IHRA: The Importance of Defining Antisemitism

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Antisemitism is on the rise. Statistics demonstrate how European countries such as France and Germany show a rise in offences and violent attacks against Jews. [1] The UK had one of the highest number of antisemitic incidents in 2018, since 1984[2].    Explaining the growth of international antisemitism is important, but also understanding the history of the definition of antisemitism can help in combating modern day prejudice.

The word itself ‘antisemitism’ was initially popularized by Wilhelm Marr, a German journalist who viewed the Jewish race as ‘dangerous’[3].  Antisemitism has long introduced Jews as the ‘other’ within evolving society – whether the ‘other’ relates to the political, social or cultural system.  Historically, it was fused with stereotypes and malicious categorizations to portray conspiratorial and supernatural images of a Jewish person.  A Jew was not only a societal scapegoat but also a canvass to misconstrue Jewish ethnic identity.

The Jewish diaspora existed world-wide but the horrific outcomes of the Holocaust made Jews yearn for a state to provide safety and for the Jewish home. The local Jews in the British Mandate of Palestine formed a plan and Jewish migration steadily increased, within the confines of the immigration restrictions imposed by the ruling British.  It is unfortunate that the Jewish history of Israel is often misrepresented as an extension of colonialism where demographics and histography show otherwise.

Jewish history is, of course, conflated with Israeli history.  That should not take away the essence or truth of Jewish narrative nor that of Israeli background. Unfortunately, however, there is room for misconstruing history and extending the interpretation of antisemitism.  It is here, in modern society, where we understand the intricacies and complexities of progressively antisemitic tropes within Israeli and global accounts that we need to set in stone the definition of Antisemitism.

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), in acknowledging international challenges towards anti-Semitism, has drafted the Working Definition of Antisemitism (2016)[4].  Several countries have adopted this definition, including the UK.  The definition is important in navigating through traditional antisemitism but also in its new contemporary form of association with Israel.

The IHRA explicitly acknowledges the link between antisemitism and Israel, and sets it sufficient legal terms. It does not deter criticism or democratic discussion regarding Israel but rather sets the standard of a fair and nuanced discussion which does not result in antisemitic tropes. In a complicated and often misunderstood history, it is essential to depict antisemitism also within the context of Israel.

Jewish groups have welcomed the governmental approach to adopt the IHRA definition[5].Indeed, there has been widespread encouragement for UK universities to equally adopt this working definition[6].  Kings College London, for example, has adopted the definition with positive Jewish support[7].

Whilst Jewish communal and student groups have welcomed an era whereby antisemitism can be combated and acknowledged, there has been pushback.  The Labour party has rejected the IHRA definition of antisemitism[8] and universities such as UCL voted down the possibility of IHRA to be adopted on university level[9].  One must ask why has the IHRA’s definition been rejected and why is antisemitism seemingly difficult to have widespread consensus? Is it the inability to acknowledge antisemitism or is the inability to accept the Jewish background of Israel?

Critics suggested the IHRA inhibits on the right to criticize Israel or that even the very mention of Israel should not be included.  The deterrence towards including Israel’s Jewish character is a step towards excluding Israel’s perspective but it is also an ironic trope in antisemitism. In wishing to dispel of the antisemitism associated with Israel, we go back to ignoring the Jewish history behind the diaspora and migration. We ignore the Jewish population that existed within the British Mandate of Palestine and the waves of aliyahs that migrated over. We choose to purposefully ignore history to retell a distorted modern-day account of Israel that serves political agendas rather than intellectual truths.  Jews are separate from Israel and are seen as ‘the other’ from their own nation and state.  In choosing to extinguish the link between Jewish and Israeli history, opposing sides showcase what they want: to erase Jewish culture and its history. In justifying retelling history in a non-Jewish perspective, we enable the erasure of Judaism in history.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/news/2019/feb/15/antisemitism-rising-sharply-across-europe-latest-figures-show

[2] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-47147568

[3] https://www.facinghistory.org/holocaust-and-human-behavior/chapter-2/religious-prejudice-antisemitism

[4] https://www.holocaustremembrance.com/working-definitions-and-charters

[5] https://jewishnews.timesofisrael.com/jewish-groups-welcome-government-calls-for-universities-to-adopt-ihra-definition/

[6] https://www.theguardian.com/education/2019/may/17/uk-universities-urged-to-adopt-ihra-wording-on-antisemitism

[7] https://www.thejc.com/news/uk-news/kings-college-london-adopts-international-holocaust-remembrance-alliance-ihra-antisemitism-definition-1.464805

[8] https://www.thejc.com/comment/analysis/what-is-the-ihra-definition-of-antisemitism-and-why-has-labour-outraged-jews-by-rejecting-it-1.467511

[9] https://jewishnews.timesofisrael.com/students-at-ucl-vote-down-adoption-of-ihra-antisemitism-definition/

About the Author
I am a Campus Fellow at UCL for CAMERA, an organisation which is devoted to promoting accurate and balanced coverage of Israel and the Middle East. I am currently studying towards my International Public Policy MSc and have previously studied Law and Politics.