'Claiming Israel Is a Racist Endeavor': Britain Adopts New Definition of anti-Semitism

The move is seen by many as specifically highlighting anti-Zionist anti-Semitism. But the government could also be using it as a political tool against the left.

Anti-Israel rallies ahead of a visit by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside Downing Street in London, U.K., September 9, 2015.
Tolga Akmen, Anadolu Agency

Britain will adopt a new definition of anti-Semitism in a move widely interpreted as intended to target prejudice on the anti-Zionist far-left.

The new wording was agreed in May at a Bucharest conference of the 31-member International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

“Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews,” the IHRA definition read. “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 Berlin-based body went on to provide further guidance, including “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” and “applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.”

Conservative lawmaker Eric Pickles, the U.K.’s envoy to the IHRA, told the BBC that the new definition "catches up with modern anti-Semitism."

"I think it's important not to conflate Jewish people with Israel," he said. "That actually is the point in the definition."

The move has no immediate legal implications, as the definition is simply intended as a set of guidelines to help identify possible instances of anti-Semitism. 

It is very similar to that of the Working Definition of Antisemitism, created in 2005 by the European Union Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC). 

This also had no legal basis, but nonetheless proved controversial, with pro-Palestinian activists arguing that it limited discussion or criticism of Israel.

Anti-Semitism campaigners anticipate a similar reaction to the IHRA definition, even though it has wider international support.

“The EUMC definition was quite often misinterpreted by political opponents of that definition. It says very clearly that criticism of Israel is not regarded as anti-Semitism,” said Dave Rich, Deputy Director of Communications for the Community Security Trust, a body that monitors threats to U.K. Jews.

The IHRA wording also “leaves a lot of space for people to complain about Israel” he added. It would not be anti-Semitic, for instance, to accuse Israel of having racist policies.

The problem was that rhetoric had reached dangerous levels.

“Too many opponents of Israel on the left are not mindful of their language around this issue,” Rich said. “In a way, this is a consequence of that.” 

There have been concerns over rising rates of anti-Semitism in the U.K. According to the CST, the number of anti-Semitic incidents rose by 11 percent in the first six months of 2016. They had logged 557 incidents as compared to 500 in the same period in 2015.

The Labour party has weathered dozens of accusations of anti-Semitism since the election of Jeremy Corbyn as party leader in 2015.

Two official investigations into anti-Semitism within the party in 2016 found that there was no institutional problem. 

However, a scathing report published by the Home Affairs Select Committee of the House of Commons in October condemned the party’s “demonstrable incompetence” at dealing with members accused of anti-Semitism. 

It also criticized Corbyn’s "lack of consistent leadership over the issue."

One of its recommendations was for Labour to adopt a definition of anti-Semitism, and indeed a spokeswoman for Corbyn said that he and the party backed that of the IHRA. 

“Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour party share the view that language or behavior that displays hatred towards Jews is antisemitism, and is as repugnant and unacceptable as any other form of racism,” she said.

The practical impact of the government’s move remains unclear.

It’s possible that the courts might use it in cases, for instance, where they need to distinguish between racially aggravated harassment as opposed to just harassment.

“We have to wait and see exactly what it means in practical terms,” Rich said, noting that the U.K. Police College already used the IHRA definition.

“There may be a formal recommendation to all public bodies that they adopt it. Ideally it will become the accepted definition for public bodies, social media companies, student organisations.”

Another possibility is that communal bodies might be able to use it as a tool to fight Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaigns.

“It may depend on the language and political goals of the BDS campaigns. For example, I doubt it could be used against settlement boycotts but if BDS campaigners argue that Israel's very existence is racist then that perhaps that would be considered antisemitic under this definition,” Rich said, adding, “there's a lot of detail that needs to be filled in terms of how and where it will be applied, and with what force, if any.”

David Hirsh, a sociology lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London, agreed that this move was designed to specifically highlight anti-Zionist anti-Semitism. The government could also be using it as a political tool against the left.

“Defining other kinds of antisemitism is less controversial, there is more agreement – so it wouldn't be addressed by a [new] definition,” said Hirsh, who is also the author of a forthcoming book on contemporary anti-Semitism. 

“This kind of anti-Semitism is on the rise, it has moved into the mainstream of politics – we're familiar with it on the left and in Islamist politics – it is also moving into the mainstream on the populist right.”