Who gets to define Antisemitism?

The debate over the IHRA definition of antisemitism

With Professor Yehuda Bauer, and the Romanian Chair of IHRA — Ambassador Mihnea Constantinescu

A few days ago, I tweeted about a news story I believed was antisemitic. Comments directed by anonymous diplomatic sources accusing Canada’s former Ambassador to Israel of defending Israel’s interests over Canada’s were a classic antisemitic trope and unacceptable. Former colleagues were incensed that I called these actions out. They were particularly upset I called these actions antisemitic. While I understood their motivation to protect their friends, I was shocked how easily they and other non-Jews feel comfortable in telling me how I should react to acts I perceive as discriminatory. This begs the question — who gets to define antisemitism?

In May 2016 the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance — known by its acronym IHRA — did just that. What has shocked me as a Jew, someone who was forced from his home country because of antisemitism, has been the unprecedented attack on this multilateral organization’s work. What continues to shock me is the virulence with which some have criticized IHRA for doing its work.

Working documents for the IHRA Plenary

IHRA is an interesting international organization. It brings together representatives of over 30 countries including Canada, Switzerland, Argentina, Israel and the United States. Countries join because they are committed to Holocaust remembrance and education. They join because they are determined to fight antisemitism, anti-Roma discrimination and foster a more inclusive world. Delegations are headed by Ambassadors or senior officials and include experts — historians, archivists, educators and community organizations. Its work is done by consensus and is supported by professionals based at IHRA’s headquarters in Berlin.

I was privileged to be Canada’s head of delegation when the definition was agreed to in Bucharest, Romania. I remember the discussion and the careful consideration that went into the definition and its illustrative set of examples.

At the Bucharest plenary of IHRA

The non-legally binding definition states: “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.”

IHRA also adopted an illustrative list of examples that may guide its work. It is in this illustrative list that controversy has erupted. Critics have claimed that some of the 11 examples impede their ability to criticize Israel. They claim they are an affront to solidarity with the Palestinian people. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The text states that criticism of Israel — just like criticism of any other state — is not antisemitic. The examples implore those who use them to apply context and nuance to distinguish between criticism of Israel and antisemitic speech and acts that have real life consequences.

Extreme anti-Israel rhetoric has had deadly consequences for Jewish communities around the world. Attacks against Jewish institutions in Paris, Buenos Aires, Brussels and Copenhagen have resulted in Jews being killed. Vandalism against synagogues in Montreal, community centres in Toronto and Jewish cemeteries worldwide resulted in property damage and left the Jewish community terrorized.

“Anti-Zionist” image that is clearly antisemitic

Comparing supporters of Israel to Nazis has consequences. Accusing Jews of dual loyalty to Israel has consequences. Holding Jews around the world accountable for the actions of the State of Israel has consequences. Using images accusing Israelis of blood libel has consequences for Jews around the world.

Using IHRA’s illustrative examples of antisemitism in no way impedes anyone from holding Israel accountable for its actions. They do not impede free speech. Least of all, these examples in no way negatively affect the aspirations of the Palestinian people.

Preparatory documents on the definition of antisemitism discussed at the IHRA plenary

Nevertheless, to listen to critics of the IHRA definition, this non-binding definition with a series of carefully calibrated illustrative examples is the primary stumbling block to a two-state solution. These critics have levelled an unprecedented attack against a people’s ability to define their own experiences with discrimination. Most of these critics have invoked Palestinian solidarity as their motivation. There is no expression of concern about antisemitism — just a fevered determination to attack Israel — home to half the world’s Jews and supported by the vast majority of the community in the diaspora.

I find this baffling. There is a specificity to antisemitism. There is a lived experience of over 2000 years of Jews being victims of expulsions, pogroms, blood libels and industrial age genocide that murdered 6 million Jews in less time than has passed since the adoption of the IHRA definition.

So who gets to define antisemitism? Those whose principal motivation is Palestinian solidarity, or those who have suffered through it, who have studied it and have committed to eradicate it?

The IHRA definition of antisemitism is the product of discussion and negotiation. It has been endorsed by dozens of countries, institutions and global actors such as the Secretary General of the United Nations. It has been endorsed by municipalities, universities, businesses and sport franchises — not as a means of silencing or limiting criticism of Israel — but as a guide to help them — help all of us — fight against a millennia old hatred that continues to plague Jews around the world.

Married gay, Jewish former Ambassador interested in history, justice and the environment. Former Ambassador, and leader in Canada's intelligence community.