The UK government’s new ‘anti-semitism’ definition conflates racism with valid criticism of Israel

We risk repeating what the Israeli journalist Boaz Evron, three decades ago, recognised as “not at all an understanding of the past but a manipulation of the present.”

David Rosenberg
23 December 2016
UK prime minister Theresa May. PA Wire/PA Images. All rights reserved.

UK prime minister Theresa May. PA Wire/PA Images. All rights reserved.In 1981, a wise Israeli journalist called Boaz Evron observed that the Jewish people endured two tragedies in the twentieth century. One of course was the Holocaust. The second, he suggested more controversially, was what he termed “the lessons drawn from it” by those in power in Israel. These were the narrow nationalist lessons that “Never Again” applied to the Jews alone, rather than humanity in general; that anti-semitism was different from other forms of racism; that threats to Israel were always existential; that critics of Israel were always motivated by anti-semitism, and many of them really wanted to perpetrate a second Holocaust.

In Evron’s view, the main aims of Holocaust awareness perpetuated by Israeli politicians and mainstream media, and through Israel’s education system, were “not at all an understanding of the past but a manipulation of the present” (my emphasis).

My mind drifted back to Evron’s words when I heard that the UK prime minister Theresa May had decided that she wanted to adopt a definition of anti-semitism drawn up by a group called the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), and turn it into law in Britain. May says this will enable her government to tackle rising anti-semitism.

But you wouldn’t draw such confidence if you looked down the list of the 30 countries that have also signed up to this approach. These include several where anti-semitic incidents are on the rise, and some, such as Austria, Poland, Greece and Hungary, where politicians and leading commentators seem to indulge in anti-semitism themselves.

It’s not very international either. The countries signed up to the alliance are, with just four exceptions, confined to Europe. Those four exceptions are Argentina, Canada, Israel, and the US. The latter has just elected a president who was not only endorsed enthusiastically by dozens of far-right organisations in America, but who used anti-semitic tropes in his election campaign.

Is this coalition really saying that African and Asian countries (other than Israel), despite long histories of exposure to racism and its terrible outcomes, and the fact that several have diasporic Jewish communities, have nothing to contribute on tackling anti-semitism?

This definition by the IHRA is also an act of manipulation. It draws heavily on an earlier attempt in Europe: the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) definition of 2005. This was dropped by the European Union Fundamental Rights Agency in 2013 because of the way it had stretched and twisted that definition to include various forms of criticism of Israel and opposition to Zionism.

Now, the IHRA seeks to revive the worst aspects of the EUMC definition, for the main purpose, I believe, of defending the Israeli government’s increasingly indefensible policies from attack by supporters of human rights, by anti-racists, and by growing numbers of dissident Jews in Europe, America, South Africa, and also in Israel. If you can label such critics as anti-Semites, you can hope to nullify their impact among the wider population and on political actors who might challenge the continued oppression of the Palestinians.

The basic definition that the IHRA works from is rather wordy but not so contentious:

“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.”

Immediately after that, though, it leaps to:

“Manifestations might include the targeting of Israel conceived as a Jewish collectivity.”

That is quite a catch-all. So it then steps back to reassure those of us who may be less than enthusiastic about the actions of the Israeli state, that “criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic”. But there are reasons why Israel attracts a qualitatively different kind of opprobrium to most other states, and it is not about anti-semitism. It is about Israel being an ethnocracy and an occupying power.

There is no doubt that many social democratic states around the world have a long way to go before we can say that their minority populations are treated equally. There is much institutionalised and indirect racism across the world, but in most countries it is against the law; in Israel, though, discrimination is built into many of the laws. Palestinians within the pre-1967 borders of Israel are second class citizens, and those in the Occupied Territories are ultimately under Israeli state control and suffer daily acts of repression despite a certain measure of autonomy given to the Palestinian Authority.  Palestinian political activists (including children) fill Israel prisons, many of them under administrative detention with no date set for any process of justice.

The IHRA definition gives eleven examples of anti-semitism, six of which mention Israel, while one refers to “it” meaning the State of Israel. This conflation of Israel and Jews has the potential to outlaw perfectly legitimate pro-Palestinian human rights campaigns as anti-semitic. It is also dangerous for Jews. If opposition to Israeli policy and state action can be defined as anti-semitic in such a manipulative way, those who will quite rightly continue to stand up for Palestinian rights will become less frightened of the label “anti-semite”; as a result, the targets of their actions might spread from those directly identified with the Israeli state to more general Jewish targets.

Theresa May deliberately added to this blurring of Jews and Israel by announcing her plan not at a Jewish community gathering, but at a luncheon organised by the Conservative Friends of Israel – a body that brings together right-wing non-Jewish and Jewish supporters of Israel, a number of whom have expressed less than sympathetic attitudes towards Muslims.

One of the sleights of hand which fuels that conflation is this clause:

“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.”

Let’s unpack this. Jewish people live in many different countries where they exercise their self-determination. They live as Jews, practising their Jewish life in each of them in their own way, in almost every single case with very few or no restrictions. Most Jews in the world already have one homeland and don’t see the need for another. For many decades now, almost every Jew who wished to do so could go to Israel where they would automatically be granted citizenship to exercise their self-determination there, something denied to Palestinian refugees. The majority have opted to stay in the diaspora, and that diaspora has been swelled by a significant number of Israelis who find it much more tolerable to live outside of Israel. Most Jewish self-determination therefore takes place outside of a “Jewish State”.

As for the accusation that the existence of Israel is a racist endeavour, you don’t have to believe that those who founded Israel were inspired by racism to recognise that racism has been an indisputable outcome of the creation of Israel, and that this racism has had more horrible manifestations in each succeeding decade. Neither do you have to define all Zionists as racists to acknowledge as a fact that Israel’s creation involved the displacement, the ethnic cleansing, of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians.

The creation of Israel solved a problem for many Jewish Holocaust survivors who languished for years in Displaced Persons camps in Europe with no countries offering to take them. But as their problem was solved by moving to Palestine/Israel, another tragic problem was being created for another people who had just as much or more right to live there.

Many Jews who settled in Israel were in fact left-wing, anti-racist, anti-fascist idealists who settled in kibbutzim and believed they were creating a new and just society. They sincerely believed that they were striking a blow against anti-semitism in the world, but they were blind to its impact on the Palestinians.

Israeli society is not monolithic, and there are a small but growing number of groups in Israel who challenge the status quo, who monitor human rights abuses, who stand up for Palestinian rights, who engage in solidarity activity despite repression from the authorities, and who are not afraid to call many actions of the Israeli state “racist” endeavours. It would be the height of absurdity to label these people and groups “anti-semites” but that is where definitions like the IHRA’s take us.

What kinds of attitudes towards Holocaust remembrance are likely to be engendered when the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, in practice, uses that name as a shield to defend an ethnocracy, a heartless occupying power, from perfectly legitimate censure? It will undoubtedly engender attitudes of cynicism and even hostility. That is bad for humanity.

Holocaust remembrance gains, rather than lessens, in its importance in a world that is sliding further and further away from the Declaration of Human Rights established just after the horrors of the Nazi genocide. Whether it is the treatment of longstanding minorities, newer migrants, or refugees, we see unambiguous processes of scapegoating, discrimination, exclusion, and dehumanisation unfolding in front of our eyes. Processes that must feel very painful to those, such as Boaz Evron, now nearly 90 years old, and to so many human rights campaigners, who have made an effort to learn and apply the lessons for humanity from the Holocaust.

Those lessons implore us to stand up and unite against all forms of racism and intolerance, whether directed against Jews, Blacks, Gypsies and Travellers, Muslims or, indeed, Palestinians.

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