German ideologues and the war over antisemitism

Since German leadership in the attack on the IHRA working definition of antisemitism is recognized as morally and politically awkward (an understatement), it is presented as coming from Jews and Israelis, via the Van Leer Institute.” 

Jerusalem’s Van Leer Institute is hosting a conference this week under the heading of “Defining Antisemitism between History and Politics”. From the outside, this appears to be an academic event on an important and timely issue, particularly given the ongoing rise in different and often violent forms of Jew-hatred, from both the left and the right of the political spectrum. 

However, as is often the case when Jews and Israel are involved, the image that is being projected by the hosts is not the full picture. The Institute’s leaders have a clear ideological affiliation and agenda on the left. They describe themselves as cultivating “innovative interdisciplinary research into publicly-significant questions, reflecting our commitment to a just, open society, well-integrated in the region.” 

In 2020, Van Leer hosted an event to promote a campaign aimed at undermining the most effective framework for countering modern antisemitism – the 2016 working definition of the International Holocaust remembrance Alliance (IHRA). Their alternative, under the misleading title of “the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism,” is aimed at stripping the IHRA document of many of its most significant examples – specifically the ones that refer to singling out Israel for attack, comparing Israel to Nazi Germany, and denying the Jewish people, uniquely, the right of self determination and sovereign equality. 

This week’s conference, which features a number of ideologues as well as some academics and public figures, takes place against the background of the earlier attack on the IHRA working definition. 

In contrast, it is notable that none of the main individuals who led the long and complex process of composing the consensus working definition in the wake of the infamous and viciously antisemitic UN Durban conference in 2001, are on the program. (See, for example, “The Struggle over the International Working Definition of Antisemitism”, by Professor Dina Porat.) 

Furthermore, the involvement of German political and ideological activists stands out, as was also the case in the previous JDA event that took place in 2020. The Germans are important because this campaign did not originate at the Van Leer Institute. In fact, the so-called Jerusalem Declaration is more accurately described as the Berlin declaration, and reflects the efforts by the German activists on the Left who exploit antisemitism to attack their enemies on the Right. As part of the package, they promote a post-colonial post-modern agenda that often includes demonization of Israel and provides support for the narrative of Palestinian victimization. 

Since the leadership of German academic activists in the attack on the IHRA working definition of antisemitism is recognized as morally and politically awkward (an understatement), it is presented as coming from Jews and Israelis, via the Van Leer Institute. 

The most active German on the list of speakers is Peter Ullrich, from the government-funded Center for Research on Antisemitism at the Berlin Technical University. This institute includes a number of academic political activists such as director Stefanie Schüler-Springorum, who lead the German anti-IHRA and alternative definition campaign. As Professor Jeffrey Herf has documented, this center strictly avoids dealing with virulent anti-Zionism of the Soviet and East German regimes, as well as the Islamist contribution. 

Under the grandiose heading of “Initiative GG 5.3 Weltoffenheit” (open-worldness), Schüler-Springorum and other German intellectuals attacked the German Parliament’s cross-party resolution in 2019 which referred to the BDS movement as antisemitic. The Weltoffenheit text, repeated in the JDA and other efforts seeking to cripple the IHRA definition, asserted: “The application of the parliamentary BDS resolution by the Bundestag is cause for great concern…. By invoking this resolution, accusations of antisemitism are being misused to push aside important voices and to distort critical positions.” However, as shown by student critics, the initiative failed to present “a single concrete example of the alleged “misuse of the accusation of antisemitism”.

In 2019, Ullrich wrote a 15-page attack against the IHRA, under the title of a “Report on the ‘Working Definition of Antisemitism’ of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance”. In this document, he attacks the working definition for the “lack of precision” one-sided positioning and the overemphasis on Israel-related anti-Semitism. After arguing that the definition propagates an “inadmissible equation of criticism of Israeli politics and anti-Semitism”, Ullrich asserts: “The attempt to solve problems of general conceptual clarification and universal practical applicability with the help of the ‘working definition of anti-Semitism’ must be viewed as a total failure.” This language is very similar to that used to justify the JDA project, including among many of the participants in the Van Leer conference. 

Further highlighting the political and ideological dimensions, Ullrich’s “report” was funded by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung (RLS the state-funded foundation of the ex-Communist Die Linke Party) and Medico International, a highly politicized NGO funded by the German government. Both groups are active in anti-Israel demonization, and the RLS, it should be noted in this context, is also one of the Van Leer Institute’s funders. 

Saba-Nur Cheema is another speaker from Germany. She and her husband, a highly controversial ex-Israeli (Meron Mendel), run the “Anne Frank Educational Center” in Frankfurt, which promotes  historical-political education to counter right-wing ideologies, discrimination and racism, including anti-Islamic and anti-Jewish hatred. Its political activities feature ideological campaigners involved in the anti-IHRA campaign, including Schuler-Springorum.

In the course of this conference, in addition to the other topics related to definitions of antisemitism, perhaps at least some of the speakers, who do not share this ideological agenda, will address the German leadership of the campaign to undermine the IHRA working definition. As stated by Professor Irwin Cotler, a member of the Canadian delegation to the infamous Durban conference and a key participant in drafting of working definition, this document is “the most authoritative, comprehensive, international definition that we have – one democratically adopted over a 15-year period.” 

About the Author
Gerald Steinberg is Professor of Political Science at Bar Ilan University and president of NGO Monitor. His latest book is "Menachem Begin and the Israel-Egypt Peace Process: Between Ideology and Political Realism", (Indiana University Press)
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