A debate in the European Parliament on Wednesday (May 31) exposed pro-Israel lobbyists as the natural allies of far-right Islamophobes supporting a definition of antisemitism designed to defend the state of Israel.
Ostensibly about a motion on “Combating Antisemitism”, the discussion in fact revolved around one clause calling for institutions of the EU and all member states to adopt the controversial “International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance working definition of antisemitism.”
This document, based on an earlier “working definition” abandoned by the now defunct EU monitoring centre on racism and xenophobia (EUMC), broadens the widely understood concept of antisemitism as hostility towards Jews, to include criticism of Israel.
In Thursday’s vote, 101 MEPs voted against its inclusion in the motion, but 479 voted in favour while 47 abstained. The motion including the contentious clause was passed.
Speakers for the two largest political blocs, the Conservative European People’s Party and the Socialists & Democrats, praised the virtues of the document and insisted that it was essential in the fight against a wave of antisemitism that they said was sweeping the continent. Other forms of racism were barely mentioned during the debate.
Spanish Socialist Juan Fernando Lopez Aguilar, one of the architects of the motion who has worked closely with Zionist lobbyists in his role as chair of the European Parliament working group on antisemitism, insisted that the IHRA clause was basically about hatred of Jews. It had nothing at all to with legitimate criticism of the Israeli occupation or its settlements, Lopez Aguilar said.
Fellow social democrat, Péter Niedermüller from Hungary, was more honest, extolling the IHRA clause for making clear that “you cannot question the very being of the Israeli state.”
Islamophobes back the IHRA definition in European Parliament debate
Little doubt remained about the chilling implications of the document when it was defended by speaker after speaker from far right nationalist groups such as the UK Independence Party and Italy’s Northern League. UKIP’s Gerard Batten, already infamous for calling Islam a “death cult”, urged MEPs to make sure the blame for antisemitism is placed where it belongs – at the door of Muslim immigrants.
The outpouring of racist bile from supporters of the motion pledging their commitment to Israel while claiming to fight against antisemitism was relieved by contributions from a number of non-aligned, Green and Left MEPs.
Ex-UKIP independent Steven Woolfe, describing himself as of Black and Jewish heritage, and as a believer in the state of Israel, nonetheless said adopting the IHRA clause would mean preventing freedom of speech and creating fear of speaking out. “This definition is so broad and wide that if we adopt it we would have to jail Mahatma Gandhi for things he said about Palestine,” Woolfe said.
Barbara Spinelli, an independent Italian politician whose mother was a German-Jewish anti-fascist activist, described the IHRA clause as “a trap”, because it includes elements that far exceed a proper definition of antisemitism, “hostility to Jews as Jews, full stop.” She argued that the European Parliament must listen to Jews who were critical of Israel, who wanted to combat all forms of xenophobia and who were opposed to the IHRA document.
Swedish Green MEP Bodil Valero pointed to the dangers of failing to distinguish between Jews and the state of Israel. It must be possible to criticise Israel without being accused of antisemitism. “Many Jewish peace organisations are quite clearly opposed to defining antisemitism in a way that endangers freedom of speech,” she said.
Margrete Auken from Denmark’s Socialistik Volkpartij quoted verbatim from the letter sent to MEPs earlier on Wednesday by the UK campaign group Free Speech on Israel on behalf of 11 Jewish organisations around Europe:
“Endorsing the highly contentious and flawed IHRA document will not aid our collective endeavour to combat antisemitism. In our view, endorsement would significantly undermine the defences against antisemitism by expanding the concept in a politically motivated way.”
The full text of the letter appears below, followed by another from umbrella group European Jews for a Just Peace (EJJP) analysing arguments put forward by the pro-Israel Transatlantic Institute. Below that is an important statement from the Rabbinical Council of Jewish Voice for Peace in the US.
Letter Sent to MEPs by Free Speech On Israel on Behalf of Eleven Jewish Groups
Eleven Jewish groups urge MEPs to reject equating antisemitism with criticism of Israel
Please note these new reasons to oppose contentious parts of the motion on antisemitism being put to the European Parliament on May 31.
1. Further Jewish organisations have added their names to the letter (below) sent to MEPs last week opposing the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) ‘working definition’ of antisemitism.
2. The University and College Union (UCU) in the UK, Europe’s largest post-school education union, has rejected the IHRA document
3. Supporters of the IHRA document have written to MEPs misrepresenting its status and ignoring serious free speech concerns expressed in the UK Legal Opinion
4. Amendments are being proposed to remove reference to the IHRA document from the resolution and to acknowledge the broad spectrum of Jewish opinion, which is not uniformly in support of Israel. Please support these amendments.
We have been alarmed, as Jewish organisations, to learn that a motion is to be debated in the European Parliament on ‘combatting antisemitism’ that is likely to weaken defences against antisemitism, not strengthen them.
Whereas many of the measures proposed in this motion are appropriate and timely, the proposal to “call on the Member States and European Union Institutions and Agencies to adopt and apply the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance´s (IHRA) working definition” is not.
We strongly urge that no decision is taken to endorse the IHRA document without a detailed review of its potential legal implications. Possible alternative mechanisms for achieving this are
- to delay the vote on this motion pending that review
- to remove clause C2 pending that review
- to add a clear proviso that nothing in the clause can be interpreted as in any way abridging established freedoms of assembly and expression
The IHRA document is virtually identical with the ‘Working Definition of Antisemitism’ developed by a working party of the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC). This was never adopted by EUMC, and has since been disowned by its successor Fundamental Rights Agency. Despite claims from promoters of the resolution, no EU institution has officially endorsed either of these ‘working definitions.’
Antisemitism is and has been widely understood, and abhorred, as ‘hostility to or prejudice against Jews’. The fundamental flaw in the IHRA document is its attempt to expand the definition of antisemitism to cover criticisms that may quite legitimately be made of the state of Israel and its policies. The consequence is that any public body that attempts to apply this formulation in practice is highly likely to find itself acting unlawfully.
Freedom of expression is protected by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Freedom of assembly and association is protected by Article 11. These protections have been generally enacted into national legal frameworks within Europe.
An Opinion from leading human rights lawyer Hugh Tomlinson QC on the status and implications within the UK system of law of adopting the IHRA document has been obtained by a number of UK NGOs. These arguments are developed by Sir Stephen Sedley, a Jewish former appeal court judge, in a recent article.
The Opinion explains the concerns that many Jews have about the implications for freedom of speech of the IHRA document. These implications would apply equally in any jurisdiction adopting the document. The Opinion states that:
- The wording of the IHRA document is unclear and confusing
- It has no legal standing and no individual or public body is obliged to adopt it
- All public bodies have a statutory duty to respect and ensure the right to freedom of expression and assembly
- Any feasible definition of antisemitism needs to limit its scope to conduct motivated by hatred of Jews. But the IHRA document goes beyond this to include examples of potentially antisemitic statements based solely on their criticism of Israel. This confusion has already led to restrictions on legitimate expressions of opinion about Israel and Palestine.
- Reliance on this document to ban or restrict events which are thought to be ‘anti-Israel’ but which express no hatred of Jews would be unlawful.
As Jewish organisations, we strongly believe that a commitment to tackling antisemitism and all forms of racism is essential. Racism and antisemitism are generally covered by specific legislation in each European country, and should be dealt with resolutely under these statutes.
Endorsing the highly contentious and flawed IHRA document will not aid our collective endeavour to combat antisemitism. In our view, endorsement would significantly undermine the defences against antisemitism by expanding the concept in a politically motivated way.
- Free Speech on Israel
- Een Ander Joods Geluid (A Different Jewish Voice)
- Independent Jewish Voices
- Jewish Socialists’ Group
- Jewish Voice for a Just Peace (Ireland)
- Jews for Justice for Palestinians
- Jüdische Stimme für gerechten Frieden in Nahost (Jewish Voice for Just Peace in the Middle East)
- Junts, Associació Catalana de Jueus i Palestins (Catalan Association of Jews and Palestinians)
- ONE JJ: Open Network – Jews for Justice
- Rete-Eco (Jews against the Occupation – Italy)
- Union Juive Française pour la Paix (French Jewish Union for Peace)
Letter Sent to MEPs by European Jews For A Just Peace (EJJP)
Re: Resolution to plenary including the IHRA definition of antisemitism
Further to our letter of 24 May to MEPs, the sponsors of the resolution and the European Jewish Congress have now both written to MEPs, calling for Parliamentary endorsement of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition. It is obvious that their motive in producing the resolution was not adoption of the many uncontroversial measures against antisemitism which it contains, but rather endorsement of the IHRA definition, which is embedded in the resolution text (clause C.2) without being highlighted in any way.
The crucial sentence in the sponsors’ memorandum misrepresents the IHRA definition to the extent of being a falsehood. The sentence says “it specifically states that criticism of Israel cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic;” The definition actually says “However, criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.” (our italics) The italicised qualification is the crux of the problem with the definition, the reason it creates the uncertainty that would stifle legitimate criticism of Israel, as we explained in our letter of 24 May.
The sponsors obviously realise this, and have tried to obscure it in order to give the impression that the IHRA definition is innocuous. In so doing, they reveal both the intent of the definition and their method of trying to manipulate Parliament into endorsing it. All decent people realise that the holocaust must be remembered and memorialised, and that antisemitism, like other forms of racism, cannot be tolerated. However, it is disreputable to use holocaust remembrance and intolerance of antisemitism as a means of stifling criticism of Israel.
There are other revealing aspects of the sponsors’ memorandum and the European Jewish Congress letter, i.e. the concentration on increasing levels of antisemitism without saying how this definition would help reduce them, or acknowledging the effect of Israeli actions on the number of incidents; the claim that several international organisations supposedly said that the IHRA was the most qualified body to draft a definition, without saying whether they actually endorsed this definition; citing a link to the definition on the European Commission website as the Commission having “politically endorsed” the definition, when it did not and has not endorsed any definition.
Finally, the memorandum correctly says that the current UK government “formally adopted” the definition. However, it does not acknowledge that one of our UK member groups has received Counsel’s opinion that the definition “is unclear and confusing and should be used with caution”, and “has no legal status or effect and, in particular, does not require public authorities to adopt this definition as part of their anti-racism policies.”, and “Any public authority which does adopt the IHRA Definition must interpret it in a way which is consistent with its own statutory obligations, particularly its obligation not to act in a matter inconsistent with the Article 10 right to freedom of expression. Article 10 does not permit the prohibition or sanctioning of speech unless it can be seen as a direct or indirect call for or justification of violence, hatred or intolerance.”
There is no agreed definition of antisemitism because the issue is complex, but as we said in our previous letter, if Parliament considers that an official definition of antisemitism might be needed in the European Union, and we are by no means convinced of that, then it should ask the appropriate committee(s) to consider the issue properly. A good model would be the simple definition proposed by the Oxford philosopher Brian Klug. That is “Hostility towards Jews as Jews, in which they are perceived as something other than what they are.” That restricts the definition to statements about Jews or acts against Jews, and does not muddy the waters with questions about Israel.
We again urge MEPs either to remove paragraph C.2 or vote down the proposal.
Dror Feiler, Chair of EJJP, Judar for Israelisk-Palestinsk Fred (Stockholm).
Arthur Goodman, Diplomatic and Parliamentary Liaison officer, Jews for Justice for Palestinians (London)
Statement from Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council
June 1 2017
We speak on behalf of a large and growing movement of Jews that numbers in the hundreds of thousands that seeks an equitable and lasting peace for all the peoples of the Holy Land, in particular the Israeli Jews and the Palestinians. We do so from a place of love and in line with Jewish values.
We are rabbis who have devoted much thought and careful study to the issue of anti-Semitism and racial discrimination in general.
We are rabbis who are concerned about the recent resurgence of identity-based hatred, including anti-Semitism;
We are writing to express our support for the Motion for a Resolution on combatting anti-Semitism of May 19, 2017 and to voice our objection to the IHRA “non-legally binding working definition on anti-Semitism” currently under consideration by the European Union.
We agree with the IHRA that we should not be “holding all Jews collectively responsible for the actions of the State of Israel.”
However, confusingly, the numerous examples laid out in the IHRA document run counter to its own guidance. They identify all Jews with the State of Israel or provide protection for the State of Israel and its policies toward its Palestinian population. This document directs that any criticism of the State of Israel’s government and policies can be labelled as “anti-Semitic” – without requiring that such criticism be shown to be motivated by discrimination against Jews.
A thorough critique of these problematic examples has been provided by, among others, leading human rights lawyer, Hugh Tomlinson QC.
When principled opposition to Israeli government actions is labelled as “anti-Semitic,” the term itself loses credibility, people become desensitized to the real presence of anti-Semitism in the world, and Jews the world over become more vulnerable to prejudice and hate.
We heed the Biblical commandment: “there shall be one law in the land for you [the Jewish community] and those outside the community.” (Numbers 15:16). We are deeply concerned that the IHRA document will have a chilling effect on those working to achieve equal rights for the Palestinian citizens of the State of Israel and the Palestinians living under Israeli military rule in the West Bank and throughout Israel/Palestine.
We call on the European Union to stand true to its values and continue to repudiate all forms of racial discrimination. Therefore, we call on the European Union to reject tarring the growing, international Palestinian solidarity movement as anti-Semitic.
“Zion shall be redeemed through the law; all may return in justice” (Isaiah 1:27)
The Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council