Liberty AGM warns of dangers of IHRA ‘definition of antisemitism’

Liberty LogoLiberty, Britain’s leading human rights charity, agreed a resolution deploring use of the IHRA (mis)definition of antisemitism at its AGM on 19 May.

Media Notice from Free Speech on Israel

Liberty Warns against IHRA Definition of Antisemitism

Resolution passed by civil liberties body says government-adopted definition risks undermining the fight against antisemitism

  • Liberty reiterates abhorrence of antisemitism as “repellent undercurrent which persists across the social and political spectrum.”
  • Definition conflating antisemitism with criticism of Israel is “threat to freedom of expression.”
  • Public bodies urged not to adopt IHRA definition.

The Annual General Meeting of Liberty, Britain’s leading organisation concerned with civil liberties and human rights, has warned public bodies not to adopt a government-backed definition of antisemitism because it brings confusion to the fight against anti-Jewish prejudice as well as constituting a threat to freedom of expression.

This refers to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance “Working Definition of Antisemitism” adopted by the UK government in December 2016, widely promoted as a tool for opposing hostility towards Jews, including within the Labour Party.

A resolution passed with overwhelming support at Liberty’s Members’ Conference and Annual General Meeting on May 19 said that the IHRA definition blurred “the previously clear understanding of the nature of antisemitism,” risked “undermining the defences against it” and threatened freedom of expression by “conflating antisemitism with criticism of Israel and legitimate defence of the rights of Palestinians.”

The resolution [see note 1 below] reiterated Liberty’s “abhorrence of antisemitism as a repellent undercurrent which persists across the social and political spectrum.”

Moved by Prof Jonathan Rosenhead, [see note 2 below] it cites a legal  opinion from Hugh Tomlinson QC stating that the IHRA definition is “unclear and confusing” and “has no legal status or effect.”

Rosenhead quoted retired Appeal Court judge Sir Stephen Sedley who has called the IHRA document “a protean definition of antisemitism which is open to manipulation and capture”. It has been cited in many cases where public authorities, including universities, have refused to host speakers, cancelled room bookings and called off academic conferences.

Rosenhead noted that whenever Israel assaults Gaza, as in recent weeks, there is a spike in antisemitic incidents in the UK. This happens because people conflate Israel with Jews. “An official definition should not make the same error,” he said.

The Resolution

This AGM reiterates:

its abhorrence of antisemitism as a repellent undercurrent which persists across the social and political spectrum; and Liberty’s support for effective measures to combat antisemitism and all other forms of racism;

notes:

the legal Opinion of Hugh Tomlinson QC which states that the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance ‘Working Definition of Antisemitism’, adopted by the UK government in December 2016, is “unclear and confusing” and “has no legal status or effect”; and that the overriding legal duty of public authorities is to preserve freedom of expression; that the guidance that is attached to the definition conflates criticism of Israel with antisemitism, that the definition is being interpreted as saying that to describe Israel as a state practising apartheid, or to call for Boycott or Sanctions to be applied in defence of Palestinian rights, is an inherently antisemitic act that should be prohibited; that the definition is being cited in attempts to deter, obstruct or prevent events that are critical of Israel, or support the legitimate rights of Palestinians;

resolves:

that by blurring the previously clear understanding of the nature of antisemitism, the IHRA definition risks undermining the defences against it; and that the definition’s conflation of antisemitism with criticism of Israel and legitimate defence of the rights of Palestinians is a threat to freedom of expression. It regrets that some local authorities have already adopted it, calls on those that have done so to apply it with extreme caution, and calls on other public bodies not to adopt the definition


What happened at the AGM

At its Members’ Conference and Annual General Meeting on May 19th the organisation Liberty, Britain’s leading human rights and civil liberties campaigning organisation, gave a resounding thumbs down to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s ‘Non-legally binding working Definition of Antisemitism’. No vote count was taken, but in an attendance of around 120 participants, only three hands were raised to vote against the motion. There were also a bare handful of abstentions on the motion, which

  • found that by blurring the previously clear understanding of the nature of antisemitism, the IHRA definition risks undermining the defences against it; and
  • called on public bodies not to adopt it.

The motion as passed emphasised Liberty’s abhorrence of antisemitism as a repellent and persistent undercurrent which persists across the social and political spectrum; and its support for effective measures to combat antisemitism and all other forms of racism.

In proposing the motion (which was seconded by lawyer Louise Christian) Jonathan Rosenhead explained that the first part of the IHRA document, an attempt at a formal definition of antisemitism in about 40 words, was both vague and under-specified. This meant that content was provided only by illustrative examples contained in the second part of the document, listing statements that are claimed to be prima facie antisemitic.  However, these predominantly concentrate on statements not about Jews but about Israel.

Since its adoption by the UK government in December 2016, the IHRA document has been promoted as a tool for combatting hostility towards Jews. But it has proved highly controversial because it opens the door to confusing criticisms of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians with cases of genuine antisemitism.

Rosenhead quoted retired Appeal Court judge Sir Stephen Sedley who described it as “a protean definition of antisemitism which is open to manipulation and capture”. Sedley’s comment was made at the launch in March 2017 of the legal opinion by Hugh Tomlinson QC. This opinion stated that the British government’s ‘adoption’ of the IHRA definition had no legal effect; and that any public body relying on it to over-ride guarantees of freedom of expression in the European Convention on Human Rights and the Education Act 1986 would be acting unlawfully.

Nevertheless, meetings have been banned, room bookings have been withheld and conferences have been cancelled. Public authorities, or those who asked them to prevent events from happening, have cited the IHRA definition in support. Free speech is in danger of being a big loser.

In conclusion Rosenhead pointed out that whenever Israel assaults Gaza, as in recent weeks, there is a spike in antisemitic incidents in the UK. The people responsible were conflating Israel with Jews. An official definition should not make the same error.

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