Mose Apelblat
Mose Apelblat

Antisemitism and freedom of expression

The borderline between antisemitism and antizionism are often blurred and legitimate criticism of Israel is rejected as antisemitism. It happens to all of us in the current political climate. When I wrote in an Israeli newspaper in 2013 about the EU guidelines on the eligibility of Israeli entities for funding, readers reacted with accusing me of being a self-hating Kapo.

In fact, EU is often criticized by the current Israeli government for being anti-Israeli and for not doing enough to fight antisemitism in Europe. In 2015 it was for example accused by Israeli government ministers of being antisemitic when it recommended member states to label settlement products to enable consumers to make an informed decision on whether to buy them.

In fact, the EU strongly rejects the BDS campaign’s attempts to isolate Israel and is opposed to any boycott of Israel.

Back then there was no definition of antisemitism to guide us. The working definition named after the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), while not legally binding, has in recent years become a widely used tool around the world to educate people about antisemitism, as well as to recognise and counter its manifestations.

The IHRA definition was endorsed in December 2018 by the European Council and has by now been adopted by 18 EU member states. But according to an international group of 200 scholars, the IHRA definition should be replaced by a new definition, called “The Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism” (JDA), named after Jerusalem because the group was convened there by the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.

The signatories might be right on one point and that is that the current Israeli government has an interest in blurring the distinction between antisemitism and legitimate criticism. But that the government was doing before there was any internationally accepted definition of antisemitism and will probably continue to do whatever definition we are choosing.
The group claims that the IHRA definition is used as a basis for conflating antisemitism with antizionism. In fact, the two definitions are very similar. Both definitions start with similar general definitions of antisemitism and continue with illustrative examples.

According to the IHRA definition, manifestations of antisemitism might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity. “However, criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic,” it says explicitly.

The list of antisemitic examples includes denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, accusing Israel of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust, drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis, and applying double standards by requiring of Israel a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.

Comparing the two definitions, it appears that the two definitions agree on most what, on the face of it, is considered as antisemitic concerning Jews and Israel. But while the IHRA definition includes denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, the Jerusalem declaration is less clear about the right of Israel to exist.

It speaks of “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.”

Such a definition seems to leave the door open for a binational or one-state solution. This is a legitimate opinion shared by Jews and Palestinians alike who have despaired of the two-state solution and believe that one state for both nations would function. Furthermore, the Jerusalem declaration adds concrete examples in defence of “evidence-based criticism of Israel as a state”.

From this point of view, the Jerusalem Declaration defends strongly freedom of expression and the right to political speech, which of course all well. But it is a definition which fits more the US than EU.

Europe, with its history of old antisemitism and the rise in new antisemitism linked to Israel, differs from the US. There you have the First Amendment which protects freedom of expression but also allows hate speech and even includes election campaign funding as a matter of freedom of expression.

The signatories of the Jerusalem Declaration are clearly overshooting the mark when they claim that the IHRA definition is used to silence Palestinian students on campuses, to justify Israel’s support to suppressive regimes and to deny or distort the Holocaust in other countries.

The IHRA definition, contrary to what they claim, is targeting those who, inspired by antisemitic conspiracy theories, hate Israel because it is Jewish state and hate Jews because they are associated with Israel. Freedom of expression is not the right to incite to hate and violence. Those of us who support the IHRA definition are no less defenders of freedom of expression than those who argue that the JDA definition is an alternative.

About the Author
Mose Apelblat is a journalist and former official at the European Commission with a professional background in public auditing in Sweden and Israel. He writes about current EU and Israeli affairs from a European perspective. Born in Sweden to Holocaust survivors, he co-authored in 2019 a book on the second generation in Sweden and the memory of the Holocaust. He made aliya in 2015 and is engaged in a project to replace Israel's dependence on fossil fuels in the transport sector by an electric road system charging e-vehicles when driving.
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