Who’s against adopting the IHRA antisemitism definition?

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Proponents of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism like to boast about how much support it has. 

To their credit, pro-IHRA lobbying efforts around the world have had remarkable success: nearly 30 countries including the US, Israel and Canada have adopted or recognized it, as have many local governments and universities (especially in the UK, where the government is now threatening universities with funding cuts if they refuse to adopt it). 

It has also been endorsed by a wide range of Jewish organizations around the world. In Canada that list ranges from the left-leaning New Israel Fund of Canada to the Jewish Defence League on the far right. Even European football clubs are now adopting it.

But the IHRA definition also has a great many detractors who sharply criticize the definition, including its accompanying list of 11 illustrative examples, and how it has been deployed to attack and discredit advocates for Palestinian human rights. As Birmingham scholar Rebecca Ruth Gould argues, the IHRA definition is “one of the most contentious documents in the history of efforts to combat antisemitism.” 

In June 2019, my organization, Independent Jewish Voices Canada (IJV), published a report entitled, “How NOT to fight antisemitism,” which deconstructs the definition and its examples line by line. With it, we launched a No IHRA campaign to fight its adoption by institutions across Canada and to push back against associated efforts to equate criticism and protest of Israel–namely anti-Zionism and the BDS movement–with antisemitism. 

IJV and our allies have had significant successes so far in some of Canada’s largest cities, but the battle to defend legitimate freedom of expression on Israel-Palestine wages on, both in Canada and around the world. Let’s take a look at who else opposes its adoption:

  1. Kenneth Stern–the main drafter of the IHRA definition–is not opposed to the definition itself, which he developed for data gathering purposes only, but he is opposed to it being officially adopted by public institutions. Stern has been outspoken, warning that his definition is being “weaponized” by right-wing Jewish groups to silence legitimate speech on Israel and Zionism. 
  2. Academics, Israel Prize laureates and lawyers, including 1400+ lawyers and academics from around the world; 460+ Canadian academics; 244 UK academics; 127 Jewish and Isaeli academics, 56 scholars who specialize in antisemitism, Jewish and Holocaust history, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; 35 prominent Jewish history scholars and Israel Prize laureates; the Israeli organization Academics for Equality; and these 5 San Francisco Bay Area Jewish Studies academics. Several important academics and lawyers have offered strong critiques of the definition on their own as well: namely, Jewish and Holocaust Studies professors David Feldman, Amos Goldberg, Raz Segal, and Barry Trachtenberg; legal scholars Reem Bahdi and Faisal Bhabha; Oxford philosopher Brian Klug; Israeli human rights scholar Neve Gordon; Canadian sociologists and anthropolists Mark Ayyash, Jeffrey Sachs, Sheryl Nestel, Greg Bird, Jasmin Zine and Sara Mathews; German sociologist Peter Ullrich; scholars Azeezah Kanji and David Palumbo-Liu; and prominent UK lawyers Sir Stephen Sedley and Hugh Tomlinson
  3. Universities: In the UK, prestigious universities like Oxford are pushing back against government efforts to force them into adopting it, described by some as a “slide toward McCarthyism”. Despite the pressure tactics, only 29 out of 133 universities in the US had adopted it as of October.
  4. Civil liberties groups: In Canada, the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group and la Ligue de Droits et Libertés have taken strong positions against adoption of the IHRA definition. In the US, the list includes the American Civil Liberties Union, the Centre for Constitutional Rights, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, the National Lawyers Guild, and Palestine Legal
  5. Facebook has so far resisted a global campaign for it to adopt the IHRA definition, stating that it “does not want to penalize people for criticizing Israel.” 
  6. Jewish and Israeli organizations and figures, including these 40+ Jewish organizations from around the world brought together by US-based Jewish Voice for Peace; US advocacy groups J Street and Americans for Peace Now; Rabbi Jill Jacobs of the rabbinical human rights group T’ruah; former Israeli cabinet minister Yossi Beilin; Jewish Voice for Labour in the UK; and former director of the UK-based Institute for Jewish Policy Research Antony Lerman. Others surely oppose it as well, but may be afraid of the potential impacts of speaking out.
  7. Palestinians and Arabs: The 11 organizations of the Palestinian Human Rights Organizations Council have warned of detrimental impacts on Palestinians and those who defend their rights, as have 122 Palestinian and Arab academics, journalists and intellectuals; the Coalition of Canadian Palestinian Oragnizations; Youssef Mounayer, former ED of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights; 24 Palestinian civil society organizations who called on the UK Labour Party and trade unions to reject it; Canada-based community activists Dalya Al Masri and Moe Alqasem; and a group of 22 prominent British Palestinians who argue that denying them the right to reject Zionism is a form of anti-Palestinian racism. 
  8. Labour unions and Faculty Associations, including the Canadian Labour Council, the Canadian Union of Public Employees-Ontario, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, the Vancouver District Labour Council, the Ontario Confederation of Faculty Associations, the York University Faculty Association and le Conseil régional FTQ Montréal métropolitain have all expressed clear opposition to adoption of the IHRA definition. In Europe, at least 20 labour unions have rejected the definition, including the UK University and College Union and l’Union Syndicale Solidaire – France
  9. Mainstream editorial boards and journalists, including the editorial Boards of the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post have all criticized adoption of the definition as part of Trump’s contentious executive order, as have prominent progressive Jewish journalists and media experts Peter Beinart, Lara Friedman, Michele Landsberg, Avi Lewis, Naomi Klein, Susie Becher and Masha Gessen
  10. Students: The Canadian Federation of Students, which represents over 500,000 Canadian university students, has come out against the IHRA definition and has instead endorsed IJV’s working definition of antisemitism. Several university specific student associations have also adopted resolutions against it, such as this one at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. In the UK, 420+ current university students have signed an open letter opposing it. 
  11. Other civil society groups and figures: In Canada, the list includes Canadian Friends Service Committee (Quakers), Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East, Ontario Coalition Against Poverty Toronto and its former lead organizer John Clark, Just Peace Advocates; Courage Coalition; Palestine House and these 19 human rights and solidarity groups; in the UK, 84 Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic (BAME) organizations, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Free Speech on Israel, Labour Against the Witchhunt, anti-racism educator Jackie Walker, and these 23 high-profile individuals; in the US (Arizona), 55 civil society groups and prominent public academics; and finally, these 64 academics, journalists and artists from various spanish speaking countries

This is not meant to be a totally exhaustive list (I had to stop at some point). There are certainly others who I’ve missed. But it goes to show how widespread opposition to adopting the IHRA definition has become. And the more proponents of the IHRA definition push to have it adopted–and weaponized to silence academics and human rights activists–the more public opposition we are likely to see. 

Ultimately, this is a fight that matters not only for free speech advocates and supporters of Palestinian human rights, but for all those who care deeply about the integrity of  the battle against genuine antisemitism. 

About the Author
Corey Balsam is the National Coordinator of Independent Jewish Voices Canada.
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