Mike Cushman discusses the strengths of the recently issued Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism and also the areas for further debate. FSOI regards the production of the JDA as an important step in the constant endeavour to understand how antisemitism manifests itself in order to combat it most effectively. It is the result of intense intellectual debate among scholars who have spent their lives enquiring into antisemitism. We regret that its publication has been almost entirely ignored by the national media, the Government, political parties and mainstream Jewish organisations. Their reluctance to engage with a serious and carefully crafted document casts doubts on their motives in raising issues of antisemitism so strongly in the recent past.
This article is the first in a series of pieces we will be publishing to advance the debate on the JDA which is taking place with intelligence and passion among thoughtful Jews and anti-racists.
I find the Palestinian Boycott National Committee (BNC) statement a valuable stating point for any consideration of the recently published Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism (the JDA) as it identifies many of the main issues even though I differ with them on some of their analyses.
The BNC statement is, like any intelligent response, both a welcome and a caution. The JDA is a reaction to the IHRA (formerly the EUMC) Working Definition of Antisemitism (WDA). It follows the FSOI/JVL example in describing itself as a declaration not a definition; definitions are for dictionaries but even dictionaries allow themselves alternatives for any term of any complexity.
It is worth restating that a great strength of the JDA is that it has a clear and unambiguous description of what constitutes antisemitism:
Antisemitism is discrimination, prejudice, hostility or violence against Jews as Jews (or Jewish institutions as Jewish)
This does not confuse the picture by opaque references to ‘certain perceptions’ or ask us to contemplate how attacks on the property of non-Jews may be antisemitic as the EUMC/IHRA WDA document does.
The JDA appends a series of guidelines to assist interpreting the definition and what may, on the face of it, be considered to be antisemitic or conversely not antisemitic and a set of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) to provide further clarification.
The BNC statement sets out what it believes to be five strengths of the JDA but also engages with three important areas where it sees development as welcome.
JDA’s Welcome Modesty
The BNC statement, like many other responses, overlooks a critical strength of the JDA: its essential modesty. Its mode is inquisitive and educational not as the EUMC/IHRA WDA is, didactic and instructional. It puts context at its centre unlike the IHRA where it is, what appears to be, a reluctant add on that is systematically ignored by many who employ it most enthusiastically. No definition is needed for incidents that are clearly antisemitic (kill the Jews) or clearly not (to use a current example, deploring the election of extreme racist Kahanists to the Knesset). Definitional texts are only required where there is doubt whether something is antisemitic (or racist or homophobic or …) or not and exploration of any such event is by its nature an act of interpretation. A good rubric will aid impartial and strenuous enquiry, a poor one will demand a simplistic certainty.
As the FAQs make clear there is no intention for the Declaration to be used as a ‘Hate Speech Code’. Kenneth Stern, one of the principle authors of the EUMC/IHRA WDA, insists that the WDA was not intended to be used as such but it has been, relentlessly. There must be constant vigilance to ensure that the JDA is not abused and subverted.
This characteristic explains why there is a necessary, if unwelcome concentration on Palestine/Israel: this is exactly where active enquiry is required. This is the difference between antisemitism and other forms of racism. The projection of Judaism onto the state of Israel by many Jewish organisations, regarding Israel as central not just to their own but also to any Jewish identity, links this form of potential racism to the actions of a state in a way that no other does. It is necessary to be able to show defenders of Israel why the categorisation as antisemitic of a statement they find offensive is incorrect. Conversely, any definition must help a supporter of Palestinian rights understand why a certain formulation, regardless of the underlying intent,, may be freighted with antisemitism. The JDA can assist in this process of understanding in a way that the IHRA WDA cannot.
The JDA exists only because there has been a bad faith entry into this arena of trying to categorise antisemitism by the EUMC/IHRA WDA. Without those initiatives explicating antisemitism would be the responsibility of educators, as it should be as with other forms of discrimination. That education process would not be an easy one any more than undoing historic misogyny is proving to be, despite the each and every day danger that misogyny presents to women. Just because education and sensitisation are difficult does not mean that they should not be undertaken.
It is unfortunate that the JDA guidelines on what is antisemitism in relation to Palestine/Israel precede those on what it is not. Post EUMC/IHRA, the examples of too extensive categorisation of incidents as antisemitism far exceed those where they are overlooked. The ordering in the JDA suggests the opposite and is a concession that should not have been made.
The Palestine civil society organisations of the BNC are correct to draw attention to the omission of Palestinian viewpoints in the drawing up of the JDA. However, there are pragmatic reasons for the omission that the BNC do not engage with. The central concern has to be whether the Declaration will command attention and respect. Its chances are strengthened as a Jewish project rather than a joint one. We may find this reality distasteful but it is the political environment which this exercise exists. Palestinian participation would likely have produced an improved statement but a perfect statement that provided the considerable forces ranged against it with an easy, if irrelevant, excuse would be a pointless exercise.
The BNC are correct to point out that the statement implicitly accepts the framing that the threat to Jews comes from ”left/new antisemites” and not from an increasingly powerful and violent far-right The problems with that are not only intellectual. Such a framing makes the safety of diaspore Jews of secondary importance to an illusory increase in the security of the Israeli state. Gaining a better understanding of antisemitism and how to challenge it, which is what the JDA hopes to achieve, is of daily importance to the diaspora and of far less salience to Israeli Jews.
The BNC identify one particularly unfortunate guideline, #10, “Denying the right of Jews in the State of Israel to exist and flourish, collectively and individually, as Jews, in accordance with the principle of equality.”. Despite the inclusion of ‘equality’ it would have been far better to revise this and include it in the list of non-antisemitic actions as:
“supporting the right of Jews, Palestinians and all others to exist and flourish, collectively and individually, as people with equal rights to their identities in the region delineated as Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.” An additional FAQ that clarifies that the settlement programme has, from its start, contradicted this ambition would be helpful.
It is of course totally understandable that someone who is seeing their child incarcerated or their home destroyed by Israeli forces might assert that Israel is the ultimate evil and such a reaction is not antisemitic. However, for someone who wishes to be a supporter of the struggle for Palestinian rights, there is a different obligation. It is, of course, totally permissible for an individual or collective to focus entirely on Justice in Palestine/Israel, just as others may concentrate on Myanmar or Belarus or Saudi Arabia. However, a decision to campaign on a single issue do not rest on a hierarchy of evil and the necessity that one of these is the ultimate evil, whatever that may mean. We make our choices for idiosyncratic reasons of personal histories and happenstance and a view that the actions of a state are sufficiently criminal to require our attention and energy. To feel the need to raise Israel, or any other state, to an undisputed primacy suggests other agendas.
The BNC are correct to assert that the over-identification of Jews with Israel is far more characteristic of Israel’s supporters than its critics. However, it is not clear how, as the BNC suggests, the JDA contradicts this. If there is unclarity it can, and should be, corrected by an additional FAQ.
There is at least one missing example of what is not antisemitic. Many false allegations of misdeeds by Jews have been promoted by antisemites over the centuries. Deliberate resurrection of these falsehoods is likely to be antisemitic as the JDA indications in #6. Use of a metaphor that could with great effort be linked to one of these falsehoods is unlikely to be antisemitic. Use of blood in a drawing or description is far more likely to be linked to Goya than to myths about Jews in medieval England. The ascription of antisemitism to usages that are commonplace has been widely used to harass people innocent of antisemitism and, by bring such allegations into disrepute, allowed some who are guilty of deliberate mischaracterisation of Jews to escape opprobrium.
It is important to recognise the moral strength of the visible authorship of the JDA, People have staked their reputations by associating themselves with it unlike the EUMC/IHRA document which emerged unsigned from a bureaucratic machine. The JDA is a bottom-up initiative which asks individuals to read it, reflect on it and adopt it. A stark contrast to a process that seeks to enforce a document top down by coercion and threat.
As an educator and a democrat, I commend the JDA’s ambition and approach. It may be idealistic but if the fight against antisemitism and for justice is not based in idealism it is doomed from the start.