The “Israel is a racist endeavour” clause in the IHRA definition – David Hirsh

Does IHRA say it is antisemitic to say that Israel is a racist endeavour? Does it follow, therefore, that IHRA says it is antisemitic to say Israel is colonialist or apartheid?

No. IHRA doesn’t do that.

The IHRA definition of antisemitism is a very tame and careful document. For sure, denouncing Israel as a racist endeavour, as colonialist, as apartheid, may be antisemitic, but IHRA stops a long way short of defining these things as being necessarily antisemitic.

To understand what IHRA does say about “Israel as a racist endeavour” it is necessary to start by zooming out a bit from the specific clause.

IHRA says:

“Contemporary examples of antisemitism in public life, the media, schools, the workplace, and in the religious sphere could, taking into account the overall context, include, but are not limited to:”

[then it offers a number of examples, one of which is:]

“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.”

So first, there are not one but two levels of caveat here.

IHRA does not define anything in thee examples, definitively, as antisemitic. They are examples of things that “could, taking into account the overall context”, but antisemitic.

And turning to the “racist endeavor” example, IHRA requires a second layer of judgment.

The “racist endeavor” clause is itself an example of the specific thing that is itself given as an example of possible antisemitism, which is “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination”.

IHRA says that one thing that may, according to context, be an example of antizionist antisemitism, is denying self determination to Jews.

It then gives an example of one kind of way that denying self-determination to Jews might be antisemitic: by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.  

The wording is important. It is not claiming “the state of Israel to be a racist endeavour” that is offered as an example of how denying self-determination to Jews might be antisemitic.

It is claiming “the existence of a State of Israel to be a racist endeavour” that is offered as an example of how denying self-determination to Jews might be antisemitic.

I think the only interpretation of the text that makes sense is to read the “a” as meaning *any* *possible* state of Israel would be *necessarily* or *inherently* a racist endeavour.

This looks like a bit of a leap, but it isn’t one. If the drafters had wanted to say that denouncing Israel – the Israel that exists – as a racist endeavour – should be regarded as an example of antisemitism – it would have used *the* not *a*.

The wording used is odd, it’s not the wording that would ordinarily have been used to mean that. It’s evidently intended to mean something else.

Why *a* and not *the*?

Denying self-determination to Jews is not, in itself or necessarily, antisemitic – but it may be.

Denying self-determination to Jews, for example by claiming that Israel is, necessarily or inherently, a racist endeavor, is not, in itself or necessarily, antisemitic – but it may be.

So therefore, saying Israel is apartheid, colonialist, racist – is not in itself or necessarily antisemitic – although it may be.

But what about somebody who said that any state of Israel – not this one, not the one that exists, but any state of Israel – one that might have existed or one that might exist in the future – *a* state of Israel – is a racist endeavour – what about that?  Well that may, according to context, be antisemitic, says IHRA – because it is a claim that Jewish self-determination – unlike the self-determination of other would-be nations – must necessarily be a racist endeavour. That kind of claim is the kind of claim that IHRA is specifically warning against. And rightly so.

There is no other way to explain why it says “a” and not “the“. 

IHRA is a very tame document. It is not threatening in the way that its opponents claim it to be.

David Hirsh

The JDA Definition of Antisemitism is Completely Incoherent and Much Worse than the IHRA Definition – Ari Allyn-Feuer

Introduction

Despite over fifteen years of controversy about the IHRA (formerly EUMC) definition of antisemitism[1], and despite large numbers of people passionately insisting that the IHRA definition is fatally flawed and unfit for purpose, and we simply must have a better definition, they haven’t actually produced an alternative definition with any real support or staying power.  The Jeremy Corbyn-era British Labour party had a few fiascos when they tried to make up their own definitions and adopt them; first a completely homebrew definition[2], and then a truncated version of the IHRA definition which omitted examples of antisemitic antizionism[3].  Both of these melted down immediately when the definitions were revealed, and it became clear they were merely slapdash attempts to legitimize Labour antisemitism by defining it out of existence. 

Since then, IHRA critics have seemed much more eager to make sweeping statements about what is not antisemitic than to propagate a definition of what is.  We are frequently treated to statements like “antizionism is not antisemitism,” or even “antizionism cannot be antisemitic,” and declarations that members of the left, being anti-racist, therefore cannot be antisemitic or engage in antisemitism.  Antisemitism is frequently, explicitly or implicitly, reduced to a matter of intent, with the possibility of inadvertent and institutional antisemitism wholly dismissed.  But there was never a concerted attempt to write down, circulate, and build consensus for an alternate positive definition of antisemitism. 

This gaping absence understandably fostered a suspicion among anti-antisemites that the criticism of the IHRA definition was driven not by a desire to formulate a definition which would permit society to recognize and combat antisemitism, but by a desire to legitimize acts deemed antisemitic or suspect by the IHRA definition, with at best indifference to the consequences for anti-antisemitism and its effort to protect Jews.  This current of thought is summarized by Lars Fischer[4] in his declaration that “Only Antisemites Oppose the IHRA Definition of Antisemitism.”

Until now, that is.  Now, the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism (JDA) has emerged[5], and as its centerpiece published a definition of antisemitism.  While matters are still early, and it is quite possible that a few years from now this JDA definition will be as defunct socially as Labour’s abortive home-made definition from a few years ago, it is certainly true that this new definition has attracted much more support and comment than prior such definitions.  It has signatures from over two hundred academics including many scholars of antisemitism.  And its signatories and supporters have organized a formidable PR blitz, which has resulted in positive coverage in, among other places, Slate[6], Inside Higher Education[7], the Middle East Eye[8], the EU Observer[9], Jewish Currents[10], and the Forward[11].  Along with this, the new definition has been endorsed by groups like Jewish Voice for Peace and the BDS Movement (more on this later).

IHRA opponents did, at long last, what many anti-antisemites had been asking them to do for over fifteen years.  I take this occasion to subject the new proposed definition to a careful examination, both of the context and history, the text itself as versus the IHRA, and its reception.  I find that it is lacking in any merit other than the capacity to conceal antisemitism.

The argument of JDA definition proponents

Advocates of the new JDA definition say that it should be adopted “as an alternative to the IHRA Definition” because it is a better definition; they say both that the IHRA definition is bad, and that the JDA definition is good. 

In the declaration and its FAQ, they say that:

  • “Because the IHRA Definition is unclear in key respects and widely open to different interpretations, it has caused confusion and generated controversy, hence weakening the fight against antisemitism.”
  • The IHRA definition “puts undue emphasis on one arena” because seven of its eleven examples are about Israel, Palestine, and zionism.
  • The IHRA definition “is neither clear nor coherent…blurs the difference between antisemitic speech and legitimate criticism of Israel and Zionism…causes confusion, while delegitimizing the voices of Palestinians and others, including Jews, who hold views that are sharply critical of Israel and Zionism.”

That is, they identify four key problems with the IHRA which they wish to solve.  They wish their new definition:

  1. To be clear and coherent.
  2. To clearly separate antisemitic speech from legitimate criticism of Israel.
  3. To avoid confusion and controversy, and build consensus and trust.
  4. Thereby to help the fight against antisemitism.

And they are quite, quite certain that they have!  The JDA declaration describes its definition like this:

  • “The JDA reflects the clear and authoritative voice of scholarly experts in relevant fields.”
  • “The JDA benefits from several years of reflection on, and critical assessment of, the IHRA Definition. As a result, it is clearer, more coherent and more nuanced.”
  • “The JDA articulates not only what antisemitism is but also, in the context of Israel and Palestine, what, on the face of it, it is not. This is guidance that is widely needed. “
  • “The JDA invokes universal principles and, unlike the IHRA Definition, clearly links the fight against antisemitism with the fight against other forms of bigotry and discrimination.”
  • “The JDA helps create a space for frank and respectful discussion of difficult issues, including the vexed question of the political future for all inhabitants of Israel and Palestine.”
  • “For all these reasons, the JDA is more cogent, and, instead of generating division, it aims at uniting all forces in the broadest possible fight against antisemitism.”

Similarities between the two definitions

It is useful and important to note the many similarities between the two definitions.

  1. Both definitions declare that their intent is to damp controversy, and coalesce consensus and clarity around a durable definition, which can be used to recognize and fight antisemitism.
  2. Both definitions are composed of a very brief positive definition, and a longer commentary centered on both positive and negative examples.
  3. Both definitions address the bulk of their examples to Israel, Palestine, and zionism.
  4. Both definitions specify explicitly that advocacy of human rights and for Palestinian liberation and statehood are not inherently antisemitic, nor is criticism of Israeli government policy, or of zionism.
  5. Both definitions recognize that some Palestinian advocacy, or Israel criticism, is antisemitic, and that some antisemitism veils itself in these legitimate activities.
  6. Both definitions specify explicitly that context and judgment are central to the application of the examples.
  7. Both definitions are not legally binding and do not propose to ban speech or activity except as otherwise provided by law; they only provide the opportunity to judge whether speech or activity is antisemitic, not to proscribe it legally.

The argument of IHRA definition proponents

In the reaction to the JDA definition by advocates of the IHRA definition like David Hirsh[12], Dave Rich[13], Lars Fischer[14], Ben Cohen[15] and David Collier[16], a common theme has been the insistence that the IHRA definition is, as David Hirsh puts it[17], “a material social fact.”  They point out that the IHRA definition emerged from the necessity of a definition that addressed the prevalent and threatening phenomenon of Israel-focused antisemitism[18].  It has been widely adopted and used by institutions around the world, including the EU, OAS, and UN, dozens of countries, and hundreds of universities.  These institutions rely on it for ongoing use in the urgent work of combating the antisemitism that really exists in their communities.  And Jews around the world rely on it to guide their communities in helping them defend themselves from antisemitism.

The IHRA definition, proponents would say, is not like a refrigerator or a television, an appliance which can be easily swapped out with little effort or inconvenience if a better model comes along, but more like the plumbing or wiring which exists throughout a house, and is extremely intrusive to replace.  Thus, we should not act as though the definition of antisemitism is forever up in the air, constantly changing, or subject to the whims of small groups of people, but instead operate carefully and in good faith with established definitions as they exist.

IHRA proponents would identify the JDA definition as essentially ephemeral; a thing destined not to function as a durable resource in helping fight antisemitism, but to detract from the existing and future consensus and clarity around the IHRA definition.  They would say that the JDA definition would instead aid in the process of reducing the definition of antisemitism to an endless debate in which little can be done about many instances of Israel-focused antisemitism because too many people adhere to definitions which protect antisemitism from anti-antisemites instead of protecting Jews from antisemitism.

Perhaps the most aggressive critic of the new definition is Lars Fischer, who has specifically argued against a merits analysis of the text of the JDA definition[19], on the grounds that doing so would allow “endless debates about this or that turn of phrase in either definition [to] distract attention from [JDA authors’ and signatories’] outright commitment to the legitimacy of the call for Israel’s destruction.”

The need for a merits analysis of the JDA definition

I do not fully agree with this characterization.  Certainly it is true that we should not lightly change definitions, or fragment our search for a good definition among factions pushing different alternatives.  And certainly there is a high burden for a new definition to surmount, before we should go about urging countries and transnational organizations to disavow or alter the definition they have adopted. 

And in addition, given the long record of racists, sexists, islamophobes and antisemites promulgating minimal definitions of these phenomena in order to protect themselves, the activity of propounding a more-restrictive definition as against a widely adopted and more capacious one is itself somewhat suspect.

And in addition, it feels a little odd for a new definition to be promulgated by surprise.  The JDA definition’s first public airing was as a complete finished document, complete with two hundred signatories and accompanied by simultaneous advocacy in many media outlets around the globe.  No one who wasn’t invited by the organizers had any opportunity to contribute to the process, or even to form an opinion, before it was complete.  In particular, the EUMC and IHRA, which authored and maintain the current definition, do not appear to have even been made aware that a new definition was in work.  And the surprise release happened two days before Passover, when a lot of Jews have other things on their minds.  If they wished to create a document with an “authoritative voice,” which could “unite all forces” against antisemitism, the organizers made a very large mistake by engaging in a secret process and leaving important voices out.

And yet, the document arrived complete with signatures; it must have been made available in advance to hundreds or thousands of people in order to accumulate them.  This speaks of an intentional attempt at secrecy.  Among the signatories, I note Richard Falk, who has had a long series of antisemitism scandals over the last decade plus[20]; David Collier has noted others.  The organizers of the JDA definition thus treated (at least some) notorious antisemites as confidantes, while treating many anti-antisemites as adversaries.  This is perplexing.

The tone of the Declaration is also unnecessarily vituperative.  For example, it accuses the IHRA definition of “undue emphasis” on Israel, Palestine, and Zionism because seven of its eleven examples address them, but then devotes ten of its own fifteen examples, a larger percentage, to the same topics.  It excuses itself for doing so by saying that this was merely a “response” to the emphasis and controversy on this topic in public and scholarly discourse, which is the same reason why the IHRA definition did so!  It’s quite dubious to characterize one definition as “undue” in making this choice, while making the same choice for the same reason.  This does not foster the “frank and respectful discussion” at which the JDA says it is aimed.

It’s also not clear exactly what, other than branding value, makes the Jerusalem Declaration a Jerusalem Declaration particularly.  The Declaration, although advertised as the product of a series of meetings originally convened by the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem, does not carry its imprimatur or that of the vast bulk of its faculty.  Did they not like the end result?  Of the signatories, only seventeen, of over two hundred, are from Jerusalem.  Of the eight members of the coordinating group, only one is from Jerusalem, and six are from England and Germany.  The process of writing the definition “convened in Jerusalem” in June 2020, but seven of them would have had to fly in, and in the midst of a pandemic they would have had to do a 14-day quarantine which was mandatory at that time.  And another part of the text says the meetings were held online.  Did anyone actually go to Jerusalem?  One part says the process involved “a year of deliberations,” but it began in June 2020, only 9 months before release.  The text was written in English and has been translated into German and Hebrew, but not Arabic, so many of the residents of Jerusalem might have trouble reading the Jerusalem Declaration, or knowing that the copy they have is authentic, given that no one has had the chance to vet the translations.  More clarity about the origin and role of this definition might have been attained with a different name, but then, the “England and Germany declaration on Antisemitism” doesn’t carry quite the same ring, does it?

Nevertheless, I feel that the JDA definition deserves to be addressed thoughtfully and substantively on the basis of its text.  This is for two reasons:

Firstly, as scholars, we owe it to the scholars who created and signed this definition to give it a substantive address.  There are clearly some people of learning and goodwill among them.  They clearly put a lot of work into both preparing this definition and advocating for it, and I shall take their word that they did so in good faith, despite the above.  It must be rewarded with a considered reply, which I shall trust will also be treated with good faith.  If they are wrong, if they have made a mistake, they deserve to hear about it.

Secondly, maybe they are right; we can’t really know until we address their text.  The IHRA definition itself was necessitated almost twenty years ago by a change in the nature of antisemitism to include a greater quantity of Israel-focused antisemitism, and the penetration of this type of antisemitism into more contexts where it was often not recognized.  Perhaps other changes in the landscape since then have made more changes desirable.

We need to substantively evaluate how the JDA and IHRA definitions compare.  Where are they the same?  Where do they differ?  Is the JDA definition actually clearer and more accurate?  Does it better comport with the scholarly understanding of what antisemitism is and how it operates?  Will it make it easier for people and institutions to identify antisemitism in their communities, and avoid tarring legitimate activity?  In the many cases where both definitions agree that a contextual judgment is required, which definition will give the user better guidance about what to look for in making this judgment?  In sum, which definition is actually better for the intended purpose?

If in fact the JDA definition is better in some important way, this doesn’t necessarily mean it should be adopted.  Societies are justified in sticking with conventions even in the presence of better alternatives, when switching is too much bother.  This is why we have imperial units, the QWERTY keyboard, and small bathtubs.  But it would mean that we should consider whether its advantages warrant action when compared to the effort and complexity involved in such action.  For example, such action might include adopting the JDA definition, or, more likely, convening an open, not-secret forum in which to update the IHRA definition.  If the JDA definition is better, we will have to make a decision about what to do.

But on the other hand, if the JDA definition is not actually better, then matters are clear.  We bin it and retain the IHRA definition.

Thus, I will undertake a careful good-faith examination of the comparative text of these two definitions.  I will attempt to determine which is better on purely textual grounds, as if they had been written independently at the same time, and were both new. 

Antisemitism as a species of racism

Before I begin, I will explain my decision not to cover one issue which has been the subject of some comment: the JDA’s strong stance that antisemitism is a species of racism.  Some anti-antisemites, like Lars Fischer, have taken exception to this, because of their belief that antisemitism is not a species of racism but a distinct prejudice which is related to racism. 

I can’t see that the distinction matters much for this purpose.  Fischer says that antisemitism and racism are distinct but related forms of prejudice.  The JDA says that “antisemitism has certain distinctive features” but is a species of racism.  But they also in a sense identify it with every other type of discrimination, saying “the fight against it is inseparable from the overall fight against all forms of racial, ethnic, cultural, religious, and gender discrimination.”  That is, to the extent the JDA views antisemitism as a species of racism, it is only in viewing racism and antisemitism as species of discrimination.  I take this more as a generic statement of support for intersectionalism and allyship than as an analytic claim.

In any event, it doesn’t seem like the distinction matters much to the field as a whole.  Fischer is adamant that antisemitism is not a form of racism, but Hirsh subtitles the Engage blog[21] “the anti-racist campaign against antisemitism.”  There is no consensus on this issue among anti-antisemites of which the JDA could run afoul.

Of course, it is often the case that an unthinking equation of antisemitism to racism has been a tactic of antisemites, who defend themselves against allegations of antisemitism by saying they are not racist and treating the matter as necessarily closed.  But the JDA is not particularly open to this issue, or at least, this is not among its largest flaws.  I will not treat the matter further here.

The positive definitions themselves

Both positive definitions are very brief; the IHRA definition is only 38 words, and the JDA definition is only 16 words.

The IHRA says:  “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 JDA says: “Antisemitism is discrimination, prejudice, hostility or violence against Jews as Jews (or Jewish institutions as Jewish).”

The two definitions are similar in many respects.  However, there are some important differences.

One important difference is that JDA drafters have identified, and even partially corrected, some real awkwardness in the phrasing of the IHRA definition.  The phrasing “a certain perception of Jews” is awkward: which perception?  Surely a definition could clarify the nature of the perception involved somehow.  The JDA addresses this, although poorly, by omitting perception from the equation entirely, and mentioning only actions: discrimination, prejudice, hostility and violence.  In addition, the IHRA definition refers to manifestations directed toward “Jewish or non-Jewish individuals.”  While it clarifies in the examples that non-Jewish individuals can suffer antisemitism if they are perceived as Jewish, this does not relieve the awkwardness of the phrasing in the positive definition.  The JDA addresses this by omitting the possibility of non-Jews suffering antisemitism, which makes the phrasing less awkward, but compromises the definition.  Of course, it is possible envision phrasing which could address these issues without the conceptual changes that the JDA definition makes.

In addition to these phrasing refinements, though, the JDA definition has made some other, less welcome changes to the positive definition.

For one, the JDA definition introduces the awkward formulation “as Jews.”  What is this supposed to mean?  That one could engage in discrimination, prejudice, hostility, or violence against Jews, but be fully blameless of antisemitism because one did not did address them “as Jews?”  How can we tell whether activity is addressed against Jews “as Jews?”  None of the examples address this point at all.  There is language in the IHRA definition which could help address this issue, talking about the selection of targets on account of perceived Jewishness or association with Jews, but the JDA definition contains nothing analogous.

One distressing possibility is that some people will interpret this formulation to mean that antisemitism does not exist in the absence of conscious intent, which is a prevalent mis-definition both in the context of antisemitism and other forms of racism.  This mis-definition omits inadvertent and institutional antisemitism and racism and gives carte blanch to behave in an antisemitic or racist manner as long as one disclaims malicious intent.  This has been an extremely important point in the general social discourse about the definition and operation of racism in recent decades, and a failure to address this point is a major drawback of the JDA definition.

For another example, the IHRA definition is explicit in addressing the fact that manifestations of antisemitism come in both rhetorical and physical forms, and may involve perceptions, not just actions like discrimination, prejudice, hostility and violence.  The JDA definition does not clarify this in the definition, but pushes this important concept to the examples.

Based on a textual analysis, it is clear that despite its awkward phrasings, the extra wording in the IHRA definition is rewarded both with greater comprehension, addressing important forms of antisemitism potentially omitted by the JDA definition, and with greater clarity, making clear that it addresses inadvertent and institutional antisemitism.

The examples: broad similarity

Both definitions offer a very brief positive definition, and rely on a list of examples, most of them focused on Israel, Palestine, and zionism, to clarify matters.  And both definitions rely on a mixture of positive and negative examples.

In some cases, the examples are extremely similar. 

For example, the first example in the JDA definition says “It is racist to essentialize (treat a character trait as inherent) or to make sweeping negative generalizations about a given population,” which is very similar to the second example in the IHRA definition, which speaks of “Making mendacious, dehumanizing, demonizing, or stereotypical allegations about Jews as such or the power of Jews as collective.”

For another, the first example in the IHRA definition is “Calling for, aiding, or justifying the killing or harming of Jews,” while the third JDA example speaks of “assaulting someone because she or he is Jewish, attacking a synagogue, daubing swastikas on Jewish graves, or refusing to hire or promote people because they are Jewish.”

Both definitions contain examples referring to holocaust denial, conspiracy theory, the accusation of dual loyalty, conspiracy theories about finance and geopolitics, collective responsibility, and using the symbols and images of classical antisemitism in criticism of Israel or advocacy for Palestinians.  In general, most of the examples in both definitions map pretty clearly to each other.  This includes all of the first ten examples in the JDA definition, and almost all of the eleven examples in the IHRA definition. 

They differ mainly in the last five examples of the JDA definition (eleven through fifteen).  These examples, unlike those in the IHRA definition, specify what is not antisemitic “on the face of it.”

The IHRA definition also specifies what is not antisemitic, both in its “safe harbor” statement that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic,” and inherently, as definitions, particularly in broad brushstrokes, exclude that which they do not include. 

This clause in the IHRA, along with the positive definition and examples, actually give the ability to construct much of the 11th through 15th examples in the JDA.  For example, the eleventh example in the JDA definition, “Supporting the Palestinian demand for justice and the full grant of their political, national, civil and human rights, as encapsulated in international law,” is not antisemitic under the IHRA definition, both because it fits within the “safe harbor” statement and because it does not run afoul of the definition or examples.  The same is true of most of the 12th and 13th example, and all of the 14th.

In fact, the JDA definition, while it speaks in great hostility of the IHRA’s “blurring” the lines between criticism of Israel and antisemitism in its examples and the “safe harbor” clause, actually not only itself contains almost all the IHRA examples in different phrasings, as discussed above, but also imports the key criterion of the “safe harbor” clause into its definitions repeatedly.  The 11th makes reference to the protection of Palestinian rights in international law (i.e. the same framework that governs other countries).  The 13th specifies that criticism should be “evidence based,” i.e. work under the same epistemological framework as other conflicts, and that “the same norms of debate that apply to other states and to other conflicts over national self-determination apply in the case of Israel and Palestine.”  The 14th says that “Boycott, divestment and sanctions are commonplace, non-violent forms of political protest against states.”  And the 15th discusses the scope of speech protected by UN and European human rights declarations.  To a great extent, the JDA definition, despite its hostility against the “safe harbor” clause, has simply imported it into each of its examples, as its primary justification for them!

That is, in formal, textual terms, there is very little difference between the examples.  The JDA definition displays a curious degree of enthusiasm for declaring things not to be antisemitic, but by a careful interpretation, differs from the IHRA definition little, in all but a few respects.  All the examples above, including the “BDS” clause in the 14th example, actually do fall under the “safe harbor” clause.  There is little in the JDA definition that does not. 

The examples: Distinctions

But what little there is is highly notable, and not in a good way.

First, the JDA definition, in example 12, says that “Criticizing or opposing Zionism as a form of nationalism” is not antisemitic.  This is completely unclear.  Does it mean that it is not antisemitic to criticize Zionism in its capacity as a form of nationalism, together with and in the same terms as one’s criticism of nationalism in general and other forms of nationalism?  If so, then example 12 falls back on the “safe harbor” clause of the IHRA yet again.  But the formulation is unclear, and could be read to permit one to say that Zionism, unlike other forms of nationalism, is bad; to say it is a bad form of nationalism distinct from the others.  It should go without saying that the idea that nationalism is good (or acceptable) for everyone else, and bad (or, unacceptable) for Jews, is antisemitic.  And in fact, of course, “those people, unlike everyone else, ought not to have a nationalism,” is the kind of sweeping negative generalization about Jews which is proscribed in JDA’s example 1.  Or, if you prefer, linking Jews to evil in such a manner that they cannot be trusted with a nationalism (example 2).

This pattern, of declaring something permissible in one example which is proscribed in another, so that the definition as a whole is completely unclear, repeats.

Example 15 states that “political speech does not have to be measured, proportional, tempered, or reasonable” not to be antisemitic, and that criticism which is “excessive or contentious, or…reflecting a “double standard,” is not, in and of itself, antisemitic.”  But example 13 says that criticism should be “evidence based” and that “the same norms of debate that apply to other states and to other conflicts” should apply.  Example 4 speaks of “grossly exaggerating [Israel’s] actual influence.”  Example 2 speaks of conspiracy, and example 1 of sweeping negative statements and says that “what is true of racism in general is true of antisemitism in particular.” 

Is that which is un-measured, disproportional, untempered, unreasonable, excessive, contentious, and reflective of a double standard, not also not evidence based, not in accord with usual debate norms, grossly exaggerative, and sweepingly negative? 

Would we not usually, in the norms that usually control other topics, infer that someone who addresses matters surrounding a particular ethnic group in terms that are un-measured, disproportional, untempered, unreasonable, excessive, contentious, and reflective of a double standard might have some “prejudice” against them (per the positive definition) which we might want to evaluate instead of granting blanket indemnification?  Would that not be true of racism in general?

Is treating people in a manner that is un-measured, disproportional, untempered, unreasonable, excessive, contentious, and reflective of a double standard, not “[hostile]” and “[discriminatory]” (per the positive definition)?

Example 15 declares non-antisemitic a raft of speech and activity which is plainly antisemitic according to both the other examples, and the positive definition, and general principles of anti-racism which the JDA endorses.  This renders the JDA definition completely incoherent.  Anyone who wishes to find something antisemitic can consult the definition and all the other examples, and anyone who wishes to find it not-antisemitic can wear example 15 (in combination with 11-14) as a shield.  Someone who wishes to carefully interpret the whole text will find nothing but befuddlement; the text is befuddled.

Because of this very befuddlement, the authors seem very certain their text will be misinterpreted.  The 14th example, which has indeed been controversial, states simply that “Boycott, divestment and sanctions are commonplace, non-violent forms of political protest against states. In the Israeli case they are not, in and of themselves, antisemitic.”  This allows implicitly that some examples of this behavior are antisemitic, and gives a criterion similar to the “safe harbor” clause in the IHRA to determine when.  But the authors also give an FAQ with two clarifying questions on the 14th example.  One asks “But doesn’t guideline 14 support BDS as a strategy or tactic aimed against Israel?”  The answer says “Guideline 14 says only that boycotts, divestments and sanctions aimed at Israel, however contentious, are not, in and of themselves, antisemitic.”  But even this is not enough; they need a second question!  This asks “So, how can someone know when BDS (or any other measure) is antisemitic?”  The answer to the FAQ question refers the reader to the examples and asks them to make a judgment call.

Of course, if it’s OK to ask people to look at the text and make a judgment call, then example 14 is unnecessary.  The “safe harbor” clause of the IHRA, or the similar formulations seen in numerous parts of the JDA, ultimately amount to the same standard.  But the authors of the JDA wanted to make a specific and permissive sounding mention of boycott, divestment and sanctions so much that they simply had to do it, even though it was unnecessary, and even though they themselves knew it would cause so much confusion as to necessitate two FAQ questions.

Similarly, the status of antizionism is also the subject of two FAQ questions, because the authors simply could not bear to make their definition say clearly that antizionism is often antisemitic and make a clear statement of the standards by which to judge when it is.  Example 10 says that it is antisemitic to deny “the right of Jews in the State of Israel to exist and flourish, collectively and individually, as Jews, in accordance with the principle of equality.”  Would that include national flourishing?  The IHRA would say so; it speaks of the Jewish people having a “right to self-determination” in example 7.  And the JDA seems to think so as regards Palestinians; example 11 refers to Palestinians’ “political, national, civil and human rights.”  Do Jews also have political and national rights?  According to the JDA, apparently not; any arrangement which offers “full equality to all inhabitants” is considered acceptable in example 12.  But what about the right to “flourish collectively” in example 10?  If Palestinians get national rights, and Jews only get the right to exist and flourish, is that a double standard?  Don’t worry; double standards are fine (example 15).

The JDA is unclear and inconsistent, not incidentally, but fundamentally, because of these changes.  And while it is difficult to peer into the motives which lie behind a document, it’s difficult to discern why it would have been written this way, if not to excuse the antisemitic behavior it excuses, which would require the document to be unclear and inconsistent.  For whatever reason, the authors could not bear to make their meaning clear, e.g. not as clear as the IHRA definition.

The real world impact of the JDA definition

And this lack of clarity has been fully and immediately expressed in the real world responses to the JDA.  The primary strain of press and institutional coverage of the JDA definition has been centered around claiming that the JDA definition says the BDS movement is not antisemitic.  But the JDA doesn’t do that!  They went out of their way to sound like they were doing that with the phrasing of example 14, but to clarify in the FAQs that they were not.  This confusing way of writing has been rewarded by confusion.

In the Palestine Chronicle[22], with the headline “‘Jerusalem Declaration’ Insists BDS is Not Anti-Semitic, in Disagreement with IHRA Definition.”

In the Jewish Journal[23], with the headline “Jewish Scholars Unveil New Anti-Semitism Definition Saying BDS Isn’t Anti-Semitic.” 

In the Forward[24], with the headline “Leading Jewish scholars say BDS, one-state solution are not antisemitic.”

In the Jerusalem Post[25], with the headline “Over 200 scholars create new antisemitism definition excluding BDS.”

In the Electronic Intifada[26], with the statement that “The new declaration states that…support for the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign [is] not anti-Semitic.”

In Mondoweiss[27], with the statement that “Guidelines 10-15…are a clear statement that support for BDS has nothing to do with antisemitism.”

By the Jewish Voice for Labour[28], with the statement that “the JDA does provide sanction for…support for the nonviolent BDS movement and its tactics.”

These examples span the ideological spectrum, and come from the USA, Europe, Israel, and Palestine.  And they all make the same mistake that the JDA group sought to guard against with not just one, but two FAQs appended to its main document.  That is, this confusion is not just something they should have anticipated, but something they did anticipate.  And yet it was the primary reaction of the press to the new definition!

For a definition whose raison d’etre is supposedly greater clarity, this is a disaster.  It is much like an airliner, designed for greater safety, that crashes and kills its passengers on the maiden flight.

Joshua Shanes and Dov Waxman, two JDA signatories, make this confusion themselves in their Slate op-ed supporting the launch of the JDA definition[29].  In it, they say “No doubt, the JDA, like the IHRA definition, will elicit controversy and criticism, especially from those who insist that all anti-Zionism is inherently antisemitic or that the BDS movement is incorrigibly anti-Semitic.”  But of course, neither the IHRA nor JDA definitions say that all antizionism is antisemitic, or that boycott, divestment, and sanctions as tactics are, nor does the JDA definition say that the BDS movement is not.

Barry Trachtenberg, another JDA signatory, did the same in Jewish Currents[30].  He says that the JDA definition is “declaring that ‘criticizing or opposing Zionism as a form of nationalism’ is prima facie not antisemitic, nor is the BDS movement.”

Alon Confino, another signatory, did the same in a video released on the JDA website accompanying the definition[31].  “Our signatories,” he said, “have a range of views about the BDS.  The entire gamut of views.  But they share one principle: that the BDS, as a non-violent action by civil society opposing occupation in lines with other boycott movements in the 20th century is not antisemitic.”

Even Brian Klug, one of the members of the JDA coordinating group, wrote an article in The Nation supporting the JDA launch[32], in which he says that “people invoke the IHRA definition to claim that applying the term “apartheid” to Israel and supporting BDS are intrinsically anti-Semitic. But they are not.”  Klug himself says that “supporting BDS” is not inherently antisemitic.  Not that boycott, divestment, and sanctions as tactics are not inherently antisemitic, but that BDS the movement is actually not antisemitic. 

This is the distinction to which the JDA devotes two clarifying FAQs, but multiple JDA signatories and a member of the JDA coordinating group cannot keep it clear themselves while writing published articles supporting the launch of the JDA definition!  What hope could the rest of us have?

Worst of all is the response of the BDS movement.[33]  The website of the movement’s central committee posted a long comment only hours after the JDA document was published (did they know it was coming?).  They call the JDA definition “coherent and accurate,” hail it for treating antisemitism as a species of racism, and identify lots of things they like about its examples and where they differ from the IHRA (although most of them, as I point out above, don’t).  Then it says that “the JDA recognizes as legitimate free speech…support for the nonviolent BDS movement and its tactics.” 

The BDS statement then identifies “flaws” in the JDA definition, including this: “the JDA’s ‘guidelines’ still try to police some speech critical of Israel’s policies and practices.”  That is, they are upset that any type of antizionism is identified as antisemitic.  The BDS statement gives three examples of things it wishes not to be considered antisemitic which are declared antisemitic by the JDA definition: “Portraying Israel as the ultimate evil or grossly exaggerating its actual influence,” (from example 4) “Applying the symbols, images and negative stereotypes of classical antisemitism … to the State of Israel,” (example 6), and “Denying the right of Jews in the State of Israel to exist and flourish, collectively and individually, as Jews, in accordance with the principle of equality” (example 10).

Think what the BDS movement is saying here.  We wish, they are saying, to portray Israel as the ultimate evil, and to grossly exaggerate its actual influence, by applying the symbols, images, and stereotypes of classical antisemitism to Israel, in order to deny the collective right of Jews to exist and flourish collectively.  We know full well that the JDA definition says these things are antisemitic.  And we support the JDA definition of antisemitism because, despite recognizing these things as antisemitic, the new definition will facilitate our attempt to do these things without their being recognized as antisemitic.

The real world impact of the JDA definition has been revealed very clearly.  The textual incoherence of the definition has been rewarded with total confusion in every corner.  No one, no one, no one, has taken the JDA in the manner for which its text calls; not even the drafters.  The primary public reaction has been the exact kind of confusion which the IHRA definition allegedly fosters, and which the JDA definition allegedly clears up. 

It is not a defense against this issue to claim that the JDA definition is clear and has been misinterpreted.  This is for three reasons:

  1. The argument against the IHRA, and for the necessity of the JDA definition, is that although the IHRA definition largely operates correctly, it is open to misinterpretation.  The JDA says that the IHRA is “unclear in key respects and widely open to different interpretations…Whatever the intentions of its proponents, it blurs the difference between antisemitic speech and legitimate criticism of Israel and Zionism.”  Shanes and Waxman say “Although it does not simply equate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, or label all criticism of Israel to be anti-Semitic—as some opponents of the definition assert—its vague, conditional wording is open to misinterpretations and misuse. Its conditional phrasing…is too often forgotten, or even purposefully ignored.”  Klug says “Whatever the IHRA authors intended, this polarization is a fatal indictment of their definition.”  That is, the JDA declares that a definition being open to misinterpretation is a fatal blow.
  • In fact the JDA definition is textually unclear, in addition to having been misinterpreted.
  • Even the drafters and signatories of the JDA have been party to the confusion in the press around its launch.  This confusion has not just affected some people, but functionally everyone.  If no one at all can correctly interpret the text, then the issue lies with the text, not the interpreters.

As an attempt at clarity, the JDA is necessarily for textual reasons, and has been in actuality upon its launch, a complete, irredeemable failure.

Conclusions

The JDA definition of antisemitism is a failure.  The primary effect of the definition’s launch has been to create extra confusion and controversy about antisemitism, to the visible delight of antisemites and the dismay of anti-antisemites.  This issue is not just about misinterpretation; my close analysis has shown that it is inherent in the text of the JDA definition.  Despite being, in formal terms, very similar to its bete noir the IHRA, the differences between them both make misinterpretation more likely, and introduce fundamental conceptual incoherence.  It is a very bad definition, much worse than the IHRA definition, and it is hurting the struggle against antisemitism.

It is a pity that these issues could not have been pointed out before, because of the secrecy of the drafting process.  The drafters chose to treat some antisemites as confidantes, many anti-antisemites as adversaries, and Jerusalem as a branding accessory.  That antisemites would be thrilled, anti-antisemites dismayed, and Jerusalem confused, has been the unavoidable result.

Accordingly, the signatories, witnessing the critical analysis of the text that was unavailable during drafting, and the universal confusion on release which confirms that analysis, should consider the issue carefully and then recant their endorsement of the definition.

Institutions should not adopt it.  They should continue to use the IHRA definition.

People should not use it.  They should use the IHRA definition, the dictionary, or common sense.

The JDA definition of antisemitism should be treated by everyone as dead on arrival.

It’s lamentable that this whole affair ever happened.  Jews should never have been subjected to the spectacle of watching antisemites gloat about a group of scholars and their new definition of antisemitism facilitating the project to weaponize the symbols of classical antisemitism against modern-day Jews by way of Israel.

This is not to say that the IHRA definition is perfect or that the work of defining antisemitism is over.  The IHRA definition itself was a reaction to a change in the types of antisemitism that existed in the world at the time it was written, and it is certain that antisemitism has changed further since then and will continue changing.  There is real and important awkwardness in the IHRA’s positive definition, for example, which the JDA definition at least tries to correct.  We may need new definitions of antisemitism in the future; perhaps we need them now.  And the process of applying existing definitions to events in the world is itself an act of definition, an ongoing process, a humane and political one.

But the IHRA definition’s main insight, that anti-Israel antisemitism was becoming increasingly common and increasingly significant as a portion of global antisemitism, was true when it was written and has become truer now.  The importance of being able to recognize it has only increased.  And the ability to do that, and to avoid tarring legitimate criticism of Israel and support for Palestinians, is much stronger with the IHRA definition (including examples) than the JDA definition and its examples, both because of its long history and wide institutional and academic support, and because the text of the IHRA definition is better than the JDA text.

If, some day, or if, now, we need a new definition of antisemitism, anyone seeking to write it should avoid the mistakes made by the JDA drafters.  They should seek to build on existing definitions, not vituperate against them and exaggerate their flaws.  They should make an open process, not a secret one.  They should treat anti-antisemites as allies and antisemites as rivals, not the reverse.  And they should be careful to produce a clear and consistent text, not a disastrously incoherent one.  There are a lot of challenges in formulating definitions for slippery concepts like this, and not every attempt to write one will be very successful at navigating those challenges.  But every attempt at writing a definition should be able to avoid basic procedural mistakes like these, and should be able to avoid releasing such a fatally flawed finished product.

Ari Allyn-Feuer


[1]https://www.holocaustremembrance.com/resources/working-definitions-charters/working-definition-antisemitism

[2]https://jewishnews.timesofisrael.com/jewish-voice-for-labour-offer-new-anti-semitism-definition/

[3]https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-44863606

[4]https://www.algemeiner.com/2021/02/22/only-antisemites-oppose-the-ihra-definition-of-antisemitism

[5]https://jerusalemdeclaration.org/

[6]https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2021/03/anti-semitism-better-definition-ihra.html

[7]https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2021/03/26/problems-increasingly-dominant-definition-anti-semitism-opinion

[8]https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/jerusalem-declaration-antisemitism-opposing-zionism-not-hate-speech

[9]https://euobserver.com/opinion/151343

[10]https://jewishcurrents.org/why-i-signed-the-jerusalem-declaration-on-antisemitism/

[11]https://forward.com/news/466639/leading-jewish-scholars-say-bds-one-state-solution-are-not-antisemitic/

[12]https://www.thejc.com/comment/opinion/the-jerusalem-declaration-defines-the-community-of-the-good-not-antisemitism-1.513816

[13]https://www.thejc.com/comment/opinion/we-don-t-need-another-definition-of-jew-hate-1.513774

[14]https://www.algemeiner.com/2021/03/31/why-you-should-be-highly-alarmed-by-and-yet-totally-ignore-the-jerusalem-declaration-of-antisemitism/

[15]http://www.algemeiner.com/2021/03/30/yet-another-attempt-to-sanitize-anti-zionism

[16]https://david-collier.com/jerusalem-declaration-antisemitism

[17]https://engageonline.wordpress.com/2021/02/06/the-ihra-definition-is-a-material-social-fact-david-hirsh/

[18]https://fathomjournal.org/it-was-the-new-phenomenon-of-israel-focused-antisemitism-that-required-the-new-definition-of-antisemitism-david-hirsh-responds-to-a-recent-call-to-reject-the-ihra/

[19]https://bridging-the-chasm-at-my-own-peril.blog/2021/03/29/jerusalem-declaration-of-antisemitism/

[20]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_A._Falk#Accusations_of_anti-Semitism

[21]https://engageonline.wordpress.com/

[22]https://www.palestinechronicle.com/jerusalem-declaration-insists-bds-is-not-anti-semitic-in-disagreement-with-ihra-definition/

[23]https://jewishjournal.com/news/334711/jewish-scholars-unveil-new-anti-semitism-definition-saying-bds-isnt-anti-semitic/

[24]https://forward.com/news/466639/leading-jewish-scholars-say-bds-one-state-solution-are-not-antisemitic/

[25]https://www.jpost.com/diaspora/over-200-scholars-create-new-antisemitism-definition-excluding-bds-663277

[26]https://electronicintifada.net/blogs/nora-barrows-friedman/approach-new-definition-anti-semitism-caution-palestinians-say

[27]https://mondoweiss.net/2021/04/why-we-should-critically-welcome-the-jerusalem-declaration-on-antisemitism/

[28]https://www.jewishvoiceforlabour.org.uk/statement/jvl-statement-on-the-jerusalem-declaration-of-antisemitism-jda/

[29]https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2021/03/anti-semitism-better-definition-ihra.html

[30]https://jewishcurrents.org/why-i-signed-the-jerusalem-declaration-on-antisemitism/

[31]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5P29VVNP3EM

[32]https://www.thenation.com/article/society/jerusalem-declaration-antisemitism-ihra/

[33]https://bdsmovement.net/A-Palestinian-Civil-Society-Critique-JDA

Jewish and Israel Studies scholars demand the right to spend donors’ money on legitimizing antizionism

During the Israel-Hamas conflict of May 2021, a number statements went round academia. They asserted that Israel is racist, settler colonial and apartheid, that it must be boycotted, and that justice for the Palestinians can only be achieved if Israel is dismantled. Further, they asserted that these principles were foundational to scholarship and to morality. They collected signatures. These statements constituted loyalty tests because the implication of a refusal to sign was clear: that the refuser is neither a genuine scholar, not a moral human being. They were antisemitic loyalty tests because they impacted specifically against Jews on campus and because they legitimized an antisemitic understanding of the world.

Follow this link to see a particular one of these loyalty tests that was signed by 220 Jewish and Israel Studies scholars. It is written with special attention to implying a lot but committing itself completely to very little. It is a twin document to the “Jerusalem Declaration”, which was put into the public domain in an attempt to weaken the IHRA definition of antisemitism.

This week a donor has pulled her money, which was being used to pay for the endowed Chair, in which Liora Halperin, who signed the May 21 letter, was comfortably sitting. Becky Benaroya had give $5M to establish Jewish Studies at the University of Washington.

“Based upon the direction the program had taken, my mom didn’t want her name connected with it,” Larry Benaroya, Becky Benaroya’s son and the current CEO of the family real-estate firm The Benaroya Company, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in an email.

In the new letter, the scholars say that: “Prof. Halperin, along with the other signatories, was expressing herself in the letter as a private individual, not in any official university capacity. But the very first words of the original 21 May statement were: “As scholars of Jewish Studies and Israel Studies based in various universities, departments, and disciplines, we condemn…” Which is close to a scholarly “asaJew”.

Unfortunately, although the new letter contains a number of hyperlinks, it does not contain a link to the 21 May letter.

The JTA article says that the donor was cross because the original statement was “Israel criticism”. The new letter says that ‘the signatories (of the 21 May letter) condemned the “state violence” committed by Israel and expressed solidarity with Gazans’. Well, who doesn’t?

But in fact the letter 21 may letter “acknowledged” the Zionist movement to be “a diverse set of linked ethnonationalist ideologies… shaped by settler colonial paradigms…”.

The drafters of the new letter also forgot to mention that the 21 May letter asserted that Zionism was shaped by “modern European Enlightenment discourses that assumed a hierarchy of civilizations and adopted the premise that technological progress and development of an ‘underdeveloped’ territory would be an unqualified good…”

And that the 21 May letter went on to connect Zionism, via some ambiguous wording that makes it slightly deniable, to “systems of Jewish supremacy, ethnonational segregation, discrimination, and violence against Palestinians…”

It then asserted that as Jewish and Israel Studies scholars they should “amplify and support” colleagues “whose scholarship details aspects of these histories”.

And it said that to uphold freedom of speech and academic freedom, Jewish and Israel Studies scholars must uphold the rights of colleagues and students to advocate for a boycott of Israel.

The 21 May statement was really an affirmation that Jewish and Israel Studies was prepared to fall into line with the antisemitic zeitgeist, that Israel is racist, settler-colonialist, Jewish supremacist and apartheid; and that there is no problem with advocating a boycott of it.

Money that is donated to research and teach about Israel is more and more being funnelled into antizionist writing, teaching and propaganda. When the donors complain that the people sitting in the chairs that they pay for are working against the very core values that they thought they were helping, academics scream that this is a violation of academic freedom and freedom of speech. They should be able to do what they like, and the donors should keep paying them to do it.

Generations of successful Jewish families have generously donated to Jewish Studies, Israel Studies, Antisemitism Studies, Holocaust and Genocide Studies. They thought they were doing something that would be good for Jews, good for the community as a whole, and good for the general understanding of Israel, the Holocaust and antisemitism. But the money has been taken by scholars who push and who legitimize antizionism, a worldview that puts Israel and then the Jews who feel themselves to be associated with Israel, at the centre of all that is bad in the world.

The significance of left and liberal antisemitism and antizionism are radically downplayed across scholarly life. Antisemitic ideas, assumptions and premises are frequently embraced on campus today and they are widely tolerated and seen as legitimate by those who do not embrace them. This proposition, along with the antisemitism inherent in much academic thinking, is generally and angrily denied. In practice, antisemitism is often thought of, presented and taught as liberational and anti-racist, while Jews are often portrayed as being central to, and symbolic of, oppression and injustice.

Scholars of antisemitism are frequently de-valued as unsophisticated and conservative, or as  propagandists for Israel; Israel is often conceived of as a unique or symbolic evil in the world. The serious academic study of contemporary antisemitism is not well supported by universities, mainstream disciplinary journals, publishers or funding bodies and it is not valued within existing academic disciplines.

Jewish Studies and Israel Studies, even Holocaust Studies and Genocide Studies, as disciplines, are in crisis. Where antisemitic thinking is not embraced, it is frequently tolerated. The material and moral pressures to accommodate to the culture in academia relating to antisemitism and to Israel have been strong. As Hannah Arendt observed, assimilation in a time of antisemitism means assimilating to antisemitism.

Link to the call for papers for the September London conference, or download (pdf).
https://engageonline.wordpress.com/2022/01/29/london-conference-21st-century-antisemitism/
https://t.co/luWx9575Ul

The website of the Journal of Contemporary Antisemitism.
https://www.degruyter.com/journal/key/jca/html?lang=en

Email sign-up box.
https://landing.mailerlite.com/webforms/landing/n8h8h6

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The SA Constitution Court ruled that Bongani Masuku must apologize to the Jewish Community for antisemitic hate speech – David Hirsh


The Equality Court judgment of 2017, which enforced the South African Human Rights
Commission’s 2009 finding, that Bongani Masuku’s speech included antisemitic hate
speech, has been reinstated by the supreme court in South Africa.

From our point of view in the UK, the Masuku case remains the clearest single example of
campus antisemitism since the movement for an academic boycott of Israel gained a
foothold in our academic trade unions; and since the members, and the wider culture on
campus and in the unions, rallied round to whitewash the antisemitism of that antizionist
minority, or at least to tolerate it. This mainstreaming of antisemitism on the left paved
the way for Corbyn.

But of course this is first a South Africa story. The history of South Africa shows clearly why
they might choose to treat racist speech and ideas very seriously. People over forty can
vividly remember living under a regime in which ideas of “race”, defined in a pseudo-legal
way by those in power under apartheid, explicitly defined every citizen’s material reality. It
is a different history from that in the US, where an absolutist reading of the First
Amendment, which was written to guarantee freedom of speech, tends to insist that racist
ideas must be free and only racist actions can be addressed in law.

The Constitution Court really had to make two separate determinations today. The first
was whether the things that Bongani Masuku said in 2008 were antisemitic. The second is
whether those kinds of antisemitic statements should be prohibited by law as hate speech.
This is also a story about UK campus antisemitism because in the Autumn of 2009 the UCU
held an invitation only conference in private at which the union activists and officials
could be “educated” to accept the boycott of Israeli universities.

One of the speakers was Bongani Masuku. The Jewish Voice for Labour (JVL) (similar to JVP
in America) of that time on campus was called “BRICUP” – the British Campaign for the
Universities of Palestine; the core of activists were the same people. BRICUP knew what
Masuku had said and it knew that he was under investigation by the South African Human
Rights Commission (SAHRC) for hate speech. SAHRC is the constitutional body set up by
the post-apartheid settlement to guard the antiracist values of the “rainbow nation”.
BRICUP still told UCU to invited Masuku and UCU obeyed.

Masuku was found guilty of antisemitic hate speech by the SAHRC on 3 December 2009.
Masuku spoke at this UCU conference two days later on 5 December 2009. UCU didn’t
care that he was an antisemite; more accurately UCU just denied it.
What had Masuku said that was antisemitic?

On the campus of the University of Witswatersrand (Wits), a leading university in
Johannesburg, in March 2009, and on blogs and at other events at that time, Masuku said
the following at a rally. He said it to people he designated as Zionists:

COSATU has got members even here on this campus; we can make

sure that for that side it will be hell.

COSATU is the Confederation of South African Trade Unions, which had once been a proud
instrument of working class opposition to apartheid. Masuku was its “international officer”.

“All those who deny that occupation is wrong must be encouraged to

leave South Africa before they infect our society with much more

racism.”

He also said at the Wits rally:

“…the following things are going to apply: any South African family, I

want to repeat so that it is clear for anyone, any South African family

who sends its son or daughter to be part of the Israeli Defence Force

must not blame us when something happens to them with immediate

effect…”

“…COSATU is with you, we will do everything to make sure that

whether it’s at Wits University, whether its at Orange Grove, anyone

who does not support equality and dignity, who does not support the

rights of other people must face the consequences even if it means

that we will do something that may necessarily cause what is

regarded as harm…”

Today’s judgment singles out the following in particular as antisemitic hate
speech:

“As we struggle to liberate Palestine from the racists, fascists and

Zionists who belong to the era of their Friend Hitler. We must not

apologize. Every single Zionist must be made to drink the bitter

medicine they are feeding our brothers and sisters in Palestine. We

must target them, expose them and do all that is needed to subject

them to perpetual suffering until they withdraw from the land of

others and stop their savage attacks on human dignity.”

UCU didn’t care. In its first Congress in 2007, UCU had passed as policy the claim that
‘criticism of Israel cannot be construed as anti-semitic.’ It rejected an amendment that
said: ‘While much criticism of Israel is anti-semitic, criticism of Israeli state policy cannot
necessarily be construed as anti-semitic.’

UCU regarded these statements of Bongani Masuku as criticism of Israel and so, by
definition, as not antisemitic.

In 2010, UCU Congress was invited to vote for a motion by which it would ‘dissociate itself
from the Maskuku’s repugnant views’. It did not pass that motion, it refused to dissociate
itself from Masuku’s repugnant views.

At its 2011 Congress UCU began its decade long campaign against what was to become
the IHRA definition of antisemitism because it worried that IHRA might designate UCU as
antisemitic. The campaign accuses IHRA of only pretending to care about antisemitism
but of really trying to silence criticism of Israel.

In South Africa, Masuku and COSATU ignored the SAHRC finding. Compare with the
Corbynite attitude towards the UK EHRC findings on Labour antisemitism in 2021.

In 2017 the SAHRC and the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBOD) took Masuku
to the Equality Court in Johannesburg, asking the court to enforce the SAHRC judgment of
2009.

David Hirsh was an expert witness in that case. Follow this link for his expert
witness statement.

The Equality Court did indeed enforce the SAHRC finding of 2009. Follow this link for
the judgment.
It said that. It said that

The impugned statements are declared to be hurtful; harmful, incite

harm and propagate hatred and amount to hate speech as envisaged

by the Equality Act…

The complaint against the respondents succeeds with costs.

The respondents are ordered to tender an unconditional apology to

the Jewish community within thirty days…

In December 2018 that judgment was overturned on appeal.
Today, after 13 years of political and legal struggle, the South African Jewish community
has got what it wanted all along. Simply, an apology. A finding that this was hate speech.
And so implicitly, an undertaking not to do it again. It was not looking for damages or even
costs. It did not want, as it was accused of wanting by the BDS campaign, its “pound of
flesh”.

The South African Jewish Board of Deputies has been fighting for 13 years for South
African society formally to designate this as hate speech. And it wanted an apology.
UCU should be held accountable for its decision to host Masuku, to associate itself with his
views, and to defend him for 13 years.
This is David Hirsh’s expert witness statement, which has now been vindicated by today’s
judgment.

More background on the Masuku case is available here.

I am so proud to have had a role in this. A really good day for South Africa.

Antisemitism is always symptomatic of anti-democratic politics.

The Constitution of South Africa was written in dying days of the apartheid regime. The old elite had realised that the game was up and it was busily negotiating itself out of power.

The Constitution was the foundation of the new non-racial South Africa and the fruit of the struggle of the majority for freedom. It was the materialisation of the promises made in the Freedom Charter not to reverse the polarity of the racism but to build a democratic civic South Africa in which everybody would be an equal citizen and in which communities and ethnicities would relate to each other according to law. Without law there could be no democracy and no peaceful living together as equals. The absurd apartheid rules, enforced by naked power, were not laws. And only law could underpin the election of a parliament and a government.

COSATU was a proud element of this transition from oppression to law. It represented the concrete, achievable interests of mainly black working class people. There were once high hopes that it could act as an anchored counterweight to the populist nationalist potential of the ANC. But that wasn’t to be. COSATU did not end up moderating the anti-democratic currents in the ANC, rather, in this respect at least, it ended up feeding it.

The politics of picking on South African Jews, denouncing them as white, and then as white privileged, then as Jewish and white supremacists, was an anti-democratic, Stalinist, proto-totalitarian politics.

But the Constitution Court did democratic currents in South Africa proud today. It simply ruled that vile, clear, explicit and threatening antisemitism was not OK.

It shouldn’t have required a 13 year struggle through four tiers of the justice system. But in the end it came to the right result.

I hope that COSATU does not apologize like a 12 year old boy who has been caught bullying his little sister. I hope that COSATU opens up to the Jewish community in South Africa and apologizes in an engaged and serious way.

I hope that this will begin a new era for COSATU in which the experiences of the mainly black working class can be shared with the experience of the South African Jews, who were themselves chased out of, mainly Lithuania, by oppressors. They can learn from each other. This is of course a tradition that also has a long and proud history in South Africa.

Yesterday was a day for hope and a day of faith in law, and in law as the foundation of democracy.

Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika

David Hirsh

http://www.LondonAntisemitism.com

Sheffield Hallam University has an antisemitism problem – David Hirsh

File:Sheffield Hallam University logo.svg - Wikimedia Commons

There is a grad student, also employed to teach students, who wrote that “Zionist lobbies… buy presidents” and who praised terrorists who murder civilians as “heroes”.

In the past she linked to a video, ‘The truth about Zionist Jews’, which claimed that the Talmud licenses Jewish crimes against non-Jews.

She wrote that she wouldn’t use the world “Holocaust” to describe the way Israel relates to the Palestinians because the word is used to justify “the racist state of Israel”; and because use of the word “distracts attention from the Zionist practices of settler-colonialism and ethnic cleansing…”

In my view this discourse is antisemitic. You might disagree. Fine. We can have that debate.

But no, it’s not fine. Because this same student and teacher denounces people who believe that this discourse is antisemitic as “Israeli apartheid and propagandists”.

This is not about disagreeing. This is about people who speak up against antisemitism not being engaged in debate but being denounced as racist liars.

There have been two UCU motions passed in recent months on the topic. One of them said that anybody who thought it was antisemitic for David Miller to other his own Jewish students as “assets of Israel” was smearing the legitimate research of a good professor.

Both motions characterised the allegation that this kind of discourse is antisemitic as “malicious”. Not simply a disagreement, but a claim made for bad motives and in bad faith.

Both motions described this kind of discourse as being called antisemitic only because they are critical of “Israeli policy”.

This week’s motion said that “the attack is motivated by her defence of Palestinian rights and threatens academic freedom”. How does the UCU branch know what motivates criticism of this kind of discourse as antisemitic?

The student’s Director of Studies declared at the union meeting that those who say that this kind of discourse is antisemitic are part of a continuum with those, who for many centuries have been responsible for forcing “black and brown people…to justify what they have said”. It is extraordinary for an academic to refer to victims of racism as “black and brown people”; race is not colour, race is a social construction of power. And it is extraordinary to imply that if a person who might themselves be treated in a racist way says something antisemitic, then they should not have to “justify what they have said”.

It is extraordinary to treat good faith worries about antisemitism raised by Jews and their allies as though they were nothing but racist slurs.

The student said that the “Zionist Press” targeted her with allegations of antisemitism because she was “critical of Israel”.

A UCU comrade at the meeting said “if there are subterranean goings on…we need to know about it” – talking about unseen Zionist power behind allegations of antisemitism and influencing universities.

The student and teacher said a number of things that many Jews believe to be antisemitic. The Union branch, which represents Jews and non Jews, denounced the very idea as a malicious Zionist conspiracy.

The Union did not defend Shahd Abusalama on academic freedom grounds, it did not say that she’d said some silly and offensive things but they were not quite antisemitic, it treated her as a hero; a hero advocate of the oppressed, and a hero academic lecturer and researcher.

And the University itself said that the student’s discourse “fall[s] entirely within the boundaries of acceptable political commentary” and it did nothing. It cleared Shahd Abusalama; it did not use its own academic freedom to use this as a teachable moment; it was not critical of any of this “acceptable commentary”.

The student and teacher made a hero of the people who murdered Israelis, Christian pilgrims and a Canadian, at Lod airport in 1971; gunned them down as they walked through an airport.

At Sheffield Hallam, the student/teacher is now a hero, the union branch embraces her as a hero, and the university itself says that there is nothing wrong here and she is entirely fit to teach students: everything is “acceptable political commentary”.

And the Jews at Sheffield Hallam University are defeated, denounced as racists, made to feel pariahs in their union branch, and are left defenceless by their institution and undefended by their union.

What did they do wrong? They said that it’s false and offensive to denounce Israelis as being like Nazis, they said it’s wrong to murder Israelis at random, they said it’s wrong to accuse them of malicious motives, they said David Miller and Shahd Abusalama are not victims of a Zionist plot.

http://www.LondonAntisemitism.com

Sheffield Hallam UCU passed a second antisemitic motion yesterday

Last November, Sheffield Hallam University UCU passed an antisemitic motion in support of David Miller. The UCU branch rejected a motion that outlined in detail what may be antisemitic about Miller’s work and instead declared that it was not antisemitic. The branch blamed ‘external pressure’ and it said that the allegations made against his work, by his own Jewish students, by many scholars of antisemitism, by the institutions of the Jewish community and by the Parliamentary All Party Group against Antisemitism, were ‘malicious’. For more on that motion, follow this link. To see what Jewish students in Sheffield said about this motion, follow this link.

Yesterday, SHU UCU passed a second antisemitic motion, this time in support of Shahd Absulama, a PhD student and Special Visiting Lecturer who is currently being investigated by the University for antisemitic Facebook posts and tweets.

About using the word “Holocaust”, she wrote that she wouldn’t “use such a politicized word often used to justify the racist state of Israel” and that use of the word Holocaust “distracts attention from the Zionist practices of settler-colonialism and ethnic cleansing against the Palestinians”.

Another Tweet, since deleted, urged followers to watch a YouTube video entitled, “Truth About Zionist Jews.” This video reportedly presented numerous antisemitic myths about the Talmud.

Yesterday’s motion blamed the “Zionist press”, words used by Absulama herself who was present at the meeting, for targeting her because she is “critical of Israeli policy.” This seems to have been a reference to recent articles in the Jewish News and on the Campaign Against Antisemitism website.  

At the meeting, one member said, “if there are subterranean goings on like at Bristol University, we need to know about it”. It was agreed that Absulama’s “Palestinian Holocaust” tweet was “acceptable political commentary” and that the IHRA definition, adopted by the University in February 2021, was a being used as a tool to silence criticism of Israel.

Absulama’s Talmud tweet was excused on the ground that it was made in 2012 when Gaza was being “bombarded” by Israel: “everyone is entitled to make mistakes in the past for which they have publicly apologised” declared the motion’s proposer, despite there being no evidence of any apology, public or otherwise.

Absulama’s director of studies told the meeting that “black and brown people have had to justify what they have said for many centuries” and that “it is not by chance that the IHRA definition has been used against a young Palestinian scholar.”

The one thing that was not discussed at the meeting was antisemitism, except for a passing reminder by Absulama’s PhD supervisor that the term has been wrongly used to criticise Emma Watson for her support of the Palestinians.

One person spoke against and voted against the motion. When the 97% vote in favour of the motion was announced, there was spontaneous applause, and one member gave the black power salute. Absulama has since tweeted about her victory naming the colleague and union “comrade” who voted against the motion as speaking for “Israeli apartheid and propagandists”:

This is the motion that was passed:

Sheffield Hallam UCU branch notes:

  • UCU national policy on malicious allegations and the controversial IHRA definition;   
  • Sheffield Hallam University has in recent years demonstrated a rhetorical commitment to antiracism and decolonialism;   
  • Sheffield Hallam post-graduate student and Special Visiting Lecturer, Shahd Abusalama, a UCU member and Palestinian from Gaza, is accused by the Jewish News and Campaign Against Antisemitism of antisemitism for tweets condemning Israeli policy;   
  • Her posts fall entirely within the boundaries of acceptable political commentary;  
  • Shahd is on an SVL contract, affording her only ‘worker’ status, and few effective employment rights under UK law.    
  • SHU cancelled her contracted classes before notifying her of any investigation. While her classes have now been reinstated, which this branch welcomes, there remains an investigation into her conduct;

    Sheffield Hallam UCU branch believes:   
  • The attack on Shahd is motivated by her defence of Palestinian rights and threatens academic freedom;  
  • The adoption of the controversial IHRA definition by Sheffield Hallam is prima facie directly responsible for the situation that has arisen;  

    Sheffield Hallam UCU branch resolves to:   
  • Call for any investigation against Shahd that is premised on the IHRA definition and its examples to cease;  
  • Call for the university to issue an apology for the evident distress they have caused Shahd;  
  • Call for the university to ensure there are no further question marks over the employment protections she is entitled to by moving her on to a more secure contract;  
  • Call for a moratorium on the application of the IHRA definition;  
  • Be prepared to utilise a range of sanctions (withdrawing from negotiation and consultation, calling for a vote of no confidence in disciplinary processes at SHU, industrial action) should Shahd or any other member be victimised for the expression of legitimate political beliefs;  
  • Issue a public statement of support for Shahd;   
  • Urge UCU national President to ensure support for members targeted through the malicious misuse of the IHRA definition.  

“Thanks for nothing, Mr Wakeford – you’ve had your pound of flesh” – some thoughts, David Hirsh

In response to JC 26 January, “Thanks for nothing, Mr Wakeford – you’vehad your pound of flesh” 

Angela Epstein accuses Christian Wakeford, the Tory MP who joined the Labour benches, of a ‘stinging act of disloyalty’ and ‘hypocrisy’; she says he is ‘dishonourable’ and ‘duplicitous’ and that he has betrayed the Jews who voted for him against Jeremy Corbyn.

Wakeford ‘made us feel we were safe’ she writes. But we had little choice. Many of us felt forced to vote vote only as Jews against antisemitism and so for the Boris Johnson Brexit Party that we did not support. This did not make me feel safe. Epstein says she feels the ‘Jewish vote amounts to a pound of flesh after all’ but we should also reflect on the harm done by reducing us to a ‘Jewish vote’.

When Jews are accused of ‘wanting their pound of flesh’, they are being accused, in the  language of the blood libel, of lacking Christian generosity and of enforcing our bare rights in violation of decency and justice. She aims this usually antisemitic jibe at Wakeford, who is not Jewish but who is supportive of the fight against antisemitism.

Angela Epstein twice employs language generally associated with the devil. She says Wakeford is now ‘supping’ with Corbyn’s former comrades and that he has ‘sold his soul’ to save his political career.

I resigned from the Labour Party on 21 February 2019. There were good reasons to ‘stay and fight’ and many who did feel vindicated by events. If Luke Akehurst had not stayed, how would the proposal at Labour’s NEC to restore the whip to Corbyn have been defeated? If Adrian Cohen had not stayed, what would have happened to Labour Friends of Israel? If Keir Starmer had not stayed, and in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, if he had not sidestepped some of the specific issues relating to antisemitism, who would be the challenger to Boris Johnson today?

I resigned because I was treated as a traitor: to the party, to decent values, to the left, to Britain. I was treated as an ‘Israeli asset’ and a closet racist, pretending to be on the left while really trying to help its enemies.

In a two party system, everybody has to pretend that one is a community of decent people while the other is morally corrupt. When antisemitism happens ‘over there’, it is symbolic of their moral corruption; but when it happens ‘over here’ it is only the odd bad apple.

It might not have gone so well for the ‘stayers and fighters’, even the ones who actually did fight. Many of them had promised to take a stand when they realised the antisemites had taken control. But when Luciana Berger, Chuka Umunna and the other five left on 19 Februry 2021, and Joan Ryan two days later, and a few brave Tories too, many MPs stayed in their comfy seats and portrayed themselves as the fighters; even Tom Watson, Corbyn’s deputy, who had sung Am Yisrael Chai to show how much he opposed antisemitism, who might have led a critical mass of Labour people, and who in the end went without a word about why.

And remember that the Tories were also a Zombie party at that time, killed, hollowed out and re-animated by a populism that was anathema to the values that the Conservative Party had embraced for decades. It also turned on its own MPs, like Anna Soubry, Rory Stewart and David Gauke; Even Ken Clarke; and made them pariahs. The Johnson Tories tried to close down Parliament, they denounced educated, hard working people as unpatriotic, they exhumed the totalitarian language of ‘cosmopolitans’, ‘metropolitans’ and the ‘liberal elite’; and they denounced high court judges as ‘enemies of the people’.

Politics is a dirty game. Maybe it was smart to hold tight, weather the storm, and position yourself for when it passed. Tom Tugendhat came into the Commons quietly, with the cohort of Brexiters who replaced the unperson Tories. Tugendhat was there to make his iconic speech against the Biden-Trump-Johnson agreement to leave Afghanistan to the Taliban.

Christian Wakeford was another in that cohort. While Luciana Berger was offering Finchley and Golders Green the chance to vote for an MP who opposed the mob politics of both Johnson and Corbyn, Wakeford was slipstreaming into Parliament proclaiming his readiness to vote for a ‘no deal Brexit’.

Today, Berger and Ummuna are forgotten and Wakeford is a proud Labour MP.

It is time to move on from the language of betrayal. Jews who have been active in the labour movement, or scholars or students in the humanities, or cultural producers in the arts, or teachers in our schools: most of us are pretty sick of accusations of disloyalty.

Left and right populism will be back, in Europe and America. The structures of the Labour Party have been cleaned up, it has formally recognised what it did and apologized, not least to its own whistle-blowers. The leadership is not antisemitic and Corbyn is not a Labour MP. Last year’s conference voted for the right motions against antisemitism but then it voted for the politics that underpins antisemitism: that Israel is apartheid and it should be boycotted and dismantled. There are reasons to worry about the right, too: its rhetoric about refugees and Muslims, its thirst for conflict with the European Union, its willingness to stoke the ‘culture wars’.

I do not forgive the Labour Party for the way it subjected me to antisemitism, and for the way it threatened British Jews. I will not rejoin but I could vote for it; other Jews are free, now, to make other judgments.

But Angela Epstein seems to have forgotten that it was Labour people like, for example Richard Gold, the Councillor in Bury, who understood the antisemitic threat most clearly. He has fought it for decades. Bury Labour did as much to fight Corbyn as Christian Wakeford did. We need a more engaged and reflective politics than ‘one side is good and the other is bad’.

David Hirsh
Senior Lecturer, Goldsmiths, University of London

London Conference: 21st Century Antisemitism