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

Some discussion about IHRA and the ‘Jerusalem Declaration’ – David Hirsh

Dear xxxx,

let me take up two points that you’ve made. First in relation to what the text does, and does not do. And in relation to the claim that its real threat lies not in what it says but in what it “could be used to do”.

You’re absolutely right that the text is “innocent”. I think it’s more than innocent, I think it’s quite good.

Nobody is suggesting that IHRA be used for prosecution. Well, how could it be? Antisemitism is not a crime. Not in the USA, not in Britain. I don’t think anywhere.

IHRA could be used in a court or in a disciplinary process, for sure, but it could never do the whole job of proving anything.

What IHRA does, as you’ve said, is provide examples of the kinds of things which we know are often antisemitic. That’s it. It says that if you see a case like this, look again, look carefully, and then make a judgment. IHRA does not, and cannot possibly, substitute for judgment.

So as part of a process, IHRA gives a framework. You could say to the decision maker: IHRA says that cases like this are often antisemitic and this case is antisemitic because x, y and z reasons.

In Britain you could also use the Equality Act, the Macpherson Principle, the EHRC report in similar ways. But none of these are automatic. They are part of a case.

And related to this, the point about Ken Stern and the true authentic meaning and purpose of IHRA: So, Ken is angry, he doesn’t like the way that Ken Marcus and others have interpreted the text. Fine.

First, have a look at this letter written by the people who were more concerned in the drafting process than he was. https://engageonline.wordpress.com/…/ken-stern-isnt…/

But more important, there is of course no authentic and unchanging meaning of a text. It’s true that IHRA was drafted by Jewish NGOs, at the request of the EU, to help with monitoring – in particular in newly democratic states, emerging from authoritarian rule (and antisemitic rule) in Eastern Europe. In fact, the indeterminacy of IHRA also applies in this context. It also required monitors to use judgment, as it requires institutions today to use judgment. There is no automatic machine which can tell a person what is antisemitic. It requires judgment.

But here’s the point: of course the use of this text has, over 20 years, developed, been used in new ways, has taken on a different significance.

Yes, Jews on campus, Jewish institutions, Governments, Football clubs, city councils – yes they have adopted it as an affirmation that they recognise and take seriously the kind of antisemitism which comes in hostility to Israel.

IHRA has developed into what it is today. That’s OK. For more on the genealogy of IHRA, see this:

The other point I want to make is about your claim that IHRA talks too much about Israel, and that gives rise to the appearance that its real function is to silence criticism of Israel under the guise of opposing antisemitism.

You have got this upside down.

Start with the phenomenon, not the definition.

It is antisemitism which more and more appears as hostility to Israel.

It is not the definition of antisemitism which links antisemitism to Israel, it’s the thing itself.

The definition keeps up with the phenomenon.

So adopting IHRA is an affirmation that an institution takes this kind of antisemitism seriously.

Often people on the right deny antisemitism on the right and they point at the left and the Islamists and they scream that the real problem is over there.

And often people on the left deny left antisemitism and they point at the right and they scream that the real problem is over there.

Both disavowals are equally dangerous.

IHRA is not a right wing attack on the left. IHRA is an attack on antisemitism and it specifies a kind of antisemitism that is often seen on the left. Why? Because it’s often not recognised by people who think they oppose antisemitism.

Here’s a text I’ve written about this. It’s not IHRA that puts Israel into the definition of antisemitism, it’s antisemites who put Israel into antisemitism itself. https://fathomjournal.org/it-was-the-new-phenomenon-of…/

One more thing xxx.

I’m really concerned about how many serious people have joined in denouncing IHRA and in defending efforts like the ‘Jerusalem Declaration’ to prevent the adoption of IHRA.

Some of us have been working on this for years, doing scholarly work, doing political work, trying to defend ourselves and our students from antisemitism.

It’s not cool that so many big names, in Jewish Studies in particular, are intervening in this, on the wrong side, and, I assume, because they haven’t really thought things through and they haven’t really read the literature.

The attempt to disqualify us as scholars, and to disqualify our work, by branding us as Trumpists seems to be working. But serious people should know how to deal with that.

David Hirsh

“Israel is Autistic” – Neve Gordon and Mark Levine displaying their ignorance about both autism and antisemitism – David Hirsh

Is it demonizing to say that autistic people are like Israel, or is it demonizing to say that Israel is autistic? Or, do the two lies cancel each other out, since to characterise either as being like the other is in reality not insulting?

Neve Gordon and Mark LeVine write a stupid, dishonest, but standard hatchet job on the IHRA definition of antisemitism. It’s dishonest because it claims that IHRA says and does things which it absolutely does, and can not do.

Shamefully it is published on a mainstream website, Inside Higher Ed.

Gordon and LeVine say that IHRA “could very well” label Einstein and Arendt as antisemites. It’s a lie. IHRA doesn’t label anything as antisemitic, it draws attention to things that might be, and which merit further examination and political judgment.

But then they say that IHRA could label Tony Judt antisemitic. Well, some of Judt’s writing was certainly antisemitic, and I spent quite a lot of space in my book showing how. I also spent quite a lot of space in my book telling the story of how Neve Gordon developed from a sharp and scholarly thinker into a supporter of BDS and a pusher of the apartheid smear. Here’s something on Neve Gordon. Here’s a bit more on Neve Gordon.

The evidence Gordon and LeVine offer to show just how not-antisemitic Tony Judt really is, is the following:

‘Tony Judt described Israel as “autistic” after it had put Gaza “under a punishment regime comparable to nothing else in the world.”’

And they proudly link to an interview where Judt explained his understanding of of what it means to characterise Israel as “autistic”.

“Israel,” says Judt, in an interview proudly linked to by Gordon and LeVine, “behaved in a way that suggests it is no longer fully able to estimate, assess or understand the way other people think about it. Even if you supported the blockade (I don’t) this would be an almost exemplary case of shooting oneself in a painful part of the anatomy.”

This is both an ignorant and demonizing description of what it means to be autistic, and an antisemitic, pathologizing way to describe Israel.

Judt, Gordon and LeVine understand as little about autism as they do about antisemitism. Commentary about antisemitism is completely dominated by people who are out of their field. I guess once you get used to talking about things you know nothing about, a few prejudices about neurodiversity are nothing special.

May be an image of text

The Meaning of David Miller – David Hirsh

This piece is published in Fathom Journal here.

This is a long read about the David Miller crisis and its significance in the context of antisemitism on the left and on campus. It has a UK focus but is relevant to phenomena across the world.

According to Bristol University Professor David Miller, ‘Britain is in the grip of an assault on its public sphere by the state of Israel and its advocates’. He believes ‘Bristol’s JSoc [Jewish Society. Ed], like all JSocs, operates under the auspices of the Union of Jewish Students (UJS), an Israel lobby group’ and is part of ‘a campaign of censorship and manufactured hysteria’ that is ‘directed by the State of Israel. The campaign involves false claims of antisemitism designed ‘to give cover to Zionist activists’. His outburst has led to outraged calls for his removal but also fulsome messages of support from the academic left, open letters that do not simply argue he has free speech rights but which endorse his world view. David Hirsh, author of Contemporary Left Antisemitism, explores the wider meanings and deeper roots of the controversy.…”

This piece is published in Fathom Journal here.

The IHRA definition is a material social fact – David Hirsh

I don’t think the importance of IHRA is that it is perfect, or beyond criticism, it’s neither.

But it exists in the material world. It has a specific and rather interesting genealogy, related to Durban and related to antisemitism itself which showed itself so baldly there, which has had a tendency to drive Jews off into the realms of ‘whiteness’. That tendency has been organisationally manifested in the Jewish NGOs turning to the OSCE and the EU after Durban.

Its material existence is also interesting beyond that actual conception and roots; it has been adopted and campaigned for by Jewish institutions with some success; and it has been adopted by many states, NGOs, local governments and universities. That also defines what it is, what it is now.

The struggle about IHRA is not about scholarly criticism of what exists. We can’t change the reality of IHRA by proposing amendments to improve it.

IHRA is an instrument which signals that anyone who adopts it is going to look at that kind of antisemitism which comes in the form of “Israelcriticism”. It is going to check the context; it is not going to confuse it with “criticism of Israel”. But it is signalling its willingness to check for this kind of antisemitism.

The examples set off alarm bells about certain kinds of discourse which we know are often antisemitic. If you hear the alarm bells, make a judgment. That’s why there are the caveats and the warning, and the injunction to check for context.

Opposing IHRA means opposing the willingness to take this kind of antisemitism seriously.

Opposing IHRA implies that antisemites are victims of the Jews.

IHRA has become the front line. We can’t just invent reality out of our noses, we can’t just invent a new IHRA definition. It is a material, social, fact. And we don’t support those who want to change the material reality that states and institutions have signalled their willingness to take this kind of antisemitism seriously.

David Hirsh

Another defence of IHRA against an attack by Israeli academics – David Hirsh

This piece, by David Hirsh, was published in fathom.

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

40 UK-based Israeli academics, broadly from the anti-Zionist left, have issued a ‘call to reject’ the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism. David Hirsh, author of Contemporary Left Antisemitism, reviews and rejects their arguments here. He points out that the phenomenon of contemporary antisemitism came before, and required, the definition: ‘The IHRA highlights the possibility of antisemitism which is related to hostility to Israel because that is a significant part of the antisemitism to which actual Jewish people are subjected in the material world, as it exists’. Calls to reject the definition, he argues, are ‘not concerned with the constructive work of describing and opposing antisemitism,’ but only with ‘the purely negative work of rejecting efforts to do so’. Too often that negative work gives succor to some of the core ideas of contemporary antisemitism.


The 40 writers of the ‘call to reject’ the IHRA definition of antisemitism parade and mobilise their Israeli identities in an effort to give their position greater moral weight. Their message is aimed at licensing and encouraging their non-Jewish and non-Israeli colleagues to support a controversial position on antisemitism which the overwhelming majority of Jews and Israelis oppose.

They write not only ‘asaJew’ but also as Israelis. And not only as Jews and Israelis, but as antiracist Jews and Israelis, as though this is a special and rare subcategory. The truth is that the ‘call to reject’ position on antisemitism is opposed by the overwhelming majority of antiracist Jews and Israelis. And most Jews and Israelis, just like anybody else, are against racism. And the ‘call to reject’ position is opposed by Jews who are against racism because they’re against racism, not in spite of it. To campaign specifically against the racism that targets you yourself is not disgraceful and nor does it signify a softness on racism that targets other people.

Generally, with identity politics, people say that their ‘lived experience’ as members of a targeted group gives them some special insight, partially hidden from those outside, to the nature of the racism that they suffer.

Nancy Hartsock argued that a standpoint ‘carries with it the contention that there are some perspectives on society from which, however well-intentioned one may be, the real relations of humans with each other and with the natural world are not visible.’[1]

But the ‘call to reject’ inverts identity politics. Its claim is that membership of the targeted group gives them not a privileged view, based on experience, of the racism that Jews suffer, but rather… special inside knowledge of the self-serving and dishonest claims made by the majority of Jews! They write as though their standpoint requires them to bear witness against the majority of Jews and Jewish institutions and to warn non-Jews about Jewish cunning, dishonesty and selfishness.

Most Jews on campus say that they experience antisemitism and they would like it if their fellow scholars and students were better at recognising and opposing it.[2] But the ‘call to reject’ by the 40 is keen to inform colleagues that the claims of mainstream Jews that they experience antisemitism are fake and that their IHRA definition is cooked up by Zionists, racists and Tories in a bad faith effort to silence criticism of Israel and to smear the left.

In the 1999 report of the public inquiry into institutional racism in the Metropolitan Police, Britain formally accepted the principle that if somebody says they have experienced racism then the initial assumption should be that they are telling the truth. This Macpherson Principle is related to the principle that if a woman says she has been the victim of sexual violence or rape, then authorities and institutions should conduct their investigation on the same initial assumption, that the complaint is made in good faith.

By contrast, the Livingstone Formulation,[3] named in 2006 after the then Mayor of London Ken Livingstone, is the standard articulation of the opposite assumption. The Livingstone Formulation says that that when people raise the issue of antisemitism, they are probably doing so in bad faith in a dishonest effort to silence legitimate criticism of Israel. It warns us to be suspicious of Jewish claims to have experienced antisemitism. It warns us to begin with the sceptical assumption that such claims are often sneaky tricks to gain the upper hand for Israel in debates with supporters of the Palestinians. And this is the substantial position of the ‘call to reject’ the IHRA definition of antisemitism.

The Livingstone Formulation does not allege that Jews often misjudge what has happened to them, it alleges that they lie about what has happened to them. It is not an allegation of error, or over-zealousness, perhaps explicable by reference to the antisemitism of the past. It is an allegation of conspiracy. The 40 do not say that (other) Jews and (mainstream) Jewish institutions campaign for IHRA out of a genuine if misplaced fear of antisemitism, it says that they do so with an ulterior motive of re-describing criticism of Israel as antisemitism in order to make it appear illegitimate. This is not an allegation made against this or that Jewish person, but against the overwhelming majority of Jews and their institutions.

A recent letter in the Guardian, signed by 95 leading Jewish student activists, states that they campaign for the adoption of the IHRA definition because they ‘seek to protect Jewish students and not the government of the State of Israel’. It went on:

The abuse we face is often cloaked in political discourse. When Jewish students who protested against Jeremy Corbyn’s visit to the University of Bristol described being called a ‘filthy zio’ and ‘a puppet of the Zionist lobby’, and being ‘repeatedly asked who was paying [them] to be there’, and told that they ‘should go back to where [they] belong’, they were not encountering criticism of the State of Israel; rather, they were experiencing naked antisemitism.[4]

Recently the old notion that Jews are rich and so side with the oppressors has re-emerged into the mainstream with the accusation that Jews pretend to have experienced antisemitism on the left, not only to silence Palestinians, but also to protect ‘capitalism’ itself.

The recent Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) report on antisemitism in the Labour Party[5] under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership felt the need to re-state the Macpherson principle specifically in relation to antisemitism. The report says that to assume that allegations of antisemitism are made in bad faith for ulterior motives may itself be antisemitic:

Labour Party agents denied antisemitism in the Party and made comments dismissing complaints as ‘smears’ and ‘fake’. This conduct may target Jewish members as deliberately making up antisemitism complaints to undermine the Labour Party and ignores legitimate and genuine complaints of antisemitism in the Party.[6]

When this was done by officers of the Labour Party, says the report, it constituted ‘unlawful harassment’ under the Equality Act (2010). The EHRC Principle is that the practice of dismissing complaints of antisemitism as ‘smears’ and ‘fake’ may itself be antisemitic. The wording is important here because it still requires judgment of the specifics of the case. Of course it is possible for an accusation to be made that is in fact fake, or a smear, just as it is possible for a woman to invent a story of rape. But to dismiss such accusations without proper investigation, without empathetic consideration and without taking them seriously may well be antisemitic – or sexist.

The EHRC saw a need to make this principle explicit because, during its investigation, it often saw accusations of antisemitism being dismissed as ‘fake’ or ‘smears’ in ways which were antisemitic. In the Labour Party at that time, such dismissals of Jewish experience as fake and smears were among the key ways in which Jews were subjected to antisemitism. The fact that this targeting of Jews allowed exceptional clemency from antisemitism for the tiny minority of Jews who explicitly disavowed allegations of Labour antisemitism does not make much difference. Mainstream Jews who said they had experienced antisemitism were dismissed as fakers and liars. The dismissal functioned as cover for the practice of refusing to look into the detail of what was alleged. Jews were treated not as individuals but only as instances of ‘the Zionists’. They were treated as though they were agents of Israel, the Board of Deputies, the Jewish Labour Movement, the Community Security Trust, the Chief Rabbi, and the Tory Party. To push the assumption that Labour Jews are really Tories, only pretending to be loyal to Labour, is to create a hostile environment for Jews. Something similar still happens routinely on our campuses.


It is important to understand that the EHRC emphasised the accusation of bad faith in its report because its investigation found that the accusation of bad faith was a significant antisemitic phenomenon in the real world.

This method reflects my own understanding of what is at the heart of social science as an empirical and materialist discipline. The best social science begins by looking at the world, and only from that basis is it able to develop theories to help make sense of the world. To be sure, the process goes both ways: empirical observation informs concepts and concepts then help us to understand the world that we’re looking at.[7]

The IHRA definition is similar in this respect. It highlights the possibility of antisemitism which is related to hostility to Israel not because somebody thought it was a good idea in the abstract, but because that is a significant part of the antisemitism to which actual Jewish people are subjected in the material world, as it exists. The IHRA definition was written following the experience of antisemitism at the World Conference against Racism at Durban in 2001, where there was a largely successful campaign to designate ‘Zionism’ as the key racism on the planet after the defeat of apartheid.[8]

This kind of political antisemitism, which targeted Jews as Zionists and Zionism as racism, was gaining ground on campuses too in the first years of the century. It was also related to what three of the key drafters of the definition describe as a ‘resurgence in antisemitic incidents in Europe including violent attacks on Jewish targets. Most occurred in Western Europe, and many were identified as coming from parts of local Arab and Muslim communities.’[9] Of course the definition also kept an eye on the persistence of right wing fascistic antisemitism, especially in Eastern Europe at that time. Today’s populism, with its potentially antisemitic targeting of a metropolitan, educated, liberal, cosmopolitan elite, cast in opposition to a ‘white working class’, was not yet foreseen.

Any definition does not come first out of thought but out of an understanding of, and an effort to describe, a thing which exists.

The ‘call to reject’ describes things which it does not think constitute antisemitism but it is not interested in describing the actual experience of antisemitism on the left and on campus. It describes what it considers to be legitimate ‘criticism of Israel’ but it does not describe the lived experience of actual antisemitism. If it did, it would have to think carefully about how to help people distinguish one from the other, but then it would have stepped back into the realm of rational politics from the world of conspiracy fantasy. The ‘call to reject’ is not concerned with the constructive work of describing and opposing antisemitism, it is concerned with the purely negative work of rejecting efforts to do so.

It should be obvious, although it is not obvious to the signatories of the ‘call to reject’, that the Macpherson Principle, the Equality Act, the EHRC report and also the IHRA definition are resources for fighting antisemitism which mutually reinforce one another. They are each the products of distinct layers of experience and understanding. They also reflect the continuity, as well as the particularity, of antisemitism in relation to other forms of racism, bigotry and other structures of exclusion. The anger with which some people who consider themselves to be antiracist show against Jews who say they are victims of racism is significant. As are the ways in which these antiracists tend to forget the principles and understandings which are usually second nature when they think about other racisms and unjust structures of power.

Some critics say that it is an error for Jews to include rhetoric which is related to Israel in a definition of antisemitism. But the fault does not lie with the drafters of the definition, the fault lies with the actual phenomenon of antisemitism which the drafters are trying to encapsulate and describe. Antisemites come for Jews, accusing them of being agents of Israel and Zionism. This kind of antisemitism defines ‘Zionism’ as racism, apartheid, imperialism and Nazism. In this context, the plurality of the ways in which Jews define their own identities and how they define their own relationships to Zionism and Israel are not relevant. What matters is the identity which is thrust upon them, in a hostile way from outside and without their consent, by antisemitism. Racism constructs race. Anti-Zionism constructs this kind of antisemitism.


The key thrust against IHRA in the ‘call to reject’ is the attempt to dismiss Jewish complaints of antisemitism as fake smears intended to chill freedom of criticism. The key claim in the ‘call to reject’ is the very thing that the EHRC report says is itself a significant manifestation of contemporary left antisemitism.

In truth the IHRA working definition is not a piece of magic which can tell you what is antisemitic and what isn’t. It is a much less ambitious document than that. It does not legislate anything as antisemitic. What it does do is draw attention to the kinds of things that we know, from experience, are sometimes antisemitic. It says that if you see these kinds of things, then you should make a judgment about whether your specific case is antisemitic or not. It sets alarm bells ringing over certain kinds of discourse. The alarm bells tell you where to look, they do not make final or fixed judgments.

The ‘call to reject’ says that the definition ‘constitutes an attack both on the Palestinian right to self-determination and the struggle to democratise Israel.’ It is utterly obtuse to read the IHRA definition as designating support for either of these, the right or the struggle, as being antisemitic.

Given that the definition explicitly advocates suspicion of those who would deny the Jewish people the right to self-determination, is it even thinkable that IHRA would advocate equal suspicion of those who refuse to deny the Palestinian people the right to self-determination? The definition is an attempt, in good faith, to help people and institutions to learn how to recognise antisemitism. The ‘call to reject’ reading of the definition sees it only as a bad faith and dishonest attempt to enshrine double standards in favour of Israel; double standards being something else which IHRA explicitly highlights as being suspicious.

When Jews talk about antisemitism, anti-Zionists invariably try to re-describe what they say they have experienced as being really to do with Israel and Palestine. Imagine if somebody accused the Jews of being capitalist exploiters, and Jewish people responded by saying that this is a classically antisemitic attack. ‘Ha!’ replies the antisemites. ‘Every time I criticise capitalist exploiters, somebody accuses me of antisemitism!’ No, we do not accept the antisemitic attempt to re-describe opposition to antisemitism as one side of a discussion about the rights and wrongs of capitalist exploitation.

The truth of course is that supporting Palestinian self-determination has nothing to do with antisemitism. Unless you think that it is conditional on denying Israeli self-determination; unless you think it requires you to support the antisemitism of Hamas and Hezbollah; unless you think it requires you to set up a hostile environment for Jews around the world under the assumption that they might be racist, imperialist, pro-apartheid or Nazis.

And the second claim, that the IHRA definition designates campaigns to make Israel more democratic as antisemitic, is even more deliberately obtuse than the first. Supporting Israeli democracy is nothing to do with antisemitism; unless you think that any possible Israel is necessarily undemocratic.

The IHRA working definition of antisemitism says: ‘…criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic’.The definition of antisemitism specifically protects criticism of Israel, and if the writers of the ‘call to reject’ were worried that their criticisms of Israel could be treated as antisemitic, they would campaign for the definition, for that very reason. If there really was some vicious and all-powerful Israel Lobby running around trying to silence criticism of Israel, and getting Tories to do its dirty work, the IHRA definition would be an important protection against those ends.


Here is the key passage from the ‘call to reject’.

To illustrate, one example of antisemitism is ‘[to claim] that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour.’ Another antisemitic act, according to the document, is ‘requiring of [Israel] … a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.’ Surely, it should be legitimate, not least in a university setting, to debate whether Israel, as a self-proclaimed Jewish State, is ‘a racist endeavour,’ or a ‘democratic nation.’

This is misleading.

First, note how the IHRA actually introduces all its examples of antisemitism: ‘Contemporary examples of antisemitism… could, taking into account the overall context, include…’. Note those two key words: ‘could’ and ‘context’.

The definition, then, does not simply designate any of the examples as definitely antisemitic. Rather, it offers examples which could, taking into account the overall context, be antisemitic. It says that if you see things like this, then make a judgment. Think about context; who has said it, what they’ve said, how they’ve said it, to whom they’ve said it, what was the intention, how could it have been understood, etc. Make a judgment, for these are the kinds of things that are, in some contexts, by experience, be antisemitic.

Second, consider how the 40 misquote the IHRA definition to advance their case. The ‘call to reject’ letter of the 40 presents the IHRA definition thus:

‘one example of antisemitism is ‘[to claim] that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour.’

Here is the actual wording of the IHRA Definition:

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.

The 40 have cut the all-important context to the ‘racist endeavour’ clause, which is the clause about ‘denying the Jewish people the right to self-determination’. Once we add that clause back in, it is clear that the IHRA definition is inviting us to consider, as a possible example of antisemitism, after taking context into account, the claim that any possible state of Israel would necessarily be a racist endeavour. And that would be an extraordinary claim to make. It would be criticism, not of Israeli policy but of Jewsish peoplehood per se, quite unlike that leveled against any other people, and it could, for sure, in certain contexts, be antisemitic.

Note: people doing research on Israel, on the life raft for the undead of Europe, on the ethnic cleansing of Jews from new states across the Middle East which defined themselves as ‘Arab’, on the Nakba, on 1948, on 1967, on civic and ethnic nationalism, on post-colonialism, on the history of the Israel/Palestine conflict would simply not be affected by this example.

Another example of how the 40 mangle the presentation of the IHRA definition to their advantage concerns ‘double standards’.

The 40 present the IHRA Definition as saying that the following is antisemitic:

‘requiring of [Israel] … a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.’

And here is what the IHRA actually proposes is (possibly, given the context) an example of antisemitism:

 Applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.

The 40 have cut the reference to ‘double standards’. This matters because double standards lie at the very heart of any racism or antisemitism. Racism and antisemitism is, precisely, the practice of requiring behaviour of one group that is not required of others, of relating to the target group differently and applying different criteria and assumptions to them.

Stunning Naivety: the 40 show no self-awareness of the histories of left wing and scholarly antisemitism

The clause ‘surely, it should be legitimate, not least in a university setting…’ is revealing There is a stunning naivety here about what is going on around these people on campuses and about the history of their own political and scholarly traditions.

Hundreds of examples and reams of analysis of left antisemitism have been flying around the public domain in Britain for years now. They have been accepted by the Labour Party as true; they have been condemned and detailed by the EHRC, they have been described in newspapers, books,[10] journals, scholarly papers, reports, documentaries, social media, the Jewish press and the institutions of the Jewish community. The academic unions tore themselves apart over the campaign to boycott Israeli colleagues and the antisemitism which came with that campaign. Antisemitism on campus has been opposed by the Union of Jewish Students and the Community Security Trust, by academics and by students, by Government and by the universities themselves, most of which have adopted the IHRA definition because they think it helps, given their own specific experience. The Israeli scholars of the ‘call to reject’ have apparently not seen any of this. They have not written about it. They think it is all a conspiracy to silence them and to smear the left.


Perhaps the most eccentric claim in the ‘call to reject’ is the criticism that the IHRA definition ‘singles out the persecution of the Jews’.

Well, if there is persecution of Jews, why not single it out? Is persecution of the Jews not something extraordinary and especially concerning? Why not describe it, hunt it down, expose it, oppose it, criticise it and educate about it?

Having spent pages describing how this talk about antisemitism is all got up as a Jewish and Tory conspiracy to prohibit criticism of Israel, towards the end we get a new claim: the problem is that their persecution is being ‘singled out’.

Obviously, it is antisemitism, not opposition to antisemitism, which singles out Jews for special hostility and persecution. Antisemites are obsessed by Jews. They invariably think that they are the victims of the powerful and cunning Jews, they think Jews try to de-legitimise legitimate criticism of Jews by falsely designating it antisemitism.

To be generous to the authors of the ‘call to reject’, I suspect what they mean to say is that IHRA privileges opposition to antisemitism over opposition to other racisms. Why can’t other victims of racism have their own special definitions too, and their own special examples? Antisemitism always asks why the Jews insist on being recognised as the Chosen People.

It is often said that Jews are ‘white’, are not excluded economically, are privileged, and so are not oppressed. Racism is a systemic and global structure of power, Jews are powerful, and so cannot be regarded as potential victims of racism. Through this lens is seen a singling out of Jewish persecution, a privileging of Jewish persecution, and that vision comes so very close to the charge that Jewish persecution is being invented for ulterior motives. In this discourse, antisemitism may not be invented, but it is no longer a real racism. So the worry is not that the IHRA definition privileges antisemitism over other racisms but that IHRA privileges antisemitism over racism.

However you interpret this claim of the 40, it is fundamentally an ‘all lives matter’ response to a ‘Jewish lives matter’ campaign.

And what is the problem with ‘all lives matter’? Simply put, it is a way of inverting, and subverting, a campaign against racism. It portrays ‘Black Lives Matter’ as a special pleading for black people to have more rights than white people, when really it is a campaign to address and reverse an existing injustice. The fact that ‘Black Lives Matter’ needs to be said is itself the indictment: it means that too often, black lives are treated as though they don’t really matter as much as white lives do. It is a mobilising slogan to address that situation.

The IHRA definition of antisemitism aims to educate people about the specific ways antisemitism comes at Jewish people today. Jewish communities ask institutions to adopt it as an act of good faith. Adopting IHRA shows that an institution is prepared to listen and to learn about how contemporary antisemitism works. If there is trouble down the line, if there are cases of antisemitism, if there are complaints, then it is there, as a framework which might help.

IHRA is not a special privileging of Jews, or of a concern with antisemitism, it is a way of taking it seriously. To say that antisemitism matters is not to say that other issues don’t matter.


Finally I would like to address that point about Government pressure. Universities should be autonomous institutions, managed and run as communities of scholars. They are not institutions of the state, managed and run by Governments.

I have argued here that the IHRA definition should be adopted by universities and other institutions because it helps. It is useful. The Government thinks so too.

Universities are and should be autonomous, but they are not islands which exist outside of the law and outside of the culture. They are organically linked to both the world of politics and to the worlds of civil society at every level. Ideas and movements which impact on society in general often incubate and circulate in universities – for good and also sometimes for bad.

Universities are subject to the Equality Act and to the overseeing role of the EHRC, as they are required to obey tax law, health and safety law, and every other kind of law.

The force of the ‘call to reject’ case against Government intervention here is that it does not really consider the fight against antisemitism to be carried out in good faith. The authors of ‘call to reject’ do not object to other kinds of antiracist policy being supported by Governments, only this one. So really, we are back to the central case against IHRA, which is that it is part of a Zionist and Tory conspiracy to hurt the left and to support Israel.

As we have seen, the only way that this position is sustainable is to ignore what IHRA really says. The tentative and meek set of guidelines, originally proposed by Jewish institutions and then adopted by many states and non state actors, has to be portrayed as something hugely threatening and powerful.

Behind the ‘call to reject’ is an assumption that something very powerful is at work here. The text may be meek and inoffensive text, the safeguards and caveats may be present, the ‘could’ and the ‘context’, but it is framed by the 40 as threatening because of the way in which ‘it will be used’. The safeguards and caveats, they think, only go to demonstrate the cleverness of the plot.

The real question we should be asking ourselves is how is it that we find ourselves in the situation where opposing antisemitism is a Tory issue, and resisting attempts to oppose antisemitism is portrayed as a scholarly and left wing point of principle. Why, when it comes to antisemitism, are the Tories so easily in a position to lecture us on opposing this kind of racism? It’s a question of where we went wrong, not where they went wrong.


[1] Hartsock, N.C.M. (1997) ‘The feminist standpoint: developing the ground for a specifically feminist historical materialism’, in L. Nicholson (ed.) The Second Wave: A Reader in Feminist Theory, London and New York: Routledge. P 159.

[2] Letter (2021). Jewish students are protected by the IHRA definition of antisemitism. [online] Theguardian.com. Available at: https://amp.theguardian.com/news/2021/jan/22/jewish-students-are-protected-by-the-ihra-definition-of-antisemitism?fbclid=IwAR0_S7kZV6tbsHr9ckxhfVPaLDnHr9wb9nAOzH-RFjzNXlgE_VLdcFiuEBc [Accessed 23 Jan. 2021].

[3] Hirsh, D. (2016) ‘How raising the issue of antisemitism puts you outside of the community of the progressive: the Livingstone Formulation’, Engage. Available: https://engageonline.wordpress.com/2016/04/29/the-livingstoneformulation-david-hirsh-2/ (accessed 20 January 2021).

[4] Letter (2021). Jewish students are protected by the IHRA definition of antisemitism. [online] Theguardian.com. Available at: https://amp.theguardian.com/news/2021/jan/22/jewish-students-are-protected-by-the-ihra-definition-of-antisemitism?fbclid=IwAR0_S7kZV6tbsHr9ckxhfVPaLDnHr9wb9nAOzH-RFjzNXlgE_VLdcFiuEBc [Accessed 23 Jan. 2021].

[5] EHRC (2020) Investigation into antisemitism in the Labour Party – Report. [online] Available at: https://www.equalityhumanrights.com/sites/default/files/investigation-into-antisemitism-in-the-labour-party.pdf [Accessed 20 Jan. 2021].

[6] Ibid, P. 28.

[7] Hirsh, D. (2013) ‘Hostility to Israel and antisemitism: toward a sociological approach’, Journal for the Study of Antisemitism, 5: 23–44. Available: http://www.jsantisemitism.org/images/journals/jsa_5-1.pdf (accessed 20 January 2016).

[8] Hirsh, D (2018) Contemporary left Antisemitism. London: Routledge. Chapter 5. An earlier draft of that chapter is: Hirsh, D. (2013). Defining antisemitism down. [online] Fathom. Available at: https://fathomjournal.org/defining-antisemitism-down/ [Accessed 20 Jan. 2021].

[9] This is from an open letter written by three of the people who were centrally involved in drafting the definition. The ‘call to reject’ is not accurate when it refers to Ken Stern, who is now a critic some of the ways in which he says the definition has been used, as ‘the lead drafter’ of the definition. See Baker, Berger and Whine (2021). Ken Stern isn’t the only author of the IHRA working definition of antisemitism. [online] Engage. Available at: https://engageonline.wordpress.com/2021/01/20/ken-stern-isnt-the-only-author-the-ihra-working-definition-of-antisemitism/ [Accessed 23 Jan. 2021].

[10] See, for example, Rich, Dave. (2016) The Left’s Jewish Problem: Jeremy Corbyn, Israel and Anti-Semitism,London: Biteback Publishing; Hirsh, David. (2018) Contemporary Left Antisemitism. London: Routledge; and Fine, Robert, and Philip Spencer. (2017) Antisemitism and the Left : On the Return of the Jewish Question. Manchester: MUP.

This piece, by David Hirsh, was published in fathom.

Ken Stern isn’t the only author the IHRA working definition of antisemitism

This is an open letter written by Rabbi Andrew Baker, Deidre Berger and Michael Whine, who were the people centrally responsible originally for writing the IHRA definition of antisemitism. It explains how it came to be written, why, and by whom. Ken Stern was one of a number of people involved in the early drafting of the document.

This letter has been made necessary because opponents of the definition have mobilized the name of Ken Stern as a key ongoing owner of the text, or the authoritative interpreter of the ‘real meaning’ of the text. Ken Stern’s First Amendment free speech absolutist position is in any case quite incompatible with the use which is being made of his position by antizionists and by people who want to continue doing things which are called into question by the definition.

January 19, 2021
Dr. Kathrin Meyer, Secretary General, IHRA
Ms. Katharina von Schnurbein, EC Coordinator on combating antisemitism and fostering Jewish life

Dear Kathrin and Katharina,

As adoption of the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism increases in both Europe and the United
States, opponents of the definition have frequently cited the critical views of one of the early drafters to
claim that it is being misapplied or used in ways that were not originally intended.

Since we were among that small group involved in the original development and drafting of the
definition, we want to set the record straight.

The IHRA Working Definition (adopted in May 2016) is based on an earlier version developed in 2004-
2005 and issued by the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) in March 2005.
(The EUMC was replaced by the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights in 2009.) The drafting and
development of the EUMC Working Definition of Antisemitism was a months long collaborative process,
involving a score of individuals. We were among those who were part of this from the very beginning.
This group included our colleague at the time, Kenneth Stern, who has since identified himself—or is
described by others–as the “author” or “primary drafter” of the Working Definition. This is simply not
true. But most troubling is the fact that this mythical elevated status is primarily touted because he is a
vocal critic of using the Working Definition and thus a helpful (witting or unwitting) ally for those who
today seek to discredit the IHRA Working Definition. Virtually all others who were involved in its
development believed then and continue to believe now that the adoption and use of the Working
Definition is an essential component in the fight against antisemitism.

Let us summarize for the record how the Working Definition came to be.

In 2001-2002, we witnessed a resurgence in antisemitic incidents in Europe including violent attacks on
Jewish targets. Most occurred in Western Europe, and many were identified as coming from parts of
local Arab and Muslim communities. This coincided with the breakdown of the Middle East peace
process and was reflected in the anti-Israel and antisemitic activities that were an unfortunate
consequence of the UN World Conference on Racism in Durban in 2001. European governments were
slow to recognize these attacks or to identify them as antisemitic in nature. As they continued, there
were calls for regional security and human rights organizations to address them. This resulted in the
Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) organizing its first conference on
antisemitism in 2003, and the EUMC commissioning its first study of antisemitism in the EU that same

In 2004, the OSCE organized a second, high level conference in Berlin, which resulted in the Berlin
Declaration on Antisemitism, supported by all 55 OSCE participating States. It declared that antisemitism
had taken on “new forms and manifestations” and stated that events in Israel and the Middle East, “can
never justify antisemitism.” Also, in 2004, the EUMC (having concluded that the report it commissioned
the previous year was inadequate) conducted its own study, relying on data from its own monitors in EU
Member States and in person interviews with Jewish leaders in Europe.

The new EUMC report presented in the spring of 2004 revealed that European Jews had a high level of
concern and anxiety in reaction to their firsthand observations of growing antisemitic incidents. The
information provided by the EUMC’s monitors was limited in some cases because there was scant data
on antisemitic hate crimes and limited polling data on anti-Jewish attitudes. In its own internal review,
the EUMC acknowledged that it was hampered by the lack of a common and comprehensive definition
of antisemitism and challenged by a lack of clarity in understanding those “new forms and
manifestations” of antisemitism as it relates to Israel. EUMC Director Beate Winkler and AJC Director of
International Jewish Affairs Rabbi Andrew Baker agreed that summer to work together to develop such
a definition.

Baker turned to his AJC colleagues, including Deidre Berger in Berlin and Ken Stern in New York, and to
other longtime collaborators, including Michael Whine of the CST in London. Academic experts,
including Dina Porat and Yehuda Bauer in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem were brought in, along with leaders
and representatives of several major Jewish organizations. Ken played the vitally important but limited
role of being the communications hub as various drafts and proposed language were circulated, slowly
moving toward a consensus agreement where his role ended.

All agreed the definition should include both a core paragraph defining the basic nature of antisemitism
and clear examples of its traditional and more contemporary forms.

Mike Whine took over the final drafting job and, with this in hand, the focus turned to Vienna. The three
of us were joined by the leadership team of the recently established Tolerance and Non-Discrimination
Unit at OSCE’s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), which had responsibility for
implementing the commitments spelled out in the OSCE Berlin Declaration. Together we worked with
the EUMC Director and her specialists, as further changes and revisions were made. We were wellaware that with the inclusion of examples relating to Israel, there would be challenges, and some would
say that they could be used to label critics of Israel as antisemitic. But we also recognized how egregious
some of these attacks had become and the importance of including this section. This was to be a guide
for better understanding antisemitism, not a speech code etched in stone. To strike the necessary
balance, we added the important, conditional phrase, “depending on the context.” In a further measure
to allay these concerns, the EUMC considered it important to state explicitly that criticism of Israel is not

In January 2005, we concluded the final drafting of what became known as the EUMC Working
Definition of Antisemitism, and in March 2005 it was formally released. In promoting and circulating the
Working Definition, its use was neither defined nor circumscribed. We understood then—as we do
today—that it is first and foremost an educational tool for those who need to know what antisemitism
is. This includes government, Jewish community, and other civil society monitors responsible for
recording antisemitic incidents. It includes those in authority who are responsible for identifying and
responding to antisemitic hate crimes and other antisemitic events, such as police, prosecutors, and
judges, among others. And it includes the public, whose understanding of the problem is essential to
marshal the full force necessary to combat it.

It was called a working definition for a reason. This was not meant to be a tool for academic researchers,
but for those, briefly identified above, who would put it to use. They would be the ones to determine its
value and its longevity.

In 2007, the US Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism, a newly appointed Congressionally
mandated position, applied the EUMC Working Definition to his work and posted it on the State
Department website. It was endorsed by Parliamentarians at the 2009 Inter-parliamentary Coalition for
Combating Antisemitism (ICCA) London Conference, and at successive ICCA Conferences in Ottawa
(2011) and in Berlin (2015). It was recommended for use by the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office in 2014.
Over fifteen years have passed since the EUMC issued its working definition. It has been slightly
modified and further amplified as the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism. It has been endorsed by
leaders of the European Union, the United Nations, the OSCE, and other international bodies. It has
been formally adopted by over thirty countries, including most EU Member States. It has become an
essential, educational tool for law enforcement.

We are heartened by the Working Definition’s increased use and international recognition as the
authoritative definition of antisemitism. While the threat of antisemitism in all its various forms is, sadly,
as great as it was fifteen years ago, this proper and comprehensive definition is now an essential
element in our common fight against it.

Rabbi Andrew Baker
Deidre Berger
Michael Whine, MBE

(Rabbi Andrew Baker is Director of International Jewish Affairs at the American Jewish Committee and
since 2009 the Personal Representative of the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office on Combating Anti-Semitism.
Deidre Berger is a consultant and former Director of the AJC Berlin Ramer Institute for German-Jewish
Relations. Michael Whine is the former Government and International Affairs Director of the Community
Security Trust, Senior Consultant World Jewish Congress, and UK Member of ECRI Council of Europe.)

Jews are asking for protection from their universities from antisemitism: David Feldman’s ‘All Lives Matter’ response is not helpful – David Hirsh

This is a response to the article in the guardian “The government should not impose a faulty definition of antisemitism on universities” by David Feldman.

After recently co-writing a decent article on antisemitism, David Feldman, the Director of Birkbeck’s Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism, has now reverted back to the politics that drove his meek complicity with the Chakrabarti whitewash of Labour antisemitism in 2016. And he didn’t even get a seat in the House or Lords.

The Union of Jewish Students and other institutions of the Jewish community, as well as the Government’s independent advisor on antisemitism John Mann, have been campaigning for universities to adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism. They say that the adoption of IHRA would give Jewish students and members of staff some confidence that they could hope for protection if they experienced antisemitism on campus.

And such antisemitism is commonplace in UK universities. Last week I was contacted by a student whose lecturer taught that IHRA was a pretext to silence criticism of Israel and by another whose Masters dissertation was failed because she wrote in the ‘wrong’ framework about Israel and Palestine. This kind of antisemitism is harder to sustain in institutions which have adopted IHRA.

In today’s Guardian article article, Feldman characterises the universities which make a point of not allowing IHRA to be part of their official armoury against antisemitism as “refusenik“.

The refuseniks were overwhelmingly Jews in the Soviet Union who were refused permission to go to Israel, although there were others too who were refused permission to leave. They were denounced as Zionist agents of imperialism, they were purged from their jobs, they were deported to Siberia, they were imprisoned, murdered and tortured. The refuseniks were victims of antisemitism at the hands of a totalitarian state which called itself “Marxist” and which demonized Zionism as the enemy of mankind.

Feldman turns this upside down. Today, for him, the refuseniks are the ideological descendants not of the Soviet Jews but of their oppressors, the apparatchiks and Party men who denounced Jews as particularist, pro-apartheid and privileged.

Jews go to their institutions and ask for protection against antisemitism. Feldman answers that all students and staff should be protected from all racism. He responds to “Jewish Lives Matter” in a rather “All lives matter” way.

Feldman says that the adoption of clear and specific protections against antisemitism would ‘privilege one group over others by giving them additional protections’.

In the 1840s in Germany, Bruno Bauer famously insisted that Jews should expect no special treatment. Progressives should not support equal rights for Jews until they had emancipated themselves from their own reactionary Judaism, and were prepared to fight for freedom alongside everybody else. The portrayal of the struggle against antisemitism as a demand for Jewish privilege is as old as antisemitism itself.

Bauer is famous because this ostensibly universalist attack on the special pleadings of the Jews was opposed with great clarity by Karl Marx himself, who argued against Bauer, and in favour of the democratic state unconditionally granting equal rights to Jews. It is ironic, (but who am I to judge?), that today’s left has more in common with Bauer, who most of them have never heard of, than with Marx, who they think they idolize.

Feldman even seems to include Corbyn’s Labour Party, judged by the Equality and Human Rights Commission to have unlawfully harassed its Jewish members, as “refusenik” with respect to IHRA.

The EHRC report on the Labour Party added a new explicit principle to IHRA, although in reality it was nothing more than a re-statement of the Macpherson principle with respect to antisemitism. Macpherson established that if somebody says they have experienced racism then you should begin by assuming that they’re right.

Ken Livingstone says that if that person can be designated as Zionist, then the assumption should be reversed: you should begin by assuming that they are lying in the hope of de-legitimizing criticism of Israel and smearing the left.

The new EHRC principle is that this very standard response, the Livingstone Formulation, is itself antisemitic. The practice of assuming that Jews are faking antisemitism in order to smear the left and silence free speech is itself antisemitic. It puts Jews outside of the community of rational discourse by refusing to engage with the truth of what they say, and attacking their imputed motivation instead. It is said that Jews ‘weaponize’ antisemitism; but really antisemitism has always been a weapon targeted at Jews.

Opposition to IHRA takes this antisemitic form. It is said that IHRA is an instrument which portrays itself as being about one thing but is really about another. It claims to be about antisemitism but it is really about accomplishing illegitimate Zionist interest by dishonest means.

So look at IHRA. Is it true that it silences freedom of speech? No. First, people are free to articulate antisemitic speech so long as it does not constitute harassment or incitement to violence. But Second, IHRA is a framework for thinking about what is antisemitic, not a machine which can automatically designate certain kinds of speech as antisemtic.

IHRA is explicit that criticism of Israel is not antisemitic. IHRA explicitly exhorts any judge to look at the complexities of context. Yet, say those who are afraid of IHRA, the text of the definition isn’t the real definition. Those who push the definition (Zionists and Tories) are so slippery that the real meaning of their document is the opposite of what is actually written in the document. This is the only reading of the definition by which people who do not articulate antisemitic ideas, could be afraid of the IHRA definition. And of course this itself is an antisemitic reading of the definition.

David Feldman makes much of his worry that people who want to boycott Israel, that is who want to exclude Israelis from the global community of science, scholarship, sport, arts and business, might be accused of antiemitism. Yet we know that wherever the boycott movement has taken root over the last twenty years, antisemitic harassment, discourse and exclusions have followed. David Feldman has still not really recognised the poison that moved from the academic unions into the broader labour movement and which then fuelled Labour antisemitism. He still doesn’t seem to understand how the Corbyn faction, which thought of itself as antiracist, ended up being found guilty of unlawful harassment of Jews by the commission which Labour itself had set up to strengthen the equality culture in Britain. Antisemitism came into the Labour Party via the boycott movement. The campaign to boycott Israel is antisemitic, but it is not designated as such by IHRA.

It is said that Palestinians should be allowed to describe their own oppression in whatever ways they see fit. And they are so allowed. But if some Palestinians choose to describe their own oppression in antisemitc ways then we, and our universities, have the right to say so. Nobody would argue that the Jewish experience of antisemitism gives Jews the right to adopt racism against others. When Jews do this, they are rightly criticised.

David Feldman finishes with a restatement of the description of antisemitism that he put forward in his Jewish Quarterly article with Ben Gidley and Brendan McGeever. There is antisemitism on our campuses, he says, but “this largely reflects a reservoir of images and narratives accumulated over centuries and deeply embedded in our culture”. He does not explain why people who think of themselves as antiracists on our campuses today are picking up and running with the antisemitic tropes they find in that reservoir. Feldman’s description is light on agency and the responsibility.

For Jews in universities it is no consolation that the antisemitism they face is simply a matter of the existence of a cultural reservoir full of things that can hurt them. What they need is assurance from their colleagues and from their institutions that these landmines from past conflicts will not be scattered around campus now, by people they work with, study with and are taught by. They want the people who scatter them around to be held responsible. Antisemitism is the problem, not the specific tropes that antisemites pick up and weaponize against us. And the IHRA definition is a small element of the the work of designating those reservoirs as toxic.

David Hirsh

%d bloggers like this: