When Theresa May, the British Prime Minister, announced that her government was to adopt the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism she said that the ‘first step in defeating anti-Semitism is to define it clearly, to remove any doubt about what is unacceptable, so that no one can plead ignorance or hide behind any kind of excuse.’ This should mean the end of people saying ‘I am not an anti-Semitebecause I say am not’ or that ‘I am not an anti-Semitebecause my family stood up to Oswald Mosely and his Blackshirts in the 1930s’.
It should also mean that organisations such as the trade unions or the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) will have to reconsider what they mean when they say they oppose anti-Semitism. The PSC condemned the use of the EUMC definition of anti-Semitism; the forerunner of the IHRA definition, by saying it denied their right to challenge ‘the racism of the Israeli state’ which freedom of speech of course allows them to, as is their right, but they can no longer truthfully say that they condemn anti-Semitism. Nor will they want to be accused of prejudice and discrimination which they will be if they continue to espouse opinions which are defined by the definition. They will then have to accept that if they continue to hold their current views they will be considered anti-Semites or they will have to redefine what it is they are against.
I have read that the use of this definition will not help the Palestinians attain statehood or peace talks between them and the Israelis. Correct, it won’t help the Palestinians because it’s not about them, it’s about the protecting the Jews. This is just a definition of anti-Semitism and nothing else, we need to keep it simple and not let the anti-Semites and the anti-Zionists complicate and muddy the waters.
Up until now any discussion or debates about Israel or BDS have taken place as long as they have been peaceful or have not contravened hate speech legislation. The adoption of this definition will only change one thing, that some of the rhetoric in these speeches will now be able to be defined as anti-Semitic. Since anti-Semitism is not against the law these debates will continue. If the speakers or the organisations they represent don’t like being called anti-Semites, then they should no longer espouse those views. What they will need to do is redefine what they are against because it certainly isn’t anti-Semitsim.
The definition as such will not change how anti-Semitic incidents are dealt with by the Police because British law classifies anti-Semitic incidents as hate crimes, which means that anti-Semitism is not a crime as such, nor is holocaust denial nor is it against the law to be an anti-Semite per se. What we now have is a definition of anti-Semitism which has the support of the government and the Jewish community which will enable the Police and the Universities to correctly identify if an incident is anti-Semitic or not.
We will of course continue to be accused of trying to shut down discussion of the actions of the government of Israel by claiming that these comments are anti-Semitic. The correct response has to be that this definition does not equate criticism of the Israeli state with anti-Semitism. Criticism of Israel which is similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic.
For me personally the adoption of the IHRA definition is a fitting outcome to losing my 2012 legal action in which I accused my trade union, the University and College Union (UCU) of institutional anti-Semitism. I went to court once the UCU had voted to disassociate itself from the EUMC working definition of anti-Semitism which had guided my all exchanges with the union over the preceding nine years.
Although the court comprehensively dismissed my claim, I then realised that what we had lacked was a definition of anti-Semitism which at least had the support of the Jewish community. The first time the leaders of our community acknowledged publically the need for a definition was earlier this year when Chief Rabbi Mirvis told the Parliamentary Home Affairs committee which was investigating the rise of anti-Semitism in the UK that the community would want the authorities to use the IHRA definition as their definition of anti-Semitism.
I am not sure if I would have won my legal action if there had been a definition in place when we went to court but it certainly would have helped. Would the Judge still have said that he was not going to rule on anti-Semitism because it was not a public enquiry into anti-Semitism, but a legal claim? – Probably not. In my view anti-Semitism as defined by the IHRA definition, created the intimidating, hostile and offensive environment in the UCU which resulted in my claim for unlawful harassment.