Scholars launch ‘answer’ to IHRA definition of antisemitism

Scholars launch ‘answer’ to IHRA definition of antisemitism

For the JC March 30 2021

A new definition of antisemitism, the Jerusalem Declaration, devised by international scholars and academics, has been attacked as “an explicit attempt to undermine the IHRA definition of antisemitism, which is universally backed by the world’s Jewish communities.”

But signatories to the Jerusalem Declaration, which was published last week, say it can either be taken as a response to the IHRA, which they believe has shortcomings and weaknesses, or as a supplement to it. It is backed by, among others, UK academics such as Professor David Feldman, director of the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism, Professor François Guesnet, at the department of Hebrew and Jewish studies, University College London. David Rechter, professor of modern Jewish history at Oxford University, among the 200 signatories — who include the Israeli writer and novelist A B Yehoshua.

The JDA describes itself as “a resource for strengthening the fight against antisemitism”, whose authors are “international scholars in antisemitism studies and related fields”, and who have worked on hammering out this new definition since June 2020. It says that the IHRA definition is “neither clear not coherent”, adding: “whatever the intentions of its proponents, it blurs the difference between antisemitic speech and legitimate criticism of Israel and Zionism”.

Dr Yair Wallach, senior lecturer in Israel studies at SOAS, University of London, who is one of the signatories, told the JC: “The risk with the adoption of the IHRA is that it has become symbolic. People think they can tick the box and not do the work. But I think that dealing with antisemitism involves ongoing engagement and action”.

He described the Jerusalem Declaration as “an educational resource. It comes out of the sense that there are things in the IHRA which need clarification — and if we don’t do that, we end in quite destructive deadlocks.” He hoped that there would not be “ knee-jerk reaction” to the Declaration, and asked people to “give it a proper read`” before making up their minds.

But the government’s adviser on antisemitism, Lord Mann, was dismissive. “It’s what academics like to do, isn’t it? I can see some weaknesses in it. The idea that calling someone a Zio-Nazi isn’t antisemitic, which is one of the things which can be deduced from this, I find rather odd. It adds nothing and it deletes some things [in the IHRA]”.

He said the Jerusalem Declaration either “failed to understand” or “chose to misunderstand” what the IHRA said about boycott and sanctions of Israel. “It seems to be obsessed with Israel: whereas one of the most interesting uses of the IHRA is in football, across Europe. I don’t think we are going to get lots of cases of people talking about Israel when it comes to antisemitism in football. And I think that in dealing with white supremacists and the far right, this definition adds absolutely nothing”.

He said he thought the Declaration should be sent to IHRA for consideration — but pointed to success in the adoption of IHRA in three areas — football, politics and universities. “Let the academics carry on debating, but practical ways of dealing with antisemitism is the name of the game”.

The Jerusalem Declaration ran into immediate controversy in the UK when it was embraced on social media by Jackie Walker, the former vice-chair of Momentum, who was expelled from the Labour Party in 2019 for “prejudicial and grossly detrimental behaviour against the party”. She described the Declaration as “a definition of antisemitism which is workable and acceptable”.

But she was slapped down by Dr Wallach, who wrote: “Clearly, the only reason Walker likes the JDA is because it’s not the IHRA. But this football match attitude to life can only take you so far.”

One of the convenors of the Jerusalem Declaration, Professor Alon Confino, is director of the Institute for Holocaust, Genocide, and Memory Studies and a professor of history and Judaic studies at University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He said: “The JDA would like to repair a broken conversation on antisemitism in order to fight it much better”.

Another signatory, Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi, emerita professor of comparative literature at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said: “The Declaration pretty much endorses the principles of the IHRA — but not its examples [of antisemitism]. It’s the examples which got us into trouble.”

But Gideon Falter, chief executive of the Campaign Against Antisemitism, declared: “The so-called Jerusalem Declaration is an explicit attempt to undermine the IHRA definition, which is universally backed by the world’s Jewish communities.

“It is precisely due to the success of the IHRA definition that various frantic attempts have been made to undermine it by proposing new definitions which exclude the forms of antisemitism that are most virulent on the far left. Some of the supporters of this faux definition are well-known to us as defenders of antisemites, so clearly they are the last people who should be trusted to select a definition of antisemitism when they are so blind to it.”

He believed, he said, that “it is less a tool in the fight against antisemitism than a weapon to be used to silence Jewish victims of racism”.

The Board of Deputies and the Jewish Leadership Council say there will be an agreed joint communal response when they have studied the Jerusalem Declaration fully.

  • 7 April, 2021