The IHRA Definition of Anti-Semitism at UCL

By Romane Lenoir

Coined during the International Holocaust Remembrance Association (IHRA) plenary in May 2016, this non-binding working definition of antisemitism is as follows:

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

It is accompanied by a list of 11 examples of instances where the definition may be applied, 7 of which mention the state of Israel. Adopted by the 31 member states of the Association at the time, it was also adopted by the European parliament as of June 2021.

However, there is some ambiguity surrounding the inclusion of the examples in conjunction with the 40 word definition. Technically, the governing plenary only adopted the 2-sentence passage, with the examples simply being guides to its application. However, in May 2018, the IHRA’s Committee on Antisemitism and Holocaust Denial declared that both the 2 sentences and the 11 example items were fully part of the definition. Anything less was not to be considered the IHRA working definition of antisemitism. In line with this, the definition and examples were fully included in the European Commission Handbook (January 2021). However, the French and German parliaments endorsed the definition without the examples, a definition which was welcomed by Israel. Such conflicting statements foster ambiguity around the definition, creating a safety net which allows it to be misused and the examples harnessed as legitimate elements.

Problematic aspects of it

The IHRA definition of antisemitism has received a significant amount of criticism pertaining to some of its problematic elements. This definition was created in a context of increasing exploitation of antisemitism to delegitimise the Palestinian cause and silence advocacy.

Diverting energy and resources away from the indispensable fight against antisemitism and into this issue will only serve to weaken it. By condemning left-wing and human rights movements supporting the Palestinian rights, attention is being drawn away from right-wing policies that present a very tangible threat of to Jews. Antisemitism is to be condemned, always, and should undoubtedly be actively and collectively fought. It remains, pervasive, and is not to be tolerated in any situation. It must serve, however, to educate on all forms of racial prejudice and discrimination.

One of the most problematic elements of the item list was the following:

‘Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor’

Equating criticism of the state of Israel to antisemitism is an extremely dangerous link to make, as it silences important discussions surrounding the state of Israel, allowing it to act in all impunity. The human rights violations committed against Palestinian citizens in Israel and the racist policies implemented by the state menace to remain ignored. This also seems to wilfully ignore the notion that under international law, the current state of Israel is recognised an occupying power for more than 50 years. Additionally, all non-Zionist possibilities regarding the future of the Israeli state are being discarded as anti-Semitic, neglecting the Palestinian peoples’ right to self-determination. As argued above, no such form of advocacy should impede on another group’s identical right. The Israeli state is not and should not be equated to the Jewish religion, and criticism of the former should not be considered as hatred towards the latter.

Although it could be argued that the examples do not make the bulk of the IHRA definition, they have been described by leading pro-Israel advocates as well as Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs as the most important part of the definition.

The struggle against antisemitism is undoubtedly essential. However it should be framed as part of the greater struggle against all forms of oppression, promoting emancipation of all.

The IHRA definition at UCL

The IHRA definition of antisemitism became part of UCL policy in 2019. At the time, 40 members of the academic board had opposed it, arguing it ‘was not fit for purpose within a university and had no legal basis for enforcement’. This vote was in concordance with the UCL branch of the University College Union which held a vote 10 months prior to the adoption of the definition in which 32% were in favour, 45% against and 23% abstained. Following this, the UCL Working Group published a report in December, arguing against the adoption of the definition, as interchanging anti-Zionism and antisemitism carried the risk of the suppression of free legitimate speech and academic research. Instead, they suggested legal definitions and UCL policies against discrimination and harassment be used. Indeed, there seems to be no instance of antisemitism that isn’t already covered by such existing policies. If this was not possible however, the Working Group argued the definition should be held as educational, excluding it from being used in any procedural evaluation of student or staff conduct. The UCL Jewish Society declared being disturbed by this recommendation. While the definition is still there, an alternative definition is currently being sought out.

This definition being adopted has led to multiple problematic instances within UCL. In 2019, a UCL exhibit titled Moving Objects displaying possessions of Palestinians refugees included a traditional, embroidered map of Palestine as cultural artefact. The organisers were vehemently accused by individuals, whom harnessing the IHRA definition to condemn it as anti-Semitic (erasure of the state of Israel on the map). After an investigation, no evidence of antisemitism was found. The striking issue, however, remains that the vagueness around this definition allows it to be weaponised to silence Palestinian voices. This is only one out of a multitude of instances across campus where Palestinian-related events such as projects with charity groups for children in Gaza or informative workshops have been cancelled for fear of going against the IHRA definition. These have been repeatedly denounced by the UCL Students for Justice in Palestine society.

Recent events at London School of Economics (LSE) have triggered a resurgence in concern towards UCL’s adoption of the definition. The LSESU Debate Society hosted an event where they welcomed the Israeli ambassador to the UK, Tzipi Hotovely. Known for inciting hatred towards Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims, expanding illegal settlements and claiming Palestinians don’t exist, amongst other things, her invitation created justified outrage and sparked protests amongst students. Such policies should not be endorsed by any university and UCL should examine its own stance towards these issues.

JDA definition

It has been evidenced that the IHRA and its examples serve as a form of oppression against Palestinian people. An alternative definition was formulated to solve this issue, the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism.

‘Antisemitism is discrimination, prejudice, hostility or violence against Jews as Jews (or Jewish institutions as Jewish).’

Based on the premise that the IHRA definition should have explicitly separated antisemitism from the Israel/Palestine conflict, the JDA was devised as a potential alternative. In line with this, the definition is followed by examples of situations that are not anti-Semitic. The JDA does not necessarily endorse the views presented in these examples, none the least because its several hundreds of signatories present a wide range of political views. However, this creates an explicit distinction between problematic and extreme political opinions and antisemitism, thus focusing and converging the focus on the issue.

It places the fight against antisemitism in the wider context of racism and oppression, attempting to create an open discussion surrounding the Israeli state.

This definition is not without criticism, which must be acknowledged. By defining these problematic views and banding them as not anti-Semitic, it can be argued that this is a form of legitimizing and protecting these attacks. Additionally, some signatories also have anti-Semitic background which is in itself highly problematic. It has also been qualified as an orientalist definition, maintaining the colonial framework by placing Palestinian activism as a result of traumatic experiences and ‘not anti-Semitic’, but not as a legitimate claim in itself.  In the list of items of things that are indeed anti-Semitic, is the following item:

‘Denying the right of Jews in the State of Israel to exist and flourish, collectively and individually, as Jews, in accordance with the principle of equality.’

This resonates excessively with the item of the IHRA definition equating stating that Israel is a racist state to antisemitism. No definition seems to acknowledge settler colonialism or Palestinian experiences of Zionism to frame the issue. As problematic elements of the IHRA actively and systematically obstruct Palestinian human rights advocacy and diverge attention from other key aspects of the indispensable fight against antisemitism, the JDA offers a ameliorated but flawed alternative.

The fight against antisemitism must be placed in a broader context, fighting against all forms of oppression and hatred, including and explicitly acknowledging the Palestinian perspective, that must not be tolerated on the UCL campus or elsewhere.

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