International “definition” of antisemitism threatens to limit criticism of Israel

Free Speech on Israel                                                                                    

Press release         For immediate release

International “definition” of antisemitism threatens to limit criticism of Israel

Arabs to the gas chamber
Will using an image like this, or commenting on its resonance to the Nazi regime, be outlawed?
  • This ‘international definition’ has no international status
  • The ‘definition’ deliberately emphasises criticism of Israel and Zionism as likely to be antisemitic
  • The UK government’s proposed adoption of it threatens to obstruct or even criminalise free speech

The UK Government has announced that it will adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism:

“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.”

Were the definition to stop at that point its adoption by the Government could be applauded. But the major part of the definition is given over to examples of actions that should be investigated as purported to show antisemitic motivation. Of the eleven examples given, seven relate not to Jews as Jews, but to the state of Israel and its actions.

This emphasis reveals the motivation of those who have been promoting this definition for more than 10 years. It will be all too easy for governments, or others via litigation, ‘lawfare’, to employ it to limit criticism both of: Israel’s repeated breaches of International Law and abuses of the Human Rights of Palestinians; and critiques of Zionism as an ideology used to justify and excuse Israel’s actions.

There are already many examples of attempts to illegitimately stretch the use of the definition to censor legitimate political and moral debate. A particular target has been the non-violent Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement – a mass non-violent civil society campaign to hold Israel to account. Already Israel’s UK supporters have rushed to pre-emptively interpret the Government’s announcement as shielding Israel and its foundational political philosophy of Zionism, rather than protecting Jews.

There is a simple option for the Government that will allay fears that this definition will be used to suppress free speech. This is to adopt just the 40-word definition cited above, but not the contentious, partisan, politically slanted examples that accompany it.

Free Speech on Israel also urges the Government to adopt an equivalent definition of Islamophobia and promote it vigorously since attacks on Muslims, both verbal and physical, are a far greater and more frequent threat to the safety and security of British citizens and residents than is antisemitism.

END

NOTES:

  1. Free Speech on Israel is a network of labour, green and trade union activists in the UK, mainly Jewish, who came together in April 2016 to counter attempts by pro-Israel right wingers to brand the campaign for justice for Palestinians as antisemitic. Their attacks form part of two highly orchestrated campaigns: one, to undermine the Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn, the first potential British Prime Minister to have a consistent record of supporting Palestinian rights; the other, to suppress the pro-Palestinian voices of Jews, Muslims, Christians, and others of many faiths and none, campaigning for freedom, justice and equality for all.
  1. The IHRA definition of antisemitism is at https://www.holocaustremembrance.com/sites/default/files/press_release_document_antisemitism.pdf . It is virtually identical with the 2005 ‘EUMC working definition of antisemitism’ which according to an expert report to a Parliamentary inquiry “rapidly became a topic of controversy rather than consensus….. [and has] largely has fallen out of favour”. Kenneth Stern, the lead author of the EUMC definition has roundly condemned its use to limit debate in the United States.
  1. Oxford University philosopher Brian Klug has proposed a more straightforward and easier to apply definition of antisemitism as: ‘a form of hostility towards Jews as Jews, in which Jews are perceived as something other than what they are.’ Use of Dr Klug’s definition was recommended by Professor David Feldman, Director of the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism in his report commissioned to assist the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry Into Anti-Semitism.
  1. The Boycott Divestment and Sanctions campaign was launched by Palestinian civil society organisations in 2005 and has attracted worldwide support. It is the object of concerted attack by the Israeli Government and its supporters in other countries.
  1. The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance is not a formal international organisation. It is a loose alliance whose founding purpose is to ensure, through education, that new generations are informed about that tragedy.

 

Defining Racism, Antisemitism, Zionism While Preserving Freedom of Speech

On the issue of needing a definition of antisemitism the Home Affairs Commons Select Committee (HACSC) recent report asserts that: “… defining the parameters of antisemitism was central to the question…”
The HACSC goes on to adopt what is essentially the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) ‘working definition’. It 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”

The report discusses some criticisms of this definition including its unrecognised status and its attempts to extend the applicability of the term beyond the clearly limiting parameters of pure racism. If it be accepted that a racist statement is always necessarily general form of:
ALL ‘race’ ARE ‘pejorative’
We can see the IHRA definition of antisemitism attempts deviate this structure by claiming:

“ALL ‘Jews’ ARE ‘pejorative’ AND may be directed toward things of ‘Jewish nature’ = antisemitism”

The definitional extension applied here would seem to logically make proving an antisemitic claim more difficult to demonstrate. However, in the court of public opinion and the examples of antisemitism given by the IHRA, the crucial importance of the first clause of this definition and the ambiguity introduced by ‘may’ seems to completely ignored. This renders the effective definition to be perceived as:

“’pejorative’ directed toward things felt to be of ‘Jewish nature’ = antisemitism”

The HACSC recognises that allowing for subjective perception of antisemitism is not a tenable position when it says:

“for a perpetrator to be prosecuted for a criminal offence that was motivated or aggravated by antisemitism, requires more than just the victim’s perception that it was antisemitic.”

The need for objectivity is stress in the statement:

“It also requires evidence, and it requires that someone other than the victim makes an objective interpretation of that evidence.”

The report again goes on to justify its need for a clear definition:

“The difficulty of making such a determination in the face of conflicting interpretations underlines the importance of establishing an agreed definition of antisemitism.”

This can be seen as an additional problem to the ambiguity introduced into the IHRA working definition by the use of the word ‘may’.

Rather than deal with the structural problems with this definition and the examples that are provided the HACSC proposes the following particular exceptions:

  1. It is not antisemitic to criticise the Government of Israel, without additional evidence to suggest antisemitic intent.
  2. It is not antisemitic to hold the Israeli Government to the same standards as other liberal democracies, or to take a particular interest in the Israeli Government’s policies or actions, without additional evidence to suggest antisemitic intent.

The methodology of providing a loose ‘working definition’ and then seeking to restrict that definition by listing exceptions is fundamentally flawed. In this instance the HACSC is doubly flawed because it attempts to define antisemitism circularly in terms of antisemitism. The suggested modifications in no way bear on the general issue of subjectivity in interpreting antisemitic statements.

This is subsequent borne out by the way the HACSC report completely acknowledges the term ‘Zionism’ as a political concept worthy of discussion and yet goes on to be completely persuaded by personal testimonies alone that the word ‘Zionist’, and by extension its contraction ‘Zio’, has such “toxicity” that it can automatically be assumed to antisemitic. The report avoids explicitly falling into this fallacy, but by subsequently siding with the aggrieved John Mann MP at the hostility and “vilification” he received, the conclusion can be in no doubt.

The report singularly fails to remain objective by making this arbitrary determination. The report fails to take account of the fundamental right to freedom of speech. This right cannot be arbitrarily interfered with. Thus the HACSC is legally duty bound to provide a suitable and necessary principle that would differentiate the term of abuse, of say, “Trot”, as directed toward left wing members of the labour party with that of ‘Zio’ for the political backing of Israeli policy.

The Select Committee report highlights the angry tweets received by John Mann MP and seems to imply the obviousness of their antisemitic guilt. At least half of those many texts have no discernible racist element by lack of generality. No effort is made to show how any of the tweets are in fact antisemitic in terms of the proposed definition. Merely presenting them in their hostility is hoped to bring your nodding acquiescence along, under an already prejudiced definition. The reader is not reminded of the context of these written messages in which Mr Mann himself appeared to be on the verge of physically assaulting Ken Livingstone in the most insane political moment I can think of in recent times.

The Chair of the HACSC report, the conservative’s Mr Loughton MP, attempts to mock Baroness Chakrabarti’s report for describing some antisemitic complaints as “unhappy incidents” and yet his report cites Mr Mann as a victim of vilification “after his attempts to challenge Ken Livingstone’s comments”. Comments which have not been found to be antisemitic at the time of writing and not likely to in this author’s opinion. On the contrary it would seem a likely justice if Mr Livingstone was to prosecute Mr Mann for his gross inappropriate actions and false accusations. The Baroness was quite right to defend her own report’s impartiality in not delving into ongoing investigations and taking sides. Words Mr Loughton ought to let sink in. The report is an abuse of process and should bring professional sanction because of its clear lack of impartiality. This would go some way to safeguarding future parliamentary Select Committee reports.

John Mann ambushes Ken Livngstone
John Mann ambushing Ken Livingstone

To make my point concrete I adduce the first of the example tweets cited in the report regarding the John Mann incident:
“@johnmannmp why don’t you admit you’re a Zionist wh*re then ??”
Angry, hostile and offensive? Certainly. Racist? Absolutely not, and by extension not antisemitic. I don’t admire or even like the person who sent this message, I don’t know him or her, it might be a small piece of evidence that he or she might be a despicable person. But equally it might not be such evidence. When you try to arbitrarily restrict human freedoms, many will take those liberties even more, as a ‘screw you’ if you like, in essence echoing the sentiments of Martin Luther King Jr. when he said:

“One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws”

It seems a convenience for this MP and to other vested interests to show the political language of so many in such a tainted ‘working’ definition.

Note:
Racist and Religious Crime – CPS Guidance

Justin Hesford