament denounced the entire BDS movement as anti-Semitic. The resolution strongly condemns anti-Semitism and hatred for Jews and Jewish communities, including in Germany, and for Israel, which is a Jewish collective. And it repeatedly emphasizes that such sentiments have no place in Europe, especially Germany.

Two topics concern the Bundestag and lie at the center of the resolution. The first is Israel's existence and security, which the Germans define as part of the German state’s raison d’etre, thus the Bundestag must come out against anyone who threatens Israel's existence and security. The second is the association of the slogan “Don’t buy from Jews” with one of the most terrible chapters of German history.

But the authors of the Bundestag resolution must have also been aware of the complexity of the argument and the fact that the boycott movement is composed of many different and sometimes unconnected groups, each with its own character. The legislators didn’t define BDS in its entirety as anti-Semitic, and they stressed their support for the two-state solution.

Their resolution is squarely aimed at the radicals in the movement. It defines the pattern of argument and the methods of the BDS movement as anti-Semitic. It denounces “anti-Semitism in any form, the BDS movement campaign and its call to boycott Israel,” and states that no German organization will financially support groups that question Israel’s right to exist or projects that call for the boycott of Israel.

The working definition of anti-Semitism is mentioned in the resolution’s preamble but it’s not the motivation for it. Rather, it’s Germany’s commitment, stemming from its responsibility for the Holocaust, to the Jewish people and their state, and the fear that the anti-Semitism that  recent surveys show is returning could perhaps prove that Germany hasn’t learned from its past and lead once again to disaster.

Prof. Dina Porat, head of Tel Aviv University’s Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry and the chief historian of Yad Vashem, was among the crafters of the working definition of anti-Semitism adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.