A discussion about IHRA and the “Jerusalem Declaration” – David Hirsh

Question: How do you respond to the following point by Harvard Prof. Derek Pensler: “The IHRA definition’s limitations have been made clear to me in work I have done in Canada as an expert witness in prosecutions for ‘willful promotion of hate,’ which is a criminal offense. The antisemitic discourse I have been asked to assess invariably contains references to Israel. I have found it difficult to invoke the IHRA definition because of its strong implication that highly critical but factually accurate statements about Israel are antisemitic. A clear distinction between conspiratorial fantasy and demonstrable reality, between unhinged and fact-based (even if intemperate) language about Israel, would make it easier for me to demonstrate the presence of the former, which is actionable, and to set aside the latter, which is not.” H/t: https://detailedpoliticalquizzes.wordpress.com/response…/

David Hirsh: It is not true that IHRA “implies” that accurate statements about Israel are antisemitic. IHRA does not define anything as antisemitic. It gives examples of things that we know are frequently antisemitic and says that these should be judged in the specific context of the case.

Penslar seems to define antisemitism as requiring “animus against Jews”. Which is clearly not right. Antisemitism is an objective and external social phenomenon and does not require malicious intent or hatred of Jews. “There are a great many people in the world who bear no animus against Jews but who are troubled by Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and want it to change.”https://fathomjournal.org/why-i-signed-the-jda-a…/

Question: So, a speech consisting of undisputed facts, in a particular context, can objectively be determined to be antisemitic?

David Hirsh: That’s not what I said. And it isn’t what IHRA says. But of course it’s true. Imagine a newspaper runs a campaign against street crime. Imagine that every day it carries on its front page a picture of a different black violent street criminal. Imagine each picture is real, and is of a person who is really a violent criminal. There. You have a racist narrative made up of elements each of which is true.

It’s the method. If you want to study or to define antisemitism, you have to look at antisemitism. If you look at contemporary antisemitism you’ll find that BDS is a key element of it.But this method doesn’t want to study or define antisemitism. It wants to study or define ‘boycotts in the abstract’. So it invents abstract boycotts to study which are not objectionable. And it thereby says that this boycott, against Israel, is therefore not antisemitic… “in and of itself”.Well that wasn’t our question. Is BDS antisemitic “in and of itself”?

Our question was, if these people, here, in the real world, are boycotting Israel, using the particular methods and discourses that they actually use, is that something we should be concerned about if we’re concerned about antisemitism?And the answer is, yes, you should. You should look at it, think about the context, and work out whether this particular manifestation is something to do with antisemitism.

But IHRA is a very tame document. IHRA doesn’t say anything at all about BDS.

But it would be reasonable to add BDS to IHRA’s list of examples of things which are often antisemitic, and to say that a judgment should be made of the case in question, taking into account context. Also taking into account the principle that ‘criticism of Israel is not antisemitic’.

Although IHRA, being a tame document, overstates the case. Because some criticism of Israel is antisemitic, and some criticism of Israel is not antisemitic.

Interestingly you could go even further, although IHRA doesn’t, because it is a tame document.

You could say: “some criticism of Israel which is similar to that leveled against any other democratic country” is antisemitic, even if it is not racist or bigoted when it is leveled against other democratic countries. Because Israel has specific particularities.

You could be an anarchist, and you could say you are for destroying every state. Fine. But saying you want to destroy Israel may be, according to context, specifically genocidal in a way that saying you want to destroy other states may not be.

Question: Regarding the newspaper, does the state now charge its owner with a crime?

David Hirsh: I thought we were talking about IHRA. IHRA does not say anything about what should be done about antisemitism. It is only an instrument to help an institution to judge what is antisemitic.

And indeed, antisemitism, and racism, are not a criminal offences.

Question: So you’d advise that, say, governments that adopt the IHRA not use it for any meaningful sanction? According the Pensler’s article, “In recent years, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism has been enshrined in policy and law by universities, civic organisations, and governments. This is bizarre, as the IHRA definition was developed for the purpose of data collection, not policy making, and its authors acknowledged its protean status.”

David Hirsh: Not at all. It should be used for a very meaningful purpose. It should be used as a framework for helping them to identify antisemitism.

It is important for, say governments, say football associations, say universities, say political parties, to know what is antisemitic and what is not antisemitic.

And it is good specifically for this meaningful purpose: It affirms that an institution understands that there is a form of antisemitism that often appears in the language of hostility to Israel and it affirms that this form of antisemitism is significant.We could have an interesting discussion about what a government or an institution should do when it finds antisemitism, but that is a separate issue from IHRA.

Or perhaps you feel that institutions should purposely avoid judging, or attaining the ability to judge, what is antisemitic and what isn’t, in order to avoid having to then decide what to do about it?

Question: We’ve come full circle.==> “We could have an interesting discussion about what a government or an institution should do when it finds antisemitism, but that is a separate issue from IHRA.”But it isn’t a “separate issue”, as the problematic–according to Penslar–IHRA definition is being used to justify sanction. My original comment pointed to his concern: “The IHRA definition’s limitations have been made clear to me in work I have done in Canada as an expert witness in prosecutions…” I appreciate your replies. I’ll leave the last word to you.

David Hirsh: Penslar says IHRA is being used to justify sanction. But there is nothing in IHRA that justifies sanction. So this is not an argument against IHRA.

The “is being used” argument is quite interesting. Some opponents of IHRA concede that there’s nothing wrong with the text of IHRA, except that the text is a trojan horse for a material reality which it doesn’t allow.

That is how they understand IHRA.

So what do they do? They draw up the JD, in the hope that it will do what they wrongly accuse IHRA of doing.

They hope that they can legitimise things in the abstract and that that legitimisation will then “be used” in the material world to legitimise real things.

BDS, Israel eliminationism, Nazi, colonial settler and apartheid analogies, irrational disproportionate and intemperate speech: they think that they can legitimise them in the abstract in the hope that they can then sneakily be “used to” legitimise them in the material world.

The sneakiness of the Jewish advocates of IHRA is in their own imagination; but they then emulate that sneakiness, that they have imputed onto those Jews, themselves!

So the point of the JD is indeed, the way it is used. It is used to stop institutions from adopting IHRA.

And it will be used to demobilise people who campaign against the real antisemitic movements which come together with BDS, Israel eliminationism, Nazi, colonial settler and apartheid analogies, irrational, disproportionate and intemperate speech, as their key elements.

Why Israel stops when the siren sounds – David Hirsh

Today is Yom HaZikaron. It is the day when Israelis remember those who were killed while on active duty for Israel’s armed services and Israelis who were killed in terrorist attacks.

The mis-match in how people think about Israel’s armed services is huge. Most good people in Europe and America think of Israel’s armed forces as racist machines designed to sustain an unjust system of imperialist domination. People have strange ideas about Jews. They have had for thousands of years. The practice of defining their own goodness in relation to the evil of Jews is an old one.

Israel was built by refugees from European antisemitism; by the undead Jews of the Shoah; by the Jews terrorised out of their homes by states which defined themselves as ‘Arab’ or as ‘Muslim’; by Jews who the USSR constructed as rootless cosmopolitan enemies of the working class. Of course it was also built by Jews whose families had lived in Jerusalem for hundreds and thousands of years.

There are about 15 million Jews in the world. They are not powerful but vulnerable yet they are constructed as having huge, evil, dishonest and threatening power.

Established armies invaded Israel in 1948, 1967 and 1973 to try and destroy it and to try and kill the Jewish minority in the Middle East. As recently as 2014 we saw what can happen to minorities which do not have the means to defend themselves, but most people paid little attention to the genocide of the Yazidi people.

I think people who live in democratic states tend to under-value the ordinary practices and principles of democracy, rights, freedom and law. People imagine the democratic state is supposed to make everybody happy. But most people in the world would fight hard for a situation in which they could struggle for happiness and justice without much risk of being murdered.

People in Europe and America find it difficult even to imagine the danger of genocide. They can’t imagine what it would be like to have their state smashed. And if they imagine it, they imagine themselves as the killers, not themselves as the victims; and that frightens them more. Maybe not themselves precisely but ‘us’. ‘The Jews’ sit nicely between ‘me’ and ‘us’. They’re ‘us’ but not quite ‘us’.

And so they can’t imagine a situation in which our mothers and fathers, daughters and sons, have to learn war and put themselves at risk of killing or dying, to preserve the ordinary, imperfect state which enables our ordinary, imperfect lives.

It’s lovely that we’re able to be so complacent and decadent. It’s a genuine achievement. But it is disorienting and it puts us at risk. Our safety is made by the human beings who went before us. It’s not magic, it’s not the system, it’s not some kind of ‘-ism’. It is ironic that there is such a prohibition in our age against imagining ‘others’ to be inferior yet it is so normal for us to imagine our ancestors as inferior in every way. The past is another country and it is a country for which it is normal to have complete contempt.

But the democratic state was built by our ancestors, it didn’t appear by magic. Yes, fascism in Europe was defeated by people like Prince Philip, Winston Churchill, George Orwell and your gran. Get over it. In Israel people have a clearer understanding of what it’s like to be at risk. They’re descended, and in living memory, from victims of racism so effective that its victims were killed or expelled.

Every family in Israel has people who were in the wars of survival. Everybody knows somebody who’s died. Everybody has been close to attempts to kill them. Everybody knows that the world is not divided nicely into oppressors and oppressed, good and bad.

Israelis don’t want to rule over other people, they just want to be left alone. They don’t want utopia, they don’t need to love or to be loved by their neighbours; they just need ordinary lawful relationships. In fact everything good can follow from that.

So take one day off from thinking of Israel as an imperialist outpost, as the vanguard of militaristic surveillance; as the symbol of everything you hate and in contrast to which you perform your own goodness.Remember those Israelis who died so that their families could live. Just for one day. Just for one day, don’t be an asshole about it. Don’t say: “Yeah, but what about the Palestinians!” Just for one day. Just for one day think about this, not that.

My mum had 3 cousins who survived the Shoah. That was a lot for one family. 3 out of maybe a hundred.Those three, who were also supposed to die in the gas, died in warm beds in Israeli hospitals surrounded by children and grand children who loved them; children and grandchildren who spent part of their lives carrying guns and preparing to fight for their lives. One of them had a lovely wife, Irina, who told me the story of her brother. I’m sad that I don’t even remember his name.

He left Lodz, in Poland, where they lived, because he could see danger coming. He went east, because he was a leftie, and he joined Stalin’s Red Army. I wonder what the odds of surviving the whole of WWII in the Red Army were. But he did. He fought and defeated fascism.

And then he found a boat to Palestine. And on the boat they asked him what he could do. He said he couldn’t do anything, he said he had only ever been a soldier. They told him they needed soldiers. And he joined the Haganah, the Israeli army before there was an Israel. He died in 1948, strafed by a British imperial Spitfire, fighting to keep the Jews from putting themselves in a position where they could defend themselves.

An email to a friend and colleage about the ‘Jerusalem Declaration’ – David Hirsh

Dear Xxxx,

It’s good to hear from you, but I wish it were in better circumstances. I agree with you that the Jerusalem Declaration moment is symbolic of something bad.

Perhaps in America the political polarisation of the Jewish community has been more marked, and for obvious reasons. In Britain we were squeezed out of the broad left, completely, but in America the broad left went for Biden, who is not at all antisemitic politically, and Jews were able to remain part of efforts to fight, and defeat Trump. In Britain we couldn’t defeat the populist right, and the populist right defeated the populist left. For the moment.

I fear that we might be in between the first and second spikes of populism. What feels like an ebbing of the populist moment might turn out to be like last summer was with respect to Covid. We need to be ready for a resurgence of populism and we need to understand that right and left populism are similar, and have a similar attractions to antisemitic ways of picturing the ‘enemy of the people’.

I noticed with some despair that Xxxx Xxxx signed the JD. I also noticed that other people who should know better signed it. People with big reputations, people with big Chairs, people with weight amongst Jews. 

The idea that they would sign a declaration that lists the key elements of contemporary antisemitism and then declares them to be not “in and of themselves” antisemitic, is bizarre. Imagine a “definition” of racism or of sexism that did the same. Imagine listing the key elements of racist and sexist culture and then saying that “in and of themselves” they are not racist.  It is a very basic mistake.

And there is literally nothing wrong with IHRA. IHRA is very tame. It says: “these are examples of the kinds of things that we know are antisemitic; if you see a case like that then you should make a judgment”. Adopting IHRA says: “we understand that this kind of antisemitism is significant and we undertake to look out for it”. Sure, some people might try to “use” IHRA to do other things, but IHRA is not usable to do other things; not unless you have a notion of overwhelming and frightening Jewish Power. 

I’m a bit reluctant to centre this battle on ‘Jewish culture’. I think one of the errors that is made again and again is the assumption that antisemitism is really, deep down, related to some kind of ‘Jewish Question’. Rich Jews give money to Jewish Studies because they think that’ll be good for the Jews. But it isn’t, because studying Jews doesn’t help us to understand antisemitism. I can’t believe that these generations of streetwise Jewish businessmen have got this so badly wrong. 

Is it too simple, then, to reply to you that Netanyahu is not responsible for antisemitism? Antisemitism is a mystification of what particular Jews do, it is not a rational or unmediated response to what Jews do. Antisemitism is a fetishized form of oppositional consciousness, as Moishe Postone said; it is mis-directed. It may be too simple but it is a crucially important first point to make.

Why does Netanyahu keep winning elections? I don’t know, I’m not an expert in Israeli politics. But one reason is because the Israeli left has shown itself incapable of coming near to offering an alternative.

We, the broad left, lost; the peace process lost. The Israeli right is partly to blame, but it’s also true that there are probably more significant reasons why we lost. The Palestinian left was much weaker, and it lost much more completely. The Palestinian nationalists failed to build a Palestinian national movement capable of making a deal. Nobody ever believed that those who spoke for Palestine actually spoke for Palestine​. Israelis were reluctant to make concessions because they couldn’t trust that the people to whom they made concessions would be able to deliver what they had conceded in return. The wider Sunni-Shia conflict, the Saudi-Iran conflict, is a much more important determinant of what happens in the Middle East than Israel is. And minorities all over the Middle East, of which one is Jewish, are at risk. 

So yes, Netanyahu has been bad. But maybe there are reasons why the left have been unable to defeat him. And maybe the collapse of the process which was meant to end the occupation is not primarily down to the Israeli right. Again, what goes wrong in the world for Jews is not only a result of what Jews do. 

It’s so tempting always to imagine that antisemitism isn’t a mad irrational threatening thing which we can’t control; some of us are tempted to imagine that if Jews behave better then there will be less antisemitism. This is not a healthy response.

Yes, Netanyahu is awful. But our response, the response of the Jewish left, is our choice, our judgment.

Fundamentally Jews in America and Jews in Europe cannot do much to end the occupation. I’m not actually convinced that Jews in Israel can either. Sure, they should have done more, but they still might not have succeeded.  And now the broad Jewish left says that IHRA – an inoffensive and tame statement about contemporary antisemitism – is Trumpist in its essence! How much more wrong could it get than that? 

But what we can do is understand antisemitism. The Jerusalem Declaration doesn’t understand antisemitism. Rather, it offers antisemitism a deal, a co-existence with it in the hope that in alliance with left antisemitism, we’ll be able to defeat right wing populism, together, as one happy family.

Best wishes
David Hirsh

Useful links about the “Jerusalem Declaration”

‘Calling a truce with left-wing antisemitism’: The Case Against the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism
by John Hyman and Anthony Julius

“The Jerusalem Declaration defines the ‘community of the good’, not antisemitism” – By focusing on hypotheticals it ignores what antisemitism is really like Jewish Chronicle, April 1 2021 – David Hirsh

“We don’t need another definition of Jew hate”
Those behind the ‘Jerusalem Declaration’ risk setting back the fight against antisemitism
Jewish Chronicle, April 1 2021- Dave Rich

“Why You Should Be Highly Alarmed by — and Yet Totally Ignore — the Jerusalem Declaration of Antisemitism” Algemeiner, 31 March 2021 – Lars Fischer

“Yet Another Attempt to Sanitize Anti-Zionism” – Algemeiner, 30 March 2021 – Ben Cohen

“Some discussion about IHRA and the ‘Jerusalem Declaration” – Engage, 31 March 2021 – David Hirsh

“The Existance of the JDA only serves to bolster the argument for IHRA” – Jewish Journal, 6 April 2021, Amanda Berman

“IHRA to JDA: definitions of antisemitism in 2021” – Times of Israel, 9 April 2021, Jeffrey Herf

“Who gets to define Antisemitism?” – 10 April 2021 – Artur Wilczynski

“A New Definition of Antisemitism Is Out, and the Antisemites Love It” – Ha’aretz – 7 April 2021 – David Schraub

“Accommodating the New Antisemitism: a Critique of ‘The Jerusalem Declaration’” – fathom – 13 April – Cary Nelson

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