Opposing Zionism is not hate speech, new antisemitism definition asserts

Haram al-Sharif (File)

Ali Harb

Middle East Eye  /  March 26, 2021

Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism, endorsed by more than 200 scholars, says boycotting Israel is not necessarily a form of bigotry.

More than 200 international scholars, including experts on Jewish and Holocaust history, have released a new declaration on antisemitism stating that opposing Zionism, criticising Israel’s policies and boycotting Israeli products are not inherently antisemitic acts.

The document, dubbed the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism (JDA), comes as a clarifying response to the 2016 working definition of antisemitism by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), which Palestinian rights advocates say curbs free speech when it comes to criticism of Israel.

The Jerusalem Declaration, released on Thursday, says it seeks to offer a “coherent set of guidelines” as an educational tool.

“Conscious of the historical persecution of Jews throughout history and of the universal lessons of the Holocaust, and viewing with alarm the reassertion of antisemitism by groups that mobilize hatred and violence in politics, society, and on the internet, we seek to provide a usable, concise, and historically-informed core definition of antisemitism with a set of guidelines,” the preamble of the declaration reads.

The definition

The Jerusalem Declaration defines antisemitism as bigotry against Jews because they are Jewish. “Antisemitism is discrimination, prejudice, hostility or violence against Jews as Jews (or Jewish institutions as Jewish),” it says.

Where it differs from the IHRA document is when it comes to detailing if and how antisemitism can manifest itself when it comes to Israel and Zionism. 

The IHRA definition offers 11 examples of antisemitism, seven of which deal with Israel, including “applying double standards” to Israeli government policies.

In contrast, the JDA offers 10 examples of antisemitism, as well as five examples of views and actions endorsed by Palestinian rights activists, against the Israeli government that it says are not antisemitic.

“Criticizing or opposing Zionism as a form of nationalism, or arguing for a variety of constitutional arrangements for Jews and Palestinians in the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean,” reads one of the examples of criticisms of Israel that is not antisemitic. 

“It is not antisemitic to support arrangements that accord full equality to all inhabitants ‘between the river and the sea,’ whether in two states, a binational state, unitary democratic state, federal state, or in whatever form.”

Last year, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a major Jewish organisation, denounced advocacy for a single binational state in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories as antisemitic in response to a call by prominent journalist Peter Beinart for “one equal state”.

“In the final analysis, such calls are themselves anti-Semitic, or at the very least, as in the case of Mr Beinart, play into the hands of the anti-Semites,” Ken Jacobson, the deputy director of the ADL, wrote in a letter to the New York Times in July 2020.

At a time when politicians from across the mainstream political spectrum describe efforts to boycott Israel for its policies against Palestinians as antisemitic, the Jerusalem Declaration says boycotts are not necessarily an expression of bigotry.

“Boycott, divestment and sanctions are commonplace, non-violent forms of political protest against states. In the Israeli case they are not, in and of themselves, antisemitic,” the document reads.

‘Common cause’

Derek Penslar, a professor of Jewish history at Harvard University and one of the signatories to the JDA, said that, while he does not agree with some of the tactics of the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, boycotting Israeli goods is not antisemitic.

“A boycott is, in principle, a peaceful means of social protest,” Penslar told Middle East Eye. “There are people in the United States today who boycott Turkish goods, or they boycott Iranian goods or Russian goods because they choose for whatever political reasons to boycott these goods. Similarly, people have a right if they wish to boycott Israeli goods.”

Penslar said Jews in North America have an interest in understanding and highlighting the commonalities between antisemitism and other forms of hatred. But the application of the IHRA definition in a “strict and literalist” manner sometimes gets in the way of building bridges with other communities that are subjected to racism, he added.

“It punishes people for their views about Middle Eastern politics, which cannot help but alienate some of those people… with whom we should all be making a common cause,” Penslar said of the IHRA text.

He added that the JDA clarifies and expands on IHRA’s guidelines, especially when it comes to criticism of Israel.

“I think it is much clearer in depicting certain forms of speech about Israel – even if it’s very harsh – as well within the boundaries of free speech,” he said of the declaration.

Penslar stressed that people can have intense views against Israel that are not antisemitic.

“It takes a little bit of time and effort to listen to people – really listen to them – and ask yourself: Where are they coming from? What are their intentions? What are their goals? That’s the best way to figure out if the speech is antisemitic or not,” he told MEE.

The JDA offers five examples where criticism of Israel can cross the line into hate speech, including using antisemitic symbols in relation to the Israeli government; requiring people to condemn Israel and Zionism because they are Jewish; and “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”.

Palestinian activists on JDA

Palestine Legal, an advocacy group that supports people targeted over Palestinian rights activism, cautiously welcomed the Jerusalem Declaration on Thursday.

“The JDA dispels much of IHRA’s false equivalence between antisemitism and anti-Zionism, but reinforces the structural problem of policing how Palestinians can speak about their oppression, requiring all criticism of Israel to be filtered through a lens of antisemitism,” the group said on Twitter.

“Instead of politicized definitions, we need to understand and work against the common threat to all vulnerable communities, which is a resurgent white supremacy and fascism that is taking lives and working to undermine all of our freedom.”

Speaking to MEE, Yousef Munayyer, a Palestinian-American analyst who is a non-resident fellow at the Arab Center Washington DC, echoed Palestine Legal’s commentary. He said the IHRA definition has been “weaponised” to silence Palestinian rights advocates.

Munayyer said that, as a Palestinian who is not Jewish, it is not his place to define what antisemitism is. “I believe that the people who are affected by a type of bigotry really should be the ones leading the definition.”

However, he decried situations where “too often” definitions of antisemitism become about Palestinians.

“That’s when definitions of antisemitism become used to silence Palestinians, to target Palestinians and to smear them in the course of legitimate advocacy,” Munnayer told MEE. “It does become about us, not because we want it to be about us, but people who want to define antisemitism in that way make it about us.”

Munayer welcomed the Jerusalem Declaration as a “good” effort, but he expressed some reservations about it, saying that, because it is a response to the IHRA framework, the document connects criticism of Israel to antisemitism.

“Any effort that tries to effectively reinforce the idea that some forms of criticism of Israel and Israeli state policy can be antisemitic leaves space open for weaponisation … It’s less about the specific language than it is about the framework that it reinforces,” he said.

BDS response

Dozens of US states have passed laws that punish people who boycott Israel, several of which have been struck down as unconstitutional by federal courts. Still, with a few exceptions, American politicians from both major parties continue to condemn BDS at every possible turn.

Early in March, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the Biden administration “enthusiastically” embraces the IHRA definition.

Munayer said efforts to crack down on free speech when it comes to criticising Israel aim to shut down the conversation.

“It’s because supporters of Israeli policy have lost the debate on the merits,” he told MEE. “And so, they seek to shut down the debate as much as possible by making it entirely radioactive, so any mention of Palestinian rights is immediately associated with antisemitism and third-rail issues which nobody wants to touch.”

On Thursday, the BDS movement released a statement lauding some aspects of the JDA but it also criticised some elements of the declaration.

“The JDA can be instrumental in the fight against the anti-Palestinian McCarthyism and repression that the proponents of the IHRA definition, with its ‘examples,’ have promoted and induced, by design,” the statement said.

But it goes on to urge caution about fully embracing the document, objecting to its emphasis on Palestinian activism while excluding Palestinians from authoring and signing the document. 

BDS also rejected some of the guidelines presented by the JDA, including the example warning against applying antisemitic symbols and negative stereotypes to Israel.

The boycott movement said that under the guidance, calling Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a child killer could be considered antisemitic, although more than 500 Palestinian children were killed under his watch during the 2014 Gaza war.

“Though the hard evidence is irreproachable, should Palestinians avoid using that term in this case simply because it is an antisemitic trope and Netanyahu happens to be Jewish? Is it Islamophobic to call the Saudi dictator Mohammed bin Salman – who happens to be a Muslim – a butcher due to reportedly orchestrating the gruesome murder of Khashoggi, not to mention the Saudi regime’s crimes against humanity in Yemen?”

You can read the JDA in full here.

Ali Harb is a writer based in Washington, DC; he reports on US foreign policy, Arab-American issues, civil rights and politics