FSOI tells the EU ‘Do not adopt the IHRA definition’

The Austrian Government is pressing the EU to adopt an EU Council Declaration on the fight against antisemitism which includes adopting the flawed IHRA definition. The EU antisemitism Coordinator Katharina Von Schnurbein and Commissioner Vera Jourova have announced their support for this initiative.

Free Speech on Israel has written to the EU Ambassadors who sit on COREPER II, the committee that will consider this proposal.

COREPER II in session
COREPER II in session

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Your Excellency

I am writing to you in connection with the proposal that we believe is to be presented at the forthcoming meeting of COREPER II, to request the European Council to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definitional package.

That document is a source of concern and controversy to many groups which are Jewish or Jewish-led (like Free Speech on Israel). In our view it will set back the efforts to counter antisemitism precisely at the point at which neo-fascist elements are growing in strength across Europe.

  1. Not what it seems

The IHRA ‘definition’ is i) not a definition; ii) has not been endorsed by IHRA; and iii) is not ‘internationally accepted’. To explain:

  1. i) What has been circulated as the ‘IHRA definition’ is a combination – a 39-word statement, followed by a set of examples. The 39-word statement could perhaps be seen as a definition – but is too imprecise to serve that purpose. Key terms are stated only approximately (“certain perception”; “may be expressed as”).

Definitions should be reference points for clarity – and it is especially important to know what is included in or excluded from the concept, especially where decisive action may be required based on the text. Antisemitism is rightly so charged a topic that a finding could put individuals’ reputations and careers at risk.

A definition that is adequate to its task does not need examples to fill out or illustrate its meaning. The 39-word statement in effect proclaims its inadequacy when it says that cases of antisemitism “could, taking into account the overall context” include the eleven examples that follow.

  1. ii) At its Bucharest meeting in May 2016 the IHRA Council adopted the 39-word definition. The following month the IHRA Secretariat distributed a press release in which the eleven examples were appended below that wording. With great reluctance the IHRA secretariat has conceded that its Council did not endorse the examples. The package of material misleadingly known as ‘the IHRA definition’ thus consists of a) a short imprecise statement which approximates to a definition; and b) a set of examples which have no IHRA authorisation or imprimateur.

iii) IHRA is an inter-governmental, not an international, body. Its decisions do not bind its members. IHRA consists of 31-member governments. To date 6 of these (Israel, Austria, Germany, Lithuania, Romania and the United Kingdom) have adopted the definition document, as well as 2 non-members (Bulgaria, Macedonia). The great majority of IHRA member governments, and indeed of countries world-wide, have not endorsed the document.

  1. Freedom of Expression

Kenneth Stern, original drafter of the text which became the IHRA definition document, has given evidence to the US Congress that it is quite inappropriate for use as an instrument for deciding whether statements are or are nor antisemitic. In his testimony he points to proponents of the formal adoption of the definition who “were clear that their intention was to curtail speech”.  There can be no doubt that this has been, at least, one of the principal motivations behind the promotional campaign on behalf of the definition package. The main targets have been individuals and organisations who are critical of Israel’s policies towards Palestine and the Palestinians.

We are particularly aware of effects on freedom of expression in the United Kingdom. Attempts to prevent meetings and other events in support of Palestinian rights being held on campus or in local government premises have been made by a wide range of pro-Israel organisations, among them Zionist FederationCampaign Against Antisemitism, Board of Deputies of British JewsJewish Human Rights WatchSussex Friends of IsraelLawyers for Israel. Not all cite the IHRA definition, and not all have been successful. But the overall effect has been to make public bodies risk averse and find reasons to prevent such events from taking place.

The campaign to promote this definition has made many politically active individuals wary of commenting on issues to do with Israel/Palestine. Instead of creating clarity, the distortion of the commonly understood meaning of antisemitism which the definition document promotes has created confusion as to where the boundaries of permitted expression lie. As Kenneth Stern and co-authors have pointed out in a Times of Israel blog “its [the definition’s] language could encourage punishments of legitimate expressions of political opinion”. The result has been a discernible ‘chilling effect’ on public discourse, which is threatening to undermine statutory rights to free expression and assembly. It is concern about this effect that resulted in the overwhelming vote earlier in the year by Liberty, the UK’s premier civil liberties organisation, to oppose the adoption of this definition by public bodies.

The lack of clarity resulting from the promotion of the definition actually impedes the task of preventing the spread of genuinely antisemitic tropes through social media. These are now seeping in from far-right extremists. Some social media activists, aware that the view of antisemitism being promoted using the IHRA name has been unreasonably extended for political reasons, are wrongly treating all criticisms of Israel as legitimate. So paradoxically the attempted extension of the concept of antisemitism to inhibit criticism of Israel is disinhibiting the real thing.

We urge you not to take action that will give this document further currency.

Yours sincerely

Mike Cushman
Chair FSOI

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