Geoffrey Alderman
Geoffrey Alderman

The IHRA definition: Good, but only in parts

Rob Halfon and  Michelle Donelan (Jewish News)
Rob Halfon and Michelle Donelan (Jewish News)

A movement is afoot to compel every university in the United Kingdom to endorse the definition of antisemitism adopted on 26 May 2016 by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

This definition, which received the imprimatur of the UK government the following 12 December, declares that:

Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.

To date the definition has been adopted by over one hundred devolved elected governmental bodies in the UK, not to mention political parties and other entities. But for Tory Minister of State for Universities, Michelle Donelan, this is clearly not enough. On 6 October, in response to Tory chair of the Education Select Committee, Robert Halfon, she moaned that official letters to university vice-chancellors had “not shifted the dial.”

Mr Halfon had pointed out that a recent survey commissioned by the Union of Jewish Students had revealed that only 29 of 133 higher-education institutions confirmed that they had adopted the definition. The recalcitrant universities, he declared, actually included Oxford and Cambridge! What was the government going to do about this lamentable state of affairs? Well, threatened the Minister, “my message today is to urge universities to do this [adopt the IHRA definition] or we are going to look for solutions to ensure that you do so.” What those “solutions” might be she did not say. But Mr Halfon reminded her that Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick had previously suggested that “fines or funding cuts” might be deployed.

Meanwhile, the UJS has announced that on 14 October it will hold a “training day” focussed on “the skills and tactics needed to force your university to adopt the IHRA definition.”  And for good measure, writing in the Jewish News (8 October) Lord Mann, the government’s so-called “Antisemitism Tsar,” has put his weight behind what is now a clear campaign to compel all UK universities adopt the definition, whether they like it or not.

The definition itself, awkwardly constructed in my view, is followed by eleven “examples,” to the details of which I shall return in a moment. Here I need to point out that there is some confusion as to whether these “examples” actually form part of the definition. The National Executive Committee of the Labour Party initially (2018) did not believe that they did, and even Theresa May’s Conservative government that had flamboyantly endorsed the definition in December 2016 seems to have been in some preliminary doubt on this matter. I should add that I know of no official pronouncement by the IHRA in its corporate capacity enjoining us all to regard the examples as part of the definition, and I myself do not so regard them.

Nonetheless, the examples are certainly important – not least because the definition itself – or, to give it its full title, the “Working Definition,” is so badly drafted.

The definition insists that antisemitism “may be expressed as hatred towards Jews.” So it “may” be so expressed, but need not necessarily be so expressed. But if not, then surely we’re entitled to ask how else it might be expressed. The definition is silent on this point.

The definition is not, in fact, a binding legal act. Legally, it has now force whatsoever, nor was it actually designed to have such force. Rather, it was meant simply as a tool to assist police officers and others in understanding the phenomenon called “antisemitism.”

The eleven examples are interesting, not least because they embed very significant internal contradictions. One of them affects to condemn as antisemitic “drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.” But the preamble that introduces all eleven examples explains that 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”.

Well, a number of political regimes around the world have been criticised because they are alleged to be pursuing policies reminiscent of the Nazis: for example, the policy of Myanmar in relation to the Rohingya, and of the Chinese government in relation to the Uighurs. So how in principle can it be antisemitic to draw a comparison between “contemporary” Israeli policy and that of the Nazis?

[For the avoidance of any doubt I state now that I do not believe any Israeli government has, in fact, ever pursued policies remotely reminiscent of the Nazis. The point I make is one of principle].

Another of the examples declares it to be antisemitic to accuse Jewish citizens “of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.”

The facts are that there is no world Jewish conspiracy, nor is there any secret Jewish “government” endeavouring to manipulate to the exclusive advantage of the Jewish people the destinies of mankind. But I know many Jews who hold dual citizenship — they are, for example, citizens of both Israel and the UK — who, under certain circumstances, would act (and have indeed acted) in the interests of Israel rather than of Great Britain. How can it possibly be antisemitic to point this out?

The examples also allege that it is antisemitic to make “stereotypical allegations about . . . the power of Jews as a collective — such as, especially but not exclusively, the myth about Jews controlling the media.” Well, a number of scholars (including me) have pointed out that in the early 20th century there was a case to be made in support of the view that Jews controlled large parts of the British film industry. But of course they had no Jewish “agenda” in mind.

Then I must point out that the ninth of the eleven examples contains a startling formulation. It declares that it is antisemitic to use “the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism (e.g., claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis.” But why restrict the condemnation of the accusation that Jews were/are Christ-killers to the characterization of Israel or Israelis? What about the characterization of British Jews? Or of Jews in general? The accusation that Jews killed Jesus is in fact the oldest antisemitic trope, and should surely be condemned as such. But the IHRA has clearly not yet found the courage to say so.

Like the proverbial curate’s egg, the IHRA definition is good in parts. But it is very much a work in progress. To compel universities to adopt it in its present form, on pain of financial penalties and other sanctions, seems to me a thoroughly bad idea.


About the Author
Professor Geoffrey Alderman is an academic, author and journalist
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