[ELSC report] How the IHRA definition of antisemitism is chilling Palestine advocacy in Europe

Mitchell Plitnick

Mondoweiss  /  June 9, 2023

A new report from the European Legal Support Center shows how the IHRA working definition of antisemitism is used to suppress Palestinian rights activism and silence criticism of Israel.

The definition of antisemitism really shouldn’t be very controversial. We know what racism means, we know what misogyny means, we know ethnocentrism, Islamophobia, homo- and transphobia, and so many other bigotries mean. Of course, whether a given incident of any of these is truly an example of that bigotry can be open to debate, but for the most part, most of us know what they are as long as we are engaging in the question in good faith.

Every form and shade of bigotry has its own unique properties, history, stereotypes, etc. Antisemitism is no different. But in this case, supporters of Israel have, for decades, been working tirelessly to broaden the definition of antisemitism to include criticism of Israel. This first took the form of a theory called “The New Antisemitism” which, without any evidence, asserted that criticism of Israel was motivated by anti-Jewish animus. In more recent years, it has morphed into an effort to stifle all advocacy for Palestinian rights by redefining the term “antisemitism” to include anti-Zionism or even less broad criticism of Israel. All of it is false. 

Today, the main tool Israel’s defenders are using in this effort is the working definition of antisemitism developed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). That definition is based on an earlier definition published by the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) in 2004, though it was never treated as an “official” definition and was removed from the Centre’s successor agency in 2013. It came into prominence when it was adopted in 2016 by IHRA, along with the problematic examples confusing antisemitism with anti-Zionism, as a “non-legally binding” statement. The IHRA’s stamp of approval convinced the European Parliament and other official bodies to accept is a guideline, though ostensibly without the weight of law behind it. 

While many immediately saw the threat not only to advocacy for Palestinian rights and criticism of Israel but also to freedom of expression more broadly, proponents of the IHRA definition have argued that it would simply serve to clarify what is and is not antisemitism and would not adversely affect any such liberties. 

new report by the European Legal Support Center (ELSC) shatters that myth.

The ELSC naturally focuses on incidents in Europe, but the cases cited and the results speak volumes about incidents we have seen in other places, especially the United States. The report looked at 53 cases where the IHRA working definition of antisemitism (WDA) had been employed between 2017 and 2022. Of those cases, it’s worth noting that 11 involved accusations of antisemitism against Jews or Jewish groups and 42 against groups or individuals of color of which 19 were against Palestinian groups.

The report finds that “In the overwhelming majority of cases, allegations of antisemitism invoking the IHRA WDA are false,” and the IHRA WDA had “been adopted and implemented in a manner facilitating and validating the suppression of human rights advocacy for Palestinian rights and silencing criticism of Israeli government policies and practices.”

Using the evidence of specific cases and the development of the use of the IHRA WDA in three countries—the United Kingdom, Germany, and Austria—the report explains how the “legally non-binding” label is a sham, covering for many instances where various institutions and even governments use it as a basis for laws, regulations, and policies that exact substantial penalties for speaking out for Palestinian rights and create a chilling atmosphere that discourages many from getting involved. 

Case studies

For example, the report relates that in September 2018, the parliament of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), Germany’s most populous state, enacted a resolution that forbids its institutions from providing space or support of any kind to groups that support the BDS movement. Then, in January 2023, NRW also decided to introduce new conditionalities for any public funding, based on the IHRA WDA. The NRW Coordinator against antisemitism published a call for funding projects with the purpose of fighting antisemitism. To be eligible for funding, the candidates must provide a statement “recognizing the IHRA WDA”. It also said that any applicants for state funding could not support any other organization that called for a boycott of Israel. That meant that virtually any organization that advocated for Palestinian rights was excluded from state funding. 

The report also cited an example of how the IHRA WDA played out on campuses in the UK:

“During Israel’s bombing of the Gaza Strip in May 2021, a member of a student union was investigated for alleged antisemitic conduct for sharing the following post on social media: ‘If you are silent when it comes to Palestine, you would have been silent at the time of the Holocaust.’ The union’s Executive Committee concluded that the student had violated the Code of Conduct, based on two examples of the IHRA WDA, without any comprehensive investigation into the matter.”

That student was reprimanded and the student union at the university, which the report does not name, sent a message to all students instructing them to refrain from posting such comments. The chilling effect couldn’t be clearer.

These are just a few of many examples in the report that demonstrate the oppressive effect of the IHRA WDA. Others include instances of refusal to rent space for events, including one where a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust was scheduled to speak at Manchester University; cancellations of fundraisers for Palestinian causes; cancellation of events under the rubric of Israeli Apartheid Week; cancellation of job offers; and pre-emptive disqualification of applications for various kinds of funding. 

These incidents are not merely advisory in nature, nor do they reflect a “legally non-binding guideline” in actual practice. 

Opposition to the IHRA definition

The danger of the IHRA WDA is growing, even while opposition to it is proving formidable. On Wednesday, 11 Israeli human rights groups – Academia for Equality, Adalah, Breaking the Silence, B’Tselem, Combatants for Peace, Gisha Hamoked: Center for the Defence of the Individual, Human Rights Defenders Fund  Machsom Watch, Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, and Yesh Din – sent a letter to the United Nations urging it not to support the IHRA WDA. 

“[T]he IHRA definition is deliberately weaponized to frame legitimate criticisms of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians as antisemitism and should not be endorsed and used by the UN,” the groups wrote. “The Israeli government views and treats the IHRA definition as a coercive tactic and tool to silence dissent to its repressive policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians. It does so to delegitimize and discourage peaceful opposition to its entrenching occupation and annexation of Palestine.”

Opposition to the IHRA WDA has shown itself to be effective. The recent strategy announced by the administration of Joe Biden did not use it as the basis for action; indeed, it wasted very little time in the document on either defining antisemitism or the question of Israel at all. It actually recognized that the only way to combat antisemitism is to combat all forms of bigotry, and to do so in a holistic, even intersectional way. Naturally, the Israel advocacy groups like the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, and others all falsely claimed that the strategy endorsed the IHRA WDA, but the fact that they could only lie about this was meaningful. And, while the Biden strategy did miss an opportunity to make it clear that criticism of Israel is not the same as antisemitism, as Natasha Roth-Rowland pointed out in her analysis, it also avoided exacerbating the problem. With Biden, it’s hard to hope for a better outcome than that.

Part of the IHRA WDA’s effectiveness is the framing of the entire discussion of Palestine, Israel, and Zionism. One of the mantras that is repeated in this debate is that it is forbidden to question Israel’s “right to exist.” This is a problematic concept on many levels. In fact, Professor Marc Lamont Hill and I devoted an entire chapter to this question in our book, Except for Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics. As we demonstrated, the entire question is a strawman, as states do not exist by “right” but by might and the recognition of other states, both of which Israel has in ample measure. The question of Israel is not its existence, which is axiomatic, but the nature of the state. It is a question of the rights it denies to people who live under its control, the Palestinians, of its history of dispossession and its policies and laws.

A sharp contrast is drawn in the conclusion of the ELSC report. They cite a report by the Arab Canadian Lawyers’ Association (ACLA) where the authors drafted a working definition of anti-Palestinian racism. The definition read:

“Anti-Palestinian racism is a form of anti-Arab racism that silences, excludes, erases, stereotypes, defames or dehumanizes Palestinians or their narratives. Anti-Palestinian racism takes various forms including: denying the Nakba and justifying violence against Palestinians; failing to acknowledge Palestinians as an Indigenous people with a collective identity, belonging and rights in relation to occupied and historic Palestine; erasing the human rights and equal dignity and worth of Palestinians; excluding or pressuring others to exclude Palestinian perspectives, Palestinians and their allies; defaming Palestinians and their allies with slander such as being inherently antisemitic, a terrorist threat/sympathizer or opposed to democratic values.”

The most evident contrast in this definition is that nowhere does it imply or state that debating Palestinians’ right to a state of their own is inherently anti-Palestinian. It is a political question, but many nations in the world do not have their own states. Many states are also multi-national. Yet this statement, despite not taking the sort of liberties the IHRA WDA does in stretching the definition of a prejudice to achieve a political aim, maps out a description that offers clear guidelines and boundaries for what is and is not anti-Palestinian racism.

The ACLA definition does not preclude any political resolution in Palestine of the long-term dispossession and violence that has characterized the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea since Zionist immigration began in earnest at the dawn of the 20th century. True, the ACLA definition absolutely could be used to thwart various kinds of pro-Israel advocacy, but that is only because so much of that advocacy dehumanizes and degrades Palestinians individually and collectively. 

The fight against antisemitism

The ELSC report has little in the way of substantive recommendations to offer for the EU, its member states, and state institutions. Beyond urging it to refrain from adopting the IHRA WDA and reversing that process where it has already occurred, its recommendations all depend on recognizing the cynical nature of how the IHRA WDA was formulated and is being used. 

It’s left to sensible people to recognize the realities around us. Antisemitism is rising, in Europe, in the U.S., and elsewhere. This is a real problem and must be confronted. It presents a serious threat to Jews, but it is also a key element in much of the warped thinking of the far right that threatens all manner of marginalized and working people worldwide. It is linked to anti-Black racism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, and so much more that troubles this world. It must not be taken lightly. 

And that is the crucial point. By contorting the definition of antisemitism and using it to shield Israel from the consequences of its crimes, or even to justify those crimes, the IHRA WDA undermines the fight against antisemitism and even trivializes it. When the boy cries “wolf” so often, the approach of the real wolf is ignored. 

Mitchell Plitnick is the president of ReThinking Foreign Policy; he is the co-author, with Marc Lamont Hill, of Except for Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics