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.



  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 . 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.


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2 thoughts on “International “definition” of antisemitism threatens to limit criticism of Israel”

  1. Anti semitism is not a difficult concept. It is being anti Jewish because and only because a person is Jewish. Which is totally unacceptable. But if a Jewish person expresses a sentiment which is wrong or immoral or unacceptable, we must be able to criticise them on account of that statement being immoral etc, it has nothing to do with their Jewishness. They are then being criticised for a belief or statement, not for being Jewish. Come on, this is not a difficult concept.

  2. Brian Klug’s proposed definition is concise and sensible. I have only one reservation, pertaining to the clause, “in which Jews are perceived as something other than what they are.” It seems to me that a dangerous imprecision attaches to this language. In the first place, it raises the question of perception (and the perception of perception), when a preferred criterion would focus on the public portrayal of Jews, a matter that can be determined with far greater certainty.

    Secondly, the rhetorical trap- “in which Jews are perceived as something other than what they are”- invites the tendentious retort, “Very well. What or who exactly are Jews? And what does it mean to be a Jew?” In other words the phrasing plays into the hands of both Zionists (who claim the authority to define) and anti-Semites (who insist on their right to defile).

    Prof. Krug’s intention is admirable, but I fear that this particular choice of terminology is unfortunate. Perhaps something would better serve along the lines of, “and are depicted as intrinsically hostile to accepted moral and cultural values by virtue of being Jewish”. There may be problems with my own phrasing, but I think it points toward a more objective account of the means by which antisemitism is manifested. The key issue is not one of “perception” but of articulation.

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