Updated: Apr 17
The premise of this article is that conflating antisemitism with anti-Zionism with no nuance or consideration for the origins of anti-Zionism is dangerous, as it puts Palestinian human rights issues at odds with the safety of Jewish people globally from real and vitriolic antisemitism. Kenneth Roth, former head of Human Rights Watch, was denied a fellowship at the Harvard Kennedy School due to his criticism of Israel’s apartheid regime. This decision has since been reversed due to widespread condemnation of this violation of academic freedom. But this decision was informed by a much wider understanding of antisemitism as inextricably linked to Israel and the IHRA definition cements this very idea into practice. The EU Parliament recently declared that to refer to Israel as an apartheid state is antisemitic according to the IHRA definition. Talk of ethnic cleansing, apartheid, and institutional racism cannot be discussed in a chamber that claims to uphold international law, yet refuses to use the correct terminology to do so for Israel. And in a more shocking development, Minnesota Democratic representative Ilhan Omar has been ousted from the Foreign Affairs committee due to her assertion that Israel is an apartheid regime and the United States must reckon with its position on the Palestinian human rights crisis. She was declared an antisemite and removed from one of the most powerful committees in the world and another voice for Palestinians is lost. Yet Republican representative Matt Gatez who brought a Holocaust denier to the State of the Union Address is allowed to remain on committees. Republican representative Majorie Taylor Greene who spoke at an event hosted by Holocaust deniers, supports the Q’Anon conspiracy theory and suggested that “Jewish space lasers” are responsible for wildfires, also remains on powerful committees. Criticism of Israel that is evidence-based and in support of the human rights of Palestinians seems to be the only type of ‘antisemitism’ that is being addressed and this is in large part due to the IHRA definition of antisemitism.
The working definition of antisemitism proposed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) in 2016 has been at the centre of controversy since its conception. Many of these controversies reflect the intrinsic issues around the rhetoric of the Palestinian humanitarian crisis. The definition itself is as follows: “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.” While this general definition may itself not be an issue, the guiding examples of antisemitism provided present issues for the advocacy of Palestinian human rights. The examples within the IHRA definition puts Jewish people’s right to self-determination at odds with Palestinian people’s right to self-determination, rendering the criticism of Israel’s founding principles near impossible and presenting huge issues for academic freedom. This article proposes the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism as an alternative to the IHRA definition because it makes the distinction between antisemitism and anti-Zionism more clear and resolves many of the issues the IHRA definition presents.
The IHRA definition was originally adopted as a ‘non-legally binding’ categorisation to be used as a tool to identify and tackle antisemitism that often manifests in covert and complex manners. Since 2016, thirty-nine countries have adopted the IHRA definition and it has since been the legal framework for tackling antisemitism, despite that not being its intended use. This article delves into how this definition conflates antisemitism and anti-Zionism. This confusion has been institutionalised in a manner that stifles free speech and the advocacy of Palestinian Human Rights.
It is important to first emphasise that antisemitism is a dangerous and nefarious form of oppression under a white supremacist framework that must be rooted out and tackled. Antisemitism is, disturbingly, on a rise globally. Between select celebrities’ abhorrent social media comments and the circulation of antisemitic conspiratorial rhetoric like QAnon, the classic antisemitic tropes are ever present and it is imperative that we remain committed to tackling this issue.
The IHRA definitions’ vagueness when defining antisemitism, coupled with the specificity of criticism relating to Israel, has resulted in an asymmetrical application of this definition. This asymmetry is utilised in bad faith as a tool in shutting down, silencing and censoring criticism of the Israeli state in its objectives, practices, policies and laws under the guise of antisemitism. Seven out of the eleven illustrative examples within the IHRA definition relate either directly or indirectly to Israel, three of which will be the focus of this article.
Self-Determination for Who?
One example of antisemitism given by IHRA is “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour.” This situates Jewish peoples’ right to self-determination within an explicitly Zionist ideology.
Legal Scholar Hurst Hannum defines self-determination as having two key components that can be understood as internal and external self-determination. Internal self-determination is the right of the people of a state to govern themselves without outside interference. External self-determination is the right of peoples to determine their own political status and to be free of alien domination, including formation of their own independent state. Self-determination is widely recognised as a fundamental human right - being denied access to this right can decimate a people: politically, socially, spiritually and culturally.
Zionism is Israel’s founding ideology as a nation-state, dating back to the 19th century. Austrian-Jewish journalist, Theodor Herzl, argued that Jewish people need their own nation-state in order to escape brutal European antisemitism. Zionism envisioned this state as an ethno-exclusivist state - meant only for Jewish people. It is a form of dominant nationalism, in which the majority can claim sovereignty based on their collective identity whilst actively denying sovereignty to others This notion was compounded in law in 2018 when the Israeli Knesset passed a ‘nation-state’ law that states that “the right to self-determination” in Israel is “unique to Jewish people.” In Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s words “Israel is the nation-state of Jewish people - and only it.”
This means that Jewish people’s right to self-determination is put at odds with Palestinians’ right to self-determination and renders the two mutually exclusive. Palestinians are routinely and systemically denied the right to self-determination under a Zionist state. Palestinians living in occupied territories like the West Bank and Gaza have no citizenship and are essentially stateless. They do not have the right to vote and require ID cards from Israeli military to live and work in territories. They are subject to humiliating and degrading checkpoints in order to access other parts of the country.In East Jerusalem, Palestinians are not granted citizenship - only permanent residence, however this is in name only. Since 1967, the rights of over 14,000 Palestinans to reside and exist in these spaces was revoked by the Ministry of the Interior, forcibly transferring them outside of the city. In March 2022, the Israeli Knesset passed a ‘marriage law’ that denied naturalisation of Palestinians in the West Bank or Gaza who are married to Israeli citizens, most of whom are the minority Palestinian citizens of Israel. This law has forced thousands of Palestinian citizens to either immigrate outside of Palestine completely to be with their families or renders them permanently separated. Proponents of the law say it will help maintain the ‘Jewish character’ of Israel. Some members of the Knesset explicitly stated that the law intended to prevent a gradual right of return for the Palestinian diaspora or those who live in occupied territories.
“The State of Israel is Jewish and so it will remain,” said Simcha Rothman of the far-right Religious Zionist Party, a member of the opposition who brought the law forward with Shaked.
Palestinian citizens of Israel have more de facto rights than in any other region, like the right to vote. But the discrimination they face is violent dispossession of their land. Israel views these Palestinian ‘citizens’ as demographic threats to the land, their access to land is limited by the Jewish National Fund (JNF). Since 1901, the JNF has bought and distributed land in historic Palestine only to Jewish people, Palestinians are forcibly dispossessed of their land as a result.
All these examples seek to illustrate the political goal of the State of Israel as a Zionist state, which is to privilege Israelis through the distribution of land, resources, political power, social and economic power and in doing so, erase the Palestinian presence in order to maintain the cultural and religious character of the ‘Jewish State’. This can only be done through the systematic erasure of Palestinian existence in the land. According to Hannum’s definition of self-determination, Palestinians are routinely denied access to both internal and external self-determination, this is inevitable given the ideological framework of Zionism.
Rashid Khalidi, a Palestinian-American historian, illustrates how this conflict was never between two national movements who both fought equally over the land but it was always a settler-colonial conquest. He provides compelling primary sources of a letter exchanged between his great-great-great uncle, Yusuf Diya and Theordor Herzel in 1899. After Yusfu Diya pointed out that the project of Zionism was a noble one but Palestine was not a ‘land with no people’, Herzel claimed that the ‘non-Jewish’ population, at which point made up over 95% of the population, would benefit from the modernisation that Jewish people would bring unto the Arab people. This language is on par with the condescending colonial mindset present worldwide throughout history, and it remains in current Zionist ideology, implying that Palestinians cannot be trusted to govern because they are uncivilised and that their resistance is the barrier to peace in the region.
The IHRA definition rightly asserts Jewish people’s right to self-determination, but this is contextualised only within the current formation of the State of Israel. This renders any imagination of a non-Zionist vision of the future, such as a secular democratic nation that represents all citizens equally, antisemitic. The overwhelming amount of evidence of Israel’s apartheid policies, systematic and institutionalised racism against Palestinians cannot be discussed without claims of antisemitism being levelled. Whilst it is true that anti-Zionism can take on antisemitic forms and can have antisemitic motivations, the entire premise of anti-Zionism is not, in itself, antisemitic. To claim so is to deny the realities of the State of Israel and purposefully allow it to evade international criticism. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Oxfam have been accused of antisemitism for releasing reports about the apartheid policies and laws of Israel, this reveals the limitations of this definition and how it stifles the ability to advocate for Palestinian human rights.
Double Standards of Oppression
The IHRA definition gives another two examples that will be the focus of the next part of this article. It states that it is antisemitic to “apply(ing) double standards by requiring of it [Israel] a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.” In another part, it states that “criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”
The initial problem here is clear, what is the ‘behaviour’ expected of Israel that is not expected of other democratic nations? Equal treatment of citizens regardless of ethnicity, race and religious affiliation is a common expectation of democratic nations, an expectation that is frequently and consistently interrogated in nations across the globe. This claim also hits at the centre of the issue of the inception of the Israeli state - it is not and cannot be a democratic country with an ethno-exclusivist political goal.
It requires a condemnation and acknowledgement of all the misdeeds, injustices and human rights abuses of all other democratic nations before beginning to condemn Israel’s oppression of Palestinians. There is no acknowledgement that these criticisms are not motivated by hostility against Jewish people but rather the nature of successive governmental policy towards Palestinians. If a state has more unjust practices and policies than another state there is good reason to criticise it more. The assumption is that if one criticises the State of Israel without first acknowledging and condemning all other injustices on an equal level, then they are doing so for antisemitic reasons. The Western democratic states that the State of Israel proudly associates itself with, such as the United Kingdom and the United States, operate on similar racist and hierarchical practices against marginalised communities. This allows the State of Israel to evade accountability for the apartheid practices on the basis that other democratic countries are just as deplorable. The notion of ‘double standards’ makes it near impossible to challenge the settler-colonial roots of the project of the Israeli state. Countries like the United States are guilty of similar atrocities of the State of Israel and as a result to condemn Israel requires an initial self-awareness and accountability, this impedes the ability of these nations to impart blame equitability.  It is no coincidence that Irish, Native American and Aboriginal-Australian solidarity with Palestine is so prominent because these groups are also victims of a settler-colonial state and therefore find an affinity with the plight of Palestinians.
The example of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) is pertinent here. BDS is a Palestinian-led global movement for freedom, justice and equality. It advocates a withdrawal of economic support for Israeli companies, products and corporations that fund the apartheid state. This is paired with a political campaign to impose sanctions on Israel in order to pressure the state into dismantling the apartheid system. Not dissimilar to the US and UK foreign policy direction pursued with Russia at the beginning of the Russian attack on Ukraine.
The claims of antisemitism were levelled against this movement because it was seen to unfairly target Israel and root for the dismantling of the ‘only Jewish state’ in the world. However, these claims levelled under the IHRA definition, fail to acknowledge that BDS has historic roots in the countermovement against South African apartheid policies. It was the largest contributing factor to the dismantling of the South African apartheid state. Famously, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was resistant to impose harsh economic sanctions because she categorised the African National Congress as ‘terrorists’ and claims have been made by former head of the Diplomatic Service, Sir Patrick Wright that she was sympathetic to the ‘whites-only’ state. But nonetheless, her support was instrumental to the eventual collapse of the apartheid regime. The BDS movement against South African apartheid did root for the end of the ‘whites-only’ state because it denied the native population the right to self-determination. However, the end of apartheid policies in South Africa did not prevent white South Africans from exercising self-determination under a different state framework.
The Palestinian BDS movement is simply asking for the international community to pressure Israel into compliance with international law. Israel has violated 28 UN Security Council Resolutions regarding occupation of Palestinian territory, military aggression, land settlements and several human rights violations. It has also been in flagrant violation of international law, such as the Geneva convention, the Rome statute and the Hague convention. The BDS movement is not asking for anything that is not already enshrined in international law. However, the IHRA definition of antisemitism has been used to undermine and silence its attempts at advocating for Palestinian Human Rights.
In 2018, Justin Trudeau delivered a speech in which he issued an apology to the Jewish community on behalf of Canada for turning away boats of 900 Jewish refugees in 1939. This boat was rejected by several other European countries before returning to Germany and an estimated 250 Jewish people were murdered as a result. Trudeau then goes on to discuss how antisemitism is on the rise globally. Instead of using this opportunity to address the concerning rise of Neo-Nazism and white supremacist groups that continue to spread hateful antisemitic rhetoric and target Jewish synagogues in violent hate crimes, he chooses to use BDS as a contemporary example of antisemitism. This represents a concerted effort to displace white European guilt and accountability for antisemitism (as a form of oppression that continues to function under an umbrella of white supremacy) onto those who advocate for Palestinian Human Rights.
Knowledge Creation and Academic Freedom
The IHRA definition was never intended to be used as a legal tool and yet it has been forcibly institutionalised by law onto many university campuses. In 2020, the UK government threatened to cut the funding of universities who do not adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism and now more than ⅕ of UK universities have adopted the definition.Trump’s executive order, codified the IHRA definition into law, and has essentially made it part of the campus hate speech code. Kenneth Stern, the lead drafter for the IHRA definition, states that this was never the intended use of the definition. It is being used on campuses to stifle academic freedom and free speech on university campuses in regards to Palestinian matters. Stern identifies himself as a proud Zionist but vehemently believes in the protection of Palestinian advocates to exercise their right to free speech. He asserts that discussion of these ideas must be facilitated because although he is a “Zionist. I suspect that if [...] I had been born into a Palestinian family displaced in 1948, we might have a different view of Zionism, and that need not be because we vilify Jews or think they conspire to harm humanity.” 
University campuses are places of knowledge creation and epistemology. History is being written by the scholars who teach and research at these institutions, there has been a longstanding imbalance in how history is presented and written, and by whom. The IHRA definitions institutes a system of heavy censorship and often self-censorship of professors and academics both in how they teach and in the research they conduct on Palestine. This effect is already evident across the UK; in 2017 the University of Manchester was pressured by the Counsellor for Civil Society Affairs at the Embassy of Israel to change the title of a lecture given by a Holocaust survivor that was critical of Israel, whilst invoking the IHRA definition.
There have been several other cases in which professors have been fired, prevented from using certain material, sources and have had to self-censor the way they speak about Israel, lest they invoke claims of antisemitism. Such as Professor David Miller who was fired from the University of Bristol for critiquing Zionism in a lecture on Islamophobia. He was fired despite being cleared by the university’s tribunal court for any wrongdoing. The Community Security Trust (CST) pressured the University to fire him in order to protect the safety of Jewish students. The limitation of ‘reputable’ academic sources being created about Palestine will affect the scholarship about this crisis decades from now. The history of Palestine will not be told by its proponents, it will be told by the victors. The IHRA definition ensures that this is the case.
The University of Aberdeen replaced the IHRA definition with the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism (JDA) in October of 2022 for the aforementioned reasons.
The JDA definition makes the distinction between antisemitism and anti-Zionism much more clear and coherent. It was written in response to the shortcomings of the IHRA definition, and aims to clarify the definition of antisemitism, whilst also ensuring there is a space for Palestinians to advocate for their human rights. It provides detailed and focused examples of antisemitism on a broader level and then delves into what can and cannot be regarded as antisemitic in regards to Israel and Palestine.
For example, requiring Jewish people to publicly condemn Israel and Zionism just because they are Jewish, is in fact antisemitic. However, opposing Zionism as a form of nationalist ideology is not in itself antisemitic. It also finds that evidence based criticism of Israel, including its founding principles and institutions, is not antisemitic. This definition is significant in the realm of academic freedom, it allows for critiques of Zionism as a nationalist ideology whilst also illustrating the ways this criticism might appear in antisemitic ways or with antisemitic motivations. This is critical for all areas of social engagement, not just academic fields. The fight against antisemitism is an important and urgent one. This is often impeded by the expansive and violent framework of white supremacy that threatens communities of colour in differing ways. We must acknowledge that this includes Palestinians.
The examples given in the IHRA definition have changed the cultural and social understanding of how to engage in rhetoric about the Palestinian humanitarian crisis. The plight of Palestinian people has unfortunately been entangled in how antisemitism is understood. The basis of any social movement that is strong enough to dismantle violent systems and institutions is indeed masses of committed and dedicated people. People may be on the fence about wholeheartedly supporting the Palestinian cause, out of fear of being part of a movement that has been smeared by claims of antisemitism. Understandably, people do not want to be associated with antisemitism, anyone who cares about maintaining the respect of all human rights would not want to be inadvertently antisemitic. However, this means people take a half-step back in their support for Palestine when they should be stepping forward wholeheartedly. One might chuckle uncomfortably when the topic of Palestine comes up, or refer to it as a ‘deeply complex issue’, to avoid seeming like an avid supporter of Palestinian rights and thus harbouring a secret hatred of Jewish people. These social assumptions have absolutely been shaped by the IHRA definition and its uses in policing media, literature or any pop culture references to Palestine.
The IHRA definition of antisemitism is not an effective one, it requires an emotional bargaining of sorts from Palestinians in order to be able to freely advocate for their human rights to be respected. It dangerously institutionalises the conflation between anti-Zionism and antisemitism and grants the State of Israel impunity on the world stage. Israel can deport Palestinian citizens, prevent them from marrying Arab-Israeli citizens or deny them the right to vote and still be immune from accusations of racism and apartheid under the IHRA definition and instead level the claim of antisemitism against its critics. Definitions are hugely important in being able to identify and properly categorise oppression but we cannot allow such definitions to inadvertently legitimise the oppression of other minority groups.
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