The Irish government’s support for a new definition of antisemitism which includes equating criticism of Israeli government policies with antisemitism is a real threat not only to the fight against the blight that is antisemitism but to freedom of expression and the campaign for Palestinian rights. It is definitively a step in the wrong direction and must not be allowed to become official policy and incorporated into Irish law.
Open conflict has broken out in the Jewish community in Britain with Israeli government supporters slandering fellow Jews with accusations of antisemitism. The backdrop to the bizarre conflict is a new definition of antisemitism launched by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) where the Irish government is one of the 31 member states represented.
The IHRA describes itself as an alliance to coordinate and “strengthen the moral commitment of societies and to combat growing Holocaust denial and antisemitism.” Member delegations are a mixture of government officials and academic experts on the Holocaust.
Career diplomat Martina Feeney is the head of the Irish delegation which includes several other representatives from government departments as well as academics and representatives from the Irish Jewish Museum, Holocaust Education Trust of Ireland and the Herzog Centre.
The IHRA document that has created so much unrest in the UK consists of a “new” definition of antisemitism, which is in itself relatively unproblematic. The controversial core of the conflict however is the use of so-called “contemporary examples of antisemitism” which allow for criticism of the state of Israel to be classified as antisemitism – a move which totally ostracizes the massive opposition by Jewish people both internally in Israel and worldwide to certain Israeli state policies, not least the occupation of Palestine. Attaching the blight of antisemitism to criticism of the nation state of Israel is definitively a step in the wrong direction.
Liberty – the UK human rights organization previously known as the National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL) – has expressed great concern, stating that the IHRA document poses a real threat to freedom of expression. At its Annual General Meeting in May this year, it warned public bodies not to adopt this definition of antisemitism “because it brings confusion to the fight against anti-Jewish prejudice as well as constituting a threat to freedom of expression.” Even attorney Kenneth Stern, a key person in IHRA’s work on the new definition, has warned that it is being used to “encourage punishment of legitimate expressions of political opinion”.
The IHRA maintain that the formulation of a “new” definition was necessary given the differing perceptions internationally of what constitutes antisemitism and how it manifests itself. According to the organization, the so-called “examples” are separate from the definition itself, but merely provide instances of how antisemitism can easier be identified. And yet it has now become abundantly clear that the definition and the accompanying examples are being used as part of a deliberate campaign to stifle opposition to the Israeli occupation.
The United Kingdom was the first state to approve the IHRA document as its official definition of antisemitism and Israel followed suit a few months later. In both countries, it is currently being used to target organizations which are critical of Israel and support Palestinian rights. Israeli government supporters have, for example, urged the UK authorities to ban the annual “Israel Apartheid Week” and the Palestinian led international Boycott Divest Sanctions (BDS) campaign which they accuse of antisemitism according to the new guidelines.
The last year has seen the British Labour party under massive, sustained pressure amid repeated accusations of antisemitism brought to bear by the zealots actively quoting the IHRA to challenge Corbyn’s leadership of the party. It is no coincidence that Corbyn’s record of supporting Palestinian rights is second to none.
The Israeli government “hasbara” propaganda campaign to portray human rights organizations and pro-Palestinian supporters as antisemites has been on-going for many years. Last year, the news channel Al Jazeera documented how the Israeli Embassy in London collaborated with leading figures in both the Conservative and Labour parties to undermine their own parties from within and to “take down” elected representatives who did not follow the Israeli line regarding the occupation of Palestine. Now, the campaign against those who criticize Israel government policy has reached deep into the Jewish community in London.
The controversial Nation State Act, passed by a small number of votes in the Israeli Knesset earlier this year, was met with major demonstrations in Tel Aviv, supported by opposition parties, human rights organizations and non-Jewish minorities in the country. The law has been met with a wave of international criticism with its staunchest critics stating that the new legislation is yet another confirmation of Israel’s status as an “apartheid state” and that the law is racist.
Among the more moderate critics in London is Sheila Gewolb, Vice President of the British Board of Deputies of British Jews, a respected organization that is part of the World Jewish Congress. In a rare intervention in internal Israeli politics, Gewolb declared the law a step in the wrong direction. Her concerns garnered support from others in the Jewish community in London, including the New Israel Fund, Yachad and religious leaders like Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner.
The statement led to open attacks on Gewolb, and the Jewish Chronicle recently reported a campaign to censure the vice president accusing her of “antisemitism,” with the IHRA document being quoted to justify the accusations against her. The two deputies who were pushing for a no confidence vote against Gewolb are now themselves subject to a “motion of censure” for supposedly bringing their own organization into disrepute. It is positively Orwellian.
In addition to Britain and Israel, the governments of Austria, Romania, Germany, Bulgaria and Lithuania have now all adopted the IHRA document. In June 2017, the European Parliament called on member states to do the same – without discussing or problematizing the so-called “contemporary examples” which have created such chaos in the London Jewish community.
Although it long been a part of Israeli government strategy to absurdly denounce critics of Israel’s occupation of Palestine as antisemites, it is now being done with the IHRA document in hand – and the targeting is now extended to include Jewish critics of Netanyahu’s right wing government.
Recently the European Coordination of Committees and Associations for Palestine (ECCP), representing thirty unions and three million members from all over Europe, stated that there is strong evidence that the IHRA working definition is already being used in practice “to restrict, outlaw and criminalize…peaceful efforts for Israel’s respect of Palestinian human rights.”
The IHRA, in which the Irish people are represented by several government departments including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is now being used by the Israeli government as part of a cynical policy to cower domestic and international critics into submission.
Ireland has not yet adopted the “new” document into law and nor should we. It is a damaging step in the wrong direction not only to the fight against antisemitism, freedom of speech and civil liberties at home but also the right of the Palestinian people to raise their voices in protest at the forced occupation of their homeland.