Despite Netanyahu's Pressure, EU Doesn't Link anti-Semitism to anti-Zionism

Netanyahu requested that the EU adopt the working definition of anti-Semitism issued by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. But some EU countries were concerned it may stifle criticism of Israel

Activists react outside a meeting of the Labour National Executive Committee in London, September 4, 2018.
Stefan Rousseau/PA via AP

The European Union issued a new declaration on Thursday regarding its fight against anti-Semitism, adopting a softer tone than the one originally proposed by Austria, which was promoted over the past few months by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

Netanyahu had requested that the EU adopt the working definition of anti-Semitism issued by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, an intergovernmental organization that was founded 20 years ago.

This definition states that some criticism of Israel could be anti-Semitic, such as: “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor,” or by applying double standards to Israel not demanded of any other nation. 

Some EU countries, however, were concerned that this definition could prevent criticism of Israel's policy in the Palestinian territories. A compromise was therefore reached and the final statement calls on member states to use the IHRA definition as a “guidance tool,” without making it obligatory.

The statement was issued by the European Commission in Brussels and approved by the forum of EU justice and interior ministers. It calls on EU members and the European Commission to take steps “to guarantee their safety and well-being” of Jewish communities and “take concrete steps to better protect the Jewish community in Europe and to continue their fight against anti-Semitism.”

The declaration also notes the importance of education about and remembrance of the Holocaust, along with a recommendation to adopt the IHRA definition.

The IHRA definition - which was adopted in 2016 by Germany, the United Kingdom and five others in the European Union - was central to a controversy involving allegations of anti-Semitism against U.K Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn when the party refused to adopt the IHRA definition, opting instead for a diluted version. It has since adopted the full IHRA wording. 

Even though the IHRA definition is not legally binding, it serves as an international guideline of what anti-Semitism is, and has declaratory and symbolic importance as a definition to be used by law enforcement officials and in education and training all over the world. 

According to the IHRA definition: “Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews.”

One of the examples given by the IHRA of anti-Semitism states: “Manifestations might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity.”

“Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis,” is given as another example of anti-Semitism.

Characterizing Israel or Israelis “using the symbols and images associated with classic anti-Semitism (e.g., claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel)” is another example of anti-Semitism according the IHRA.

But at the same time, “criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”

Other expressions of anti-Semitism, according to the IHRA, include accusing Jews living outside of Israel of being more loyal to Israel, “or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.” 

This also includes: “Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the State of Israel,” and “calling for, aiding, or justifying the killing or harming of Jews in the name of a radical ideology or an extremist view of religion.”

Holocaust denial is also an example: “Accusing the Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust,” along with: “Denying the fact, scope, mechanisms (e.g. gas chambers) or intentionality of the genocide of the Jewish people at the hands of National Socialist Germany and its supporters and accomplices during World War II (the Holocaust).” 

“Making mendacious, dehumanizing, demonizing, or stereotypical allegations about Jews as such or the power of Jews as collective - such as, especially but not exclusively, the myth about a world Jewish conspiracy or of Jews controlling the media, economy, government or other societal institutions,” is another example of anti-Semitism, according to the IHRA definition.

The IHRA definition has been adopted by many countries, including Israel, Britain, Austria, Romania, Germany, Bulgaria, Lithuania and Macedonia. But its adoption by the EU would have much greater importance in making it an international standard.

Austria, which holds the rotating EU presidency during the second half of 2018, promoted the adoption of the declaration fighting anti-Semitism, with the encouragement of Netanyahu, who spoke with Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz on the matter. 

Israel and Austria have cooperated on the issue, despite the Israeli government’s boycott of Kurz’s coalition partner, the populist right-wing Freedom Party, which Austria’s Jewish community has accused of not renouncing its anti-Semitic past. Many of its present members still use anti-Semitic and Nazi symbols and expressions.

For some time now the Israeli government has been promoting a policy in which anti-Zionism is recognized “the new anti-Semitism” – as Netanyahu has said many times. 

As part of this policy, the Strategic Affairs Ministry, which is charged with combatting what Israel calls the international campaign to “delegitimize” it – led by the BDS movement – regularly accuses groups boycotting Israel or the settlements of intentional and systematic anti-Semitism.

For example, after Airbnb announced it would remove rooms for rent in the settlements form its website, Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan said the company had caved in to “the anti-Semitic BDS groups.” 

At a conference Erdan recently attended in Germany, the minister said Europe needs to fight BDS in exactly the same fashion it needs to fight classic anti-Semitism, and called BDS advocate, singer Roger Waters, an anti-Semite.

On November 21, an international conference was held in Vienna that focused on combatting anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, entitled: “Europe Beyond Anti-Semitism and Anti-Zionism - Securing Jewish Life in Europe.” 

Netanyahu sent a video statement to the conference in which he was heard saying: "Since the establishment of the State of Israel, we face a new form of anti-Semitism, vicious efforts to demonize the Jewish State and deny the Jewish people the right to self-determination in our ancestral homeland, the Land of Israel — whereas every other nation is allowed to define its flag, its national anthem, its national identity, except for the Jewish people. This is anti-Semitism.”

Netanyahu also added that "the first step to combat anti-Semitism is to define it."

"The Israeli government," the premier continued, along with seven other European governments, including Austria, has adopted the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism. I urge all countries to adopt this definition and to increase their efforts to combat anti-Semitism and its modern manifestation, anti-Zionism. There is only one remedy for slander, and that is the truth.”

Netanyahu made the same comparison a week later while addressing the Knesset plenum during the visit of the Czech president in Israel. He drew the comparison again during an interview with CNN a day later, in which he responded to a poll that showed a surge in anti-Semitism in countries he has been working to bolster ties with in recent years: Austria and Hungary. In his interview Netanyahu defended the Austrian chancellor and claimed that he was battling anti-Semitism.

The frequent use of the term "anti-Semitism" by the Netanyahu government, including controversial cases involving fierce critics of Israel or the settlements, without drawing a distinction between the two, have made adopting of the IHRA definition a highly contentious political issue.

EU states critical of Israel policy in the West Bank were concerned such a move would help silence censuring and thus refrained from fully adopting the definition.