Why the world needs a new definition of anti-Semitism
If you ask Amos Goldberg why a much-cited definition of anti-Semitism is not enough to combat hatred of Jews, the professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem gets emotional: "It has become a tool to silence any criticism of Israeli politics, it has become a tool to silence free speech," he says in interview. The problem is not so much the definition itself, but the examples appended to it. At issue here is the "Working Definition of Antisemitism" proposed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, IHRA for short, an intergovernmental body to which 34 countries belong, including Germany.
Goldberg and fellow activists responded by formulating a new definition a few weeks ago, which they call the "Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism" (JDA). "Conscious of the persecution of Jews throughout history and the universal lessons of the Holocaust and viewing with alarm the reassertion of anti-Semitism by groups that mobilise hatred and violence in politics, society, and on the internet," they say at the outset, the JDA is intended to be "a usable, concise, and historically-informed core definition of anti-Semitism with a set of guidelines". Because the danger of anti-Semitism, Goldberg is keen to emphasise, is real.
At the same time, the JDA clearly distances itself from the IHRA definition. It not only aims to help recognise and combat anti-Semitism in its current form at an early stage, but also to define when this accusation goes too far.
That is one of the reasons why Jonathan Rynhold from Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv rejects the new definition. "I think it is a step backwards," he said in interview. "It is more interested in stressing what isn't anti-Semitism than helping people to understand what anti-Semitism is. The Jerusalem Declaration rather accommodates than challenges the new anti-Semitism that's more focused on Israel than on Jews per se." In his view, the fact that seven of eleven examples given by the IHRA definition refer to Israel is only logical.
Criticism of Israel – where does anti-Semitism begin?
For example, the IHRA definition states, among other things, that it is anti-Semitic to deny the Jewish people their "right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of the state of Israel is a racist endeavour." Or in applying double standards by requiring Israel to behave in a certain manner that is not expected from or demanded of any other democratic nation.
This is a problem, says Holocaust researcher Goldberg, who criticises the IHRA definition, citing, among other things, the example of the recent escalation between Israel and the Palestinians, which resulted in a warlike confrontation between Israel and Hamas.
"It all started in the Palestinian neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah in Jerusalem. Palestinian families are evicted from their homes according to a state law that enables Jews to reclaim their pre-1948 property while it prohibits Arabs from doing just the same," Goldberg explains, asking, "Is it anti-Semitic to call such a legal system apartheid? To see it as racist? To harshly protest against it? Or is it the unpleasant truth against which it is only legitimate to protest?"
Human rights organisations such as the Israeli NGO B'Tselem would be branded anti-Semitic by right-wing think tanks such as the NGO Monitor on the basis of such IHRA examples because they use the term "apartheid regime" for Israel.
"We should distinguish between harsh talk against Jewish individuals and communities who are a vulnerable minority, and harsh talk against state violence committed by a regional nuclear superpower and an illegal occupier." Israel, Goldberg said, must be held accountable for crimes just like any other powerful state.
"We are allowed to call any country racist – except Israel. That's a double standard! No other country, no other people is protected by such a firewall that prevents any substantial critique."
Rynhold counters that specifically criticizing Israeli policy is not anti-Semitic in itself. But if Zionism is targeted as the only national movement in the world that is illegitimate and racist, then this demonizes the state of Israel.
In Rynhold's estimation, the past escalation between Israel and Hamas has emboldened people with anti-Semitic views to take to the streets and demonstrate under the pretext of being anti-war in predominantly Jewish neighbourhoods of London, for example.
"I wouldn't call them 'pro-Palestinian' demonstrations," he says. "I call them anti-Israel and anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish demonstrations, because what one sees with these groups is that when it's Muslims killing Muslims as in Syria, these people do not go on marches, they do not get angry. They get angry when it involves Jews and Israel."
In Germany, too, the escalation of violence in the Middle East conflict triggered anti-Israel demonstrations near Jewish institutions. According to agency reports, Israeli flags were burned and anti-Semitic slogans shouted in Munster and Gelsenkirchen, for example.
The IHRA definition is already internationally recognised and is regularly used for policy decisions by the US State Department, among others. The left-wing Jewish lobby organisation J-Street, on the other hand, has now adopted the JDA, as have some US universities. The initiators of the JDA hope that it will offer a more nuanced alternative to combat anti-Semitism.
Who is behind the "Jerusalem Declaration"?
Around 300 internationally renowned scholars in the field of Holocaust studies, Jewish studies and anti-Semitism research have signed the new JDA. In addition to several prominent professors at Israeli universities, such as the sociologist Eva Illouz, the list also includes German academics such as the literary scholar Aleida Assmann and the anti-Semitism researcher Wolfgang Benz.
Many of them have already publicly lamented the fact that an academic and intellectual debate on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was no longer possible. They criticise, among other things, political decisions such as the resolution of the German Bundestag of May 2019 on the so-called BDS movement (short for "boycott, divestment and sanctions").
The decision ruled that those projects in Germany that call for boycotts against Israel or that support the BDS movement may not receive financial support. Consequently, events such as the state-funded cultural Ruhrtriennale festival came under fire, at which Cameroonian historian Achille Mbembe was scheduled to give the keynote address in 2020. Mbembe is considered a BDS movement supporter. The Ruhrtriennale was, however, eventually cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Jerusalem Declaration explicitly states that people have very different opinions on the BDS movement, and that many of the signatories reject it. However, it is wrong to declare it anti-Semitic per se.
Fighting all forms of racism
The political scientist Rynhold points out that the IHRA has never at any point defined the BDS movement as anti-Semitic. However, looking at those who are at the centre of the movement, it is evident that they use anti-Semitic tropes such as "defining Jews as uniquely evil" or saying that Jews "have a blood lust".
"Only because you believe that you are not racist doesn't say you're not. If a policeman only arrests black criminals, and he passes a lie detector test, he's not consciously racist but he still acts in a racist fashion."
Goldberg, on the other hand, says that the definition he is criticising distracts from the real problem of anti-Semitism. He does not deny that there is also anti-Semitism from the left and that criticism of Israel can be partly anti-Semitic. "There are many Palestinian organisations that are doing everything they can to avoid that. We should encourage their efforts," he says.
"But the real threat to Jewish communities, institutions, and individuals all over the world and to Jewish life, and in the long run also to Israel, comes from the radical right wing. The IHRA definition distracts us from seeing this," he says.
He adds that anti-Semitism has its own characteristics, but it's still part of the larger struggle against bigotry, racism, and Islamophobia.
© Deutsche Welle/Qantara.de 2021
Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor